From the source to the mouth, rivers bring life to the land­scapes and their inhab­i­tants. Lyri­cists and musi­cians hap­pen upon them using these bod­ies of water as metaphors to describe love, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and the tem­po­rari­ness of it all. For the trou­bled, they offer a place to shed their grief.  Oth­ers, mean­while, see them as obsta­cles to over­come both phys­i­cal­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly. What­ev­er your rela­tion­ship with rivers, the fol­low­ing list of songs will have you pon­der­ing the nature of them.

My Love is a Riv­er by Girls
It begins with Christo­pher Owens ten­der­ly declar­ing “my love is like a riv­er.” Dur­ing the song’s first half, our nar­ra­tor floats steadi­ly on the sounds of gui­tars and har­mon­i­cas towards rec­og­niz­ing the nature of the girl he adores. He put­ters about idol­iz­ing her as “free as heav­en on a breeze,” beyond pos­ses­sion. But just as he begins to accept the girl’s free-spirit­ed­ness and pre­pares to lie “his bur­den down by the river’s edge,” the gui­tar turns into a whirlpool speed­ing up the tem­po and ampli­fy­ing the des­per­a­tion in the vocals. The song con­cludes with the begin­ning line recit­ed but sound­ing a lit­tle more bruised and exhaust­ed than before. Lis­ten near the river­side while try­ing to under­stand the fleet­ing­ness of love. 🙁 

Moon Riv­er by Manci­ni and Mer­cer
Com­posed for the film Break­fast at Tiffany’s, this theme for dream­ers has trick­led into the cat­a­logs of artists such as Louis Arm­strong, Andy Williams, and REM. The music wan­ders sleep­i­ly around the Mercer’s lyrics about moon riv­er which, like him, con­tin­u­ous­ly roams. Their natures are to drift, seek­ing “the same rainbow’s end.” Ohhh, it’s just so dreamy. Lis­ten to when trav­el­ling with your huck­le­ber­ry friend.

Riv­er of Dreams by Bil­ly Joel
Keep one eye open at night, guys. Appar­ent­ly, Bil­ly Joel has been walk­ing in his sleep again “search­ing for some­thing tak­en out of his soul” and who knows whose doorstep he’ll appear on next demand­ing answers. Through­out the song, Joel maps out the land­scapes of our dreams singing about “moun­tains of faith” and the “desert of truth.” Images of rivers occur fre­quent­ly since they serve as the life blood for these struc­tures, and also the obsta­cles pre­vent­ing Joel from reach­ing his truth. Con­sid­er­ing this track func­tions as a gate­way for Bil­ly Joel to enter your dreams as a guide, lis­ten to it while you fall asleep. 

Rock Bot­tom Ris­er by Smog
A brood­ing telling of the narrator’s death, “Rock Bot­tom Ris­er” deals with desire and loss. It begins with an arpeg­gio that haunts Callahan’s bari­tone through­out the song. We hear his vocals waver, drift­ing over the ris­es and falls of notes as he recalls div­ing for “a gold ring at the bot­tom of the riv­er glinting/At my fool­ish heart.” Caught in the abyss, he strug­gles, but the body slack­ens. Per­haps Calla­han want­ed to con­vey how lost one can become while seek­ing the desired. Remem­ber rivers can be destruc­tive forces for those dar­ing enough to pur­sue their trea­sures.  Lis­ten before jump­ing into the “riv­er” for some change.

Riv­er Sings by Enya
Whoa, it’s prob­a­bly been awhile since you played some Enya by a riv­er, but maybe you’re over­due for a lis­ten. Gael­ic vocals sung over a gal­lop­ing rhythm take lis­ten­ers on a mys­te­ri­ous jour­ney that con­tem­plates the nature of these watery pas­sages. Thank­ful­ly for those unfa­mil­iar with Gael­ic, Eng­lish trans­la­tions pro­vide us with lines like “the riv­er holds the lost road of the sky/the shape of eter­ni­ty?” and “the riv­er sings the end­less­ness.” That’s some heavy mate­r­i­al, Enya. Such lyrics give rivers depth beyond what for­mal mea­sure­ment allows. Lis­ten when that sus­pi­cion that the water flow­ing near you knows more about the eter­nal than its word­less­ness suggests.

Many Rivers to Cross by Jim­my Cliff
A weari­some, yet spir­it­ed song, “Many Rivers to Cross” is about over­com­ing life’s hard­ships. The organ that starts the track cre­ates a gospel sound that keeps Cliff’s vocals about los­ing his path, part­ner, and pur­pose above the water. It con­cludes with the singer acknowl­edg­ing some exis­ten­tial truth that “Yes, I’ve got many rivers to cross/And I mere­ly sur­vive because of my will.” Lis­ten when you stag­ger through those rivers as fatigue hounds your being, but you continue…one…step…at …a …time.

Riv­er Euphrates by The Pix­ies
The song bursts open with gui­tar notes aflame, pierc­ing through any shred of silence. As the fit sub­sides, the notes set­tle beside the drum beat where they chap­er­on the chants of “ride” into Black Fran­cis’ tale of being strand­ed on the Gaza Strip. And then the cho­rus explodes. It sounds as though the entire band was thrash­ing with­in Riv­er Euphrates, scream­ing for some wave to expel them. Lis­ten when raft­ing through those cur­rents that near­ly dis­lodge every­one dur­ing a sing-along.

Sit­ting by the River­side by The Kinks
A song full of charm and craze, “Sit­ting by the River­side” sug­gests a con­nec­tion between the fluc­tu­a­tions in the human psy­che and the flow of the river’s waters. It begins casu­al enough with piano notes jaunt­ing around Ray Davies vocals about relax­ing beside a riv­er. But once he declares “now I’m con­tent and my life is complete/I can close my eyes” the calm­ness dis­solves as the vol­ume increas­es and the piano seems to chase itself, dizzy­ing the lis­ten­er. Such dis­rup­tions con­flict with pop­u­lar depic­tions of relax­ation, which sug­gests that either the uncon­scious is under­min­ing the will to sleep, or the singer’s men­tal restraints have final­ly snapped. Like the psy­che, the river’s pas­sive drift can have hid­den cur­rents which break into tumul­tuous waters unex­pect­ed­ly. Lis­ten by the river­side at your own risk.

Proud Mary by CCR
Ever want­ed to quit the day job and trav­el down a riv­er? Well, “Proud Mary” may be your anthem. This song, writ­ten by John Foger­ty, chan­nels the pow­er and deter­mi­na­tion of rivers through a chug­ging riff, and depend­ing on the per­former, a cho­rus that’s “rollin’” The singer tells of aban­don­ing the city life where under­priv­i­leged work­ers “nev­er see the good side of the city” and join­ing a riv­er-based com­mu­ni­ty whose val­ues are more akin with nature’s give-and-take-as-nec­es­sary atti­tude. Lis­ten before, dur­ing and after giv­ing your two weeks, leav­ing town, and find­ing work in the trav­el industry.

Take Me to the Riv­er by Al Green
Sim­i­lar to “My Love is a Riv­er,” Al Green’s “Take Me to the Riv­er” deals with a strained romance. The lady in his life uses him for mon­ey and cig­a­rettes, leav­ing him throb­bing with lust and ques­tion­ing his love. How­ev­er, rather than relat­ing this indi­vid­ual and a riv­er by metaphor, the nar­ra­tor wants to use the riv­er as an awak­en­ing and cleans­ing expe­ri­ence. When the Talk­ing Heads released their ver­sion of the song, they altered the arrange­ment and tweaked some lyrics, remov­ing direct men­tion­ing of bap­tism. Regard­less, it seems all the artists who have played this song want to be tak­en to the riv­er. Lis­ten when you want to get clean.