Rivers can represent all manner of things in songs. Rivers are a body of water that can connect towns along its path, so to some, a river can represent travel. In some cases, its running water can conjure up thoughts of tranquility. In some songs, a river’s dark depths and the secrets it may cover help create a sense of foreboding.
With such vast and disparate takes on what a river manifests in the mind, it is no surprise that there are so many types of songs that use a rivers as a central motif. Here are the songs about rivers that we say are the best:
1. “Take Me To The River” by Talking Heads
This song, written by Al Green during three days in a rented house in Arkansas, came to be when tasked to come up with some new material. While there is no doubt that Mr. Green created a soulful classic in that house, his version of the tune is not the definitive one. There is something about the version that Talking Heads released in 1978 that simply made it theirs. At least, it feels as much theirs as it does Reverend Green’s.
2. “Down By The River” by Neil Young
With a nod to Southern Gothic writers like Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, Neil Young’s ten-minute opus relays a dark tale of the murdering of a lover down by the river. Such subject matter should not be so stirring, but somehow ‘ol Neil pulls it off. He also somehow makes just playing one note for the first minute of his guitar solo work too.
3. “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
This one needs no explanation. Next time you are around a campfire with some friends, pull out an acoustic guitar and give this one a sing. Everybody around that fire is going to be singing along about rolling down the river along with you. There is also an incredible version of this song by Ike & Tina Turner, but the original is still the best.
4. “River” by Joni Mitchell
Not only is this one of the best songs about rivers, it is also probably the saddest Christmas-related song of all time. The song begins with a lightly tinkled piano playing the melody to ‘Jingle Bells’ and then goes on to pummel you emotionally with a song about everyone else around having a great time at Christmas and being so lonely after making your lover say goodbye. Joni just wants a river that she can skate away on and if you listen to this song in a certain frame of mind, you are going to want one as well.
5. “River Of Dreams” by Billy Joel
A hit song for Billy Joel off of his album of the same name, this upbeat tune marries gospel and doo-wop to lyrics that speak of a search for something sacred in life. Sometimes we all feel like we are on the search for something it feels like we have lost, but Mr. Joel makes that search sound like an uplifting experience.
6. “Cry Me A River” by Justin Timberlake
It was a bold move to have a song with this title and it not even be a cover of the original, but a whole new song altogether. JT was full of bold choices, however, in his first solo outing after NSYNC. The song was believed, upon its release, to be about the dissolution of his relationship with Britney Spears. This was capitalized on by the inclusion of a Spears look-alike in the song’s very popular music video. Over the years, it has now become just as likely that one might associate the song title with Timberlake as with the Julie London classic. We say that’s a score for Justin.
7. “Down By The Water” by PJ Harvey
The biggest hit by PJ Harvey during the Alternative Nation years of the 90s, this song is so tied to the era that it’s repurposed recently in many throwback films and television programs as a shorthand signifier for the period. One such instance is in the 90s-set show ‘Yellowjackets’, starring Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci.
8. “Dam That River” by Alice In Chains
Alice In Chains are one of the biggest names associated with grunge and this is the second track off of their biggest album ‘Dirt’. The album is quite possibly the darkest album to ever hit #1 on the Billboard charts. The song was apparently inspired by an incident when Alice’s drummer Sean Kinney broke a coffee table over Jerry Cantrell’s head. Jerry then wrote the song once things had cooled down.
9. “Moon River” by Andy Williams
This song appeared first in ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’, sung by none other than Audrey Hepburn. It has since been recorded countless times by an endless number of artists but is most closely associated with Andy Williams and thought of as his signature song. You have likely heard this song in an elevator or have seen an album with it as part of an estate sale’s old record collection.
10. “Yes, The River Knows” by The Doors
A bit of an oddity in The Doors early oeuvre, this song from their album ‘Waiting For The Sun’ gave more of a nod to lounge and cocktail-jazz than the rebel rock that was their calling card.
11. “Many Rivers To Cross” by Jimmy Cliff
Written by Jimmy Cliff about his struggle to find musical success in England after early acclaim in Jamaica, this song has come to represent for most the concept of struggle, in general. It is one of the key tracks off of Jimmy Cliff’s much-heralded soundtrack album for the film ‘The Harder They Come’
12. “I Am A River” by Foo Fighters
Dave Grohl, the wildly popular rock star, wrote this song about the Minetta Creek that flows underneath Manhattan. His idea was that it was a beautiful thought to imagine something prehistoric and natural that flowed under the man-made splendor of New York City, connecting all its residents. There are bigger Foo Fighters songs out there, but this is their tip of the cap to the people of the Big Apple.
13. “River” by Eminem
This track, off of Eminem’s album ‘Revival’, featured Ed Sheeran and was the unexpected collaboration that we didn’t know we needed. It deals with the fallout of being part of a not-exactly-just-one-time infidelity and letting the consequences of such just run like a river.
14. “The River” by Bruce Springsteen
This harrowing song perfectly captures the feeling of fading dreams and dashed hopes. In it, young lovers hopes for the future that they share with each other during their romantic trips to the river are squandered by an unplanned pregnancy. From there comes a shotgun wedding, a union card, and a lot of questions about what could have been. For an incredible live version of the song, look for video footage of the first time Springsteen performed it in public at Madison Square Garden during the No Nukes concert in 1979.
15. “River Song” by Dennis Wilson
A rousing song off of Dennis Wilson’s solo album gem ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ showed that Brian wasn’t the only Beach Boy with a boatload of talent. In it, Dennis sings about wanting to escape the troubles of the city life and run free like the river he walks alongside. The song and the album showed great promise for Dennis’s solo career. Sadly, this was not to be, as ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ was his only solo album released in his lifetime.
16. “London Calling” by The Clash
The title song off of the album of the same name, which many consider to be the best LP by The Clash, is a real barnburner. It deals with many topics, one of which is the concern that if the River Thames flooded, all those that lived along the river would drown. The song even ends with the Morse code signal for S-O-S, further cementing the tune’s apocalyptic tone.
17. “Cry Me A River” by Julie London
Julie London’s signature tune, in which she tells her lover to cry her a river since she has already cried a river over him, can be seen as a tearjerker or a song of empowerment. A wonderful clip can be found online of an apparition of Julie singing the song in the 50s film ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’. An unrelated song with the same title became a massive hit for Justin Timberlake in the early 2000s and has also made it on this list.
18. “Ferry Cross The Mersey” by Gerry & The Pacemakers
This classic 60s song by Gerry & The Pacemakers was an ode to the River Mersey of Northern England. A ferry ran along the Mersey, connecting Liverpool to the Irish Sea. This area became synonymous with the Merseybeat sound, a mix of rock and roll and skiffle. Bands like Gerry & The Pacemakers as well as early songs by The Beatles are associated with the style.
19. “Ol Man River” by Sam Cooke
There are many versions of this song, but how can you not decide its best version was from Sam Cooke? The man turned every song he touched into pure honey. This standard was originally composed by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II for the 1927 musical ‘Show Boat’. This song contrasts the turbulence of life’s plight and struggle with the oblivious Mississippi River that just continues to roll along.
20. “Just Around The Riverbend” by Judy Kuhn
From the Disney film ‘Pocahontas’, this song deals with the protagonist’s desire for something beyond the safe choice for her life’s direction when the potential for adventure is “just around the riverbend”. Second only to ‘Colors Of The Wind’, ‘Just Around The Riverbend’ is one of the most beloved songs from the mid-90s animated film.
21. “Ode To Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry
An all-time country music classic, this song is a first-person narration where the singer is discussing someone’s suicide that she is connected to. The song deals with the indifference of the singer’s family when they hear the news of the death. During the height of the song’s popularity, there was much speculation over just what the narrator and Billie Joe threw over the Tallahatchie Bridge. To this day, the mystery remains.