Feature | August 14, 2014
River Songs

george washington crossing the delaware

“Behold, the rivers of America. Highways of the 18th century…”

This was delivered in a dead monotone by a soulless tour guide waning poetic at Mount Vernon. George Washington’s home no longer resonated with her. As she casually pointed at landscape paintings around us, it was clear the joy of her job, if it ever existed, had been extinguished. Though I’d imagine everyone gets jaded after a while. Maybe time to pack up her petticoat, gown and vast knowledge of churning butter to head south for Monticello. If that fails, I think George W. Bush recently opened up a library in Texas…

While I wanted more enthusiasm to match my own ebullience, her words rang true. Before highways and train tracks crisscrossed America, its rivers were what moved the nation forward. Economic demands sent goods down the river. But the impact of rivers is more than the bottom line. Artists embraced rivers. Painters in the Hudson Valley started an entire Art School based on that region’s light. Some see them as holy sites. Wasn’t Christ baptized in a river? Or was it circumcised? Either way, rivers are sacred spots. Writers like Twain and Conrad sent characters on river bound journeys of self-discovery. And Chris Farley returned again and again to his famous refrain, “in a van, down by the river.

If I may pile on the aforementioned tour guide once more, viewing rivers as 18th century American highways is a rather parochial understanding. There isn’t a century of human civilization where rivers were unimportant. The Nile, anyone? Indus? Amazon? Euphrates or Tigris? Exactly. Rivers didn’t begin with the good ol’ U S of A.

bruce springsteen the river

Now let’s navigate towards a more relevant subject: music. Rivers match the flow of a song. Activities take on a deeper meaning when placed beside a rushing creek. Stemming from their ceaseless motion, rivers allow us to reflect on our own existence. In a practical sense, rivers provide a backdrop for good and evil. To many songwriters, there’s no better place than a river to engage in a coital tête-à-tête or profess one’s undying love. On the other hand, imaginative balladeers habitually rely on rivers to commit murder and/or dispose of a dead body following a murder. Rivers witness the breadth and totality of the human experience. Life, love and death. They are rife with symbolism, fertile for metaphors and packed with additional material I haven’t thought of. It’s why rivers appear in country, jazz, rock, rap, bluegrass and the blues.

Rivers, unlike other bodies of water, perfectly fit the requirements of a song. They comfort us without judgment. Lakes can be gorgeous too. No argument here. I wouldn’t want to impugn the good people of Chicago, Cleveland or Buffalo, but they may be offended by the next sentence. Because what are lakes if not stagnant watering holes or nature’s grimiest bathtubs? Oceans are too vast, too Homeric, for a catchy three-minute ditty. I could go on. But manmade canals need no explanation. Neither do puddles. I’d bet rivers mean a great deal to us all. Barring a desert, sea voyage or interstellar birth, most people entered the planet not far from a river. I was born a short distance from the Hudson. My mother by the Potomac. And my dad near the Susquehanna. Not to mention that the finest G-rated anagram I can come up with for my name is “Some River Oil.”

Here’s a non-exhaustive collection of river songs…