Rivers represent many things in literature and writing. Most frequently, they symbolize a path or a journey to a destination. Sometimes that destination is known. Other times, it is a mystery.
Rivers also represent the experience of life from birth to death. A river carries the body from its mouth at the base of a mountain down into the ocean to release the soul. Its flow represents the flow of time itself.
The appeal that rivers have and their symbolism are not lost on songwriters. As you can see below, there is no shortage of songs about this body of water. Our list today includes 21 of the best songs about rivers. Read on to find out more.
1. “The River” By Bruce Springsteen
Also known as The Boss, Bruce Springsteen recorded “The River” in 1979 for his fifth studio album of the same name. He and his E Street Band recorded the single at the famous Power Station recording studio in New York City.
In the lyrics, the river is the special place that the singer and his love interest, Mary, always frequent. This is the place where dreams are born and die at the same time. And when the characters fall into hard times, he goes down to the river to find it dry.
This represents their dreams, which have taken a back seat following Mary’s pregnancy and his lack of a job. They married young, and the opportunities were few and far between. His memories of his carefree days with Mary now haunt him.
2. “Watching The River Flow” By Bob Dylan
Our next song, “Watching the River Flow,” was Bob Dylan‘s transition single from country to rock. Recording took place in 1971, and the song was an account of Dylan’s writer’s block in the previous years.
Dylan accounts for this experience in the song, singing, “What’s the matter with me, I don’t have much to say.” He finds himself sitting on the bank and watching the river flow. He uses this moment to reflect on some things, including why people disagree most of the time.
He thinks it’s useless and a waste of time. He’d rather do worthwhile things such as reading a book. Besides, the river keeps flowing whatever happens. It’s like life that goes on.
3. “River Deep, Mountain High” By Ike & Tina Turner
In 1966, husband-and-wife team Ike & Tina Turner came together to record “River Deep – Mountain High” for the album of the same name. Though the song wasn’t an overnight success, it made its way into the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. It was also inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
In the lyrics, the singer declares her love for her significant other. She compares her love for him to her love for the rag doll that she owned when she was young. The singer also likens herself to his childhood puppy, telling him that she’s going to be as faithful.
Only now that she’s grown, she’s capable of loving deeper. Her love for him runs deeper like a river and higher like a mountain.
4. “Whiskey River” By Willie Nelson
Many would resonate with the message of Willie Nelson‘s “Whiskey River.” Oftentimes, where heartbreaks are concerned, we end up drowning our pain with beer and other alcoholic beverages.
In the song, we discover that the singer is nursing a broken heart – and a whiskey river. He drinks whiskey to numb the pain of her absence and prays it never runs out. He wants to forget about her, asking the whiskey to not “let her memory torture” him.
At this point in his life, he thinks it’s his drink that better understands how he feels. And so he keeps drinking, allowing the fluid to cloud his mind and drown his heart.
5. “River Of Dreams” By Billy Joel
Up next is a song that mentions “river” in a spiritual way. “River of Dreams” is the first single from Billy Joel‘s album of the same name. The album represented his return to mainstream music.
“River of Dreams” equates to “stream of consciousness.” In the song, the singer finds himself sleepwalking and ends up by the river. He knows he is looking for something sacred, “something so undefined,” but can’t put his finger on it. What he knows is that it is important for him to go down the river every evening.
Though the river is too wide for him to cross, it doesn’t stop him from trying. The river leads to the promised land. In the song, the singer admits he’s not a spiritual man. But he experiences baptism as he wades into the river.
6. “Many Rivers To Cross” By Jimmy Cliff
Our next entry is a song with “river” in the title. Jimmy Cliff wrote the reggae classic “Many Rivers to Cross” in 1969 when he was just 21 years old.
The Jamaican singer wrote the song as a representation of his struggles to make it big in the music industry. He moved to the UK at a young age, dreaming to be as successful as the Beatles.
The song reflects the rude awakening he experienced. Being successful isn’t an easy feat. The rivers he has to cross symbolize the challenges he went through on a regular basis. He feels lost many times. If not for his will, he would have given up a long time ago.
7. “Down To The River To Pray” By Alison Krauss
Another song with a religious motif is “Down to the River to Pray.” Alison Krauss performed the song for the movie Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? Both the movie and its soundtrack sparked a folk revival in the 2000s.
“Down to the River to Pray” has roots in spirituals performed by African-American slaves in human bondage. The Alison Krauss version represents baptism and renewal of faith. However, the original version is often considered a coded message for the Underground Railroad.
In the lyrics, the singer repeatedly urges mothers, fathers, and brothers to go down the river to pray.
8. “Cry Me A River” By Justin Timberlake
Songs with “river” in the lyrics will not be complete without “Cry Me a River.” Pop music sensation Justin Timberlake released this single from his debut solo album, Justified, in 2001.
This song is different than the others on the list. “Cry Me a River” doesn’t represent life, death, mortality, or faith. The track is specifically about Timberlake’s public breakup with pop superstar Britney Spears.
The song finds the singer lamenting when his lover cheats on him. When he finds out about it from the other guy himself, he’s resolved to burn the bridges. So when she tries to come back to him, he refuses to accept her. He tells her it’s her turn to cry him a river.
9. “Rivers Of Babylon” By Boney M.
The 1978 cover of “Rivers of Babylon” by Boney M. turned the song into a platinum, top-ten, all-time best-selling single.
The song is based on the Bible verse of Psalms 137:1-4 which pertains to Jewish captivity by the Babylonians. In the Rastafarian religion, Babylon represents any oppressive government or police state. In the same way, the rivers of Babylon refer to living in an oppressive society.
The song recounts how the captives sat by the river and cried as they remembered Zion (Jerusalem). They were in exile in Babylon as God’s punishment for idolatry and capricious ways.
10. “I Am A River” By Foo Fighters
The American rock band Foo Fighters presented us with “I Am a River” from their 2014 album Sonic Highways. The band used to be a one-man project by Dave Grohl, former drummer of Nirvana.
Being the songwriter of “I Am a River,” Grohl explained the meaning behind the song. The line “I found a secret behind a Soho door” refers to the Magic Shop recording studio. This is the oldest studio in New York and where the song was recorded.
“A river running underground” refers to Minetta Creek, a prehistoric river flowing below the streets of Manhattan. Grohl found the connection between the futuristic New York City and the ancient, natural river to be beautiful.
11. “River” By Eminem Ft. Ed Sheeran
Up next on our list is “River,” a collaboration between Detroit-born American rapper Eminem and English musician Ed Sheeran. “River” is the second single from Eminem’s album Revival. The track was a #1 hit in the UK and was a Top 20 hit in the US.
While Sheeran wrote the music and the hook, Eminem completed the lyrics. What they came up with is a song about a failed relationship where the couple is cheating on each other.
Clearly, it’s a toxic relationship that hurts both parties. For his part, the singer admits that he’d “been a liar, been a thief, been a lover, been a cheat.” Now he suffers the consequence as his lies are brought to light. The phrase “let the river run” perhaps means to let things happen as they should.
12. “Moon River” By Stevie Wonder
Originally, “Moon River” was sung by Audrey Hepburn in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Since then, a lot of singers have covered the song, including Stevie Wonder. He recorded his 1968 version as an unreleased track for Motown Records. It was not released to the public until 2004.
At its core, “Moon River” represents your life or your journey through life. You cross life as much as you cross a river. Life also inspires dreams (“Oh, dream, dream maker”) and sorrows (“you heartbreaker”). There is no other choice but to follow the river’s flow.
The lyrics also mention “my huckleberry friend,” which alludes to the fact that life is a constant companion. And all of us are the same in dreaming that one day, we’ll reach “the same rainbow’s end.”
13. “Green River” By Creedence Clearwater Revival
If there’s nowhere else to go, it’s good to go back home. That’s what “Green River” is talking about. The song is the title track from the 1969 album by the American rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Lead singer John Fogerty discussed the meaning of the song in a 1993 interview. He said that “Green River” is about Putah Creek in Winters, California, where he vacationed with his family when he was young.
Many of the experiences in the song are based on Fogerty’s childhood memories. The bullfrogs, rope hanging on the tree, and dragonflies are just some of those. It is also at the river that he learned to swim. At the end of the song, we find that the singer considers Green River his home.
14. “Big River” By Johnny Cash
The 1958 single “Big River” was one of Johnny Cash‘s successful songs. The track reached #4 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles and #14 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Big River” is one of the many descriptive, storyteller-type songs that Johnny Cash fans love. The song focuses on the singer being smitten by a woman and chasing her down the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, he keeps missing her.
He first meets her in St. Paul, Minnesota, and her Southern drawl catches his attention. He follows her down to Davenport, then St. Louis. He finds himself in Memphis, then Baton Rouge. The chase concludes in New Orleans, Louisiana, but he still hasn’t found her.
15. “Take Me To The River” By Al Green
You can tell how good a song is when it’s covered by different singers and bands later on. Such is the case with “Take Me to the River” by Al Green. Several notable covers include those of The Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen, and the E Street Band.
The song is about a man who struggles with remaining faithful to his religion but finds himself partaking in earthly pleasures. In the lyrics, we discover that he is head over heels in love with a woman. He implores her to “hold me, love me, please me, tease me.”
But in the chorus, he’s asking to be baptized in the river to wash away his sins. He considers himself “the biggest fool of them all” for staying even when she treats him badly.
16. “Blue River” By Elvis Presley
No list of music is complete without a song by Elvis Presley. “Blue River” was recorded in May 1963 and released in December 1965 as a single. The song was included in the 1967 Elvis movie Double Trouble.
The blue river in the title is a place for lonely and brokenhearted people. It is a river of tears where people go to cry over unsympathetic lovers. The river “winds along a path of heartache and pain,” which many of us can relate to.
It’s just the right place for our singer, whose love interest does not reciprocate his feelings. Her lack of favorable response leaves him crying over her by the river of blue.
17. “The River Unbroken” By Dolly Parton
The musical icon Dolly Parton released her Rainbow album in 1987. Though Rainbow did not chart, it produced the single “The River Unbroken,” which perfectly fits on our list.
“The River Unbroken” is a crossover song with mainstream appeal and spiritual undertones. It is about a woman waiting for the train to come, symbolizing her leaving a failed relationship.
From the lyrics, we can tell how her life with her ex leaves her feeling tired, emotionally and physically. She longs for a place where she can rest, where the river is unbroken, and she can find peace.
18. “Walking By The River” By Ella Fitzgerald
Our next song on the list is Ella Fitzgerald‘s “Walking by the River,” released in 1952. Here, we find the singer meeting someone special by the river under the moonlight.
The song reflects the excitement couples feel at the beginning of a relationship. Understandably, they would want to spend as much time together as they can. In the lyrics, the singer hurries along the river for a rendezvous with her lover.
Obviously, she is in a rush to reach him. It feels as if the water is telling her not to delay. Otherwise, there won’t be a moon to guide her to her happy ending.
19. “River” By Leon Bridges
Yet another song with religious meaning is Leon Bridges‘ “River.” The single is one of the 15 tracks in his debut album Coming Home.
In the song, the singer talks about his stale relationship with a higher being. The line “been traveling these wide roads for so long” tells of the direction his life is taking. That is, away from Him. His desire to come back to Him is shot down by him being a sinner.
His saving grace comes in the form of what his mother used to tell him. That he only needs to surrender himself to God and get a new start. The singer is resolved to do just that, asking to be baptized in the river to wash his sins away.
20. “River” By Joni Mitchell
Though it is considered a Christmas song, this jolly occasion is not what the lyrics to Joni Mitchell‘s song represent. “River,” released in 1971, came from her fourth studio album Blue.
The song takes place around Christmas time. It only makes the song sadder because this is supposed to be a happy occasion, but it is not for the singer.
The lyrics find the singer dreading Christmas when everyone is in a jolly mood. She, on the other hand, laments losing her lover due to her selfishness. It makes her wish for a long river where she could skate on and teach her “feet to fly.” This could only mean she wants to leave her present situation.
21. “Proud Mary” By Beyonce
At the end of our list is Beyonce‘s phenomenal rendition of “Proud Mary.” A lot of people might think that this is Tina Turner’s original song. But John Fogerty of the American rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival is responsible for penning this song.
“Proud Mary” is the opposite of Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow.” Where Dylan longs to return to city life, “Proud Mary” is about leaving the city behind. Proud Mary, in this case, is a steamboat going up and down the river.
In the song, the singer finds herself leaving a good job under a dictatorial boss. She boards the “river boat queen” and only then sees “the good side of the city.” In some ways, being on Proud Mary is a form of escape and rebirth for the singer.
Summing Up Our List Of River Songs
Our list proves that the river is a perfect element to represent many things in music. Time and time again, songwriters have used it to symbolize dreams, life, death, and freedom.
And the good thing is many people can relate to the messages behind the songs above. Oftentimes, we find ourselves reliving distant memories or meeting a special someone by the river.
Whatever the case, we’re confident that we have something for the kind of songs you’re looking for on our list. We hope you found new favorites!