I know we value rivers.
Although from the way we dam, drain and pollute them, it’s not that obvious that we do. Indeed, WWF just released a report, Valuing Rivers, making the case that healthy rivers provide great benefits to societies and economies, but that these benefits are often not recognized or prioritized by decision makers.
So, as an environmental scientist, it’s not all that clear to me that we do value rivers. But, still, I know that we do. Why?
We write songs about them. A lot of songs.
Rivers wind their way through countries’ histories, myths, and stories. And songs. In our hearts, we must really love rivers, because we write more songs about them than any other geographic feature (e.g., forests, islands, deserts…I will admit there are a lot of ocean songs, but half of those are from the Beach Boys).
So, to remind us why we value rivers — and how our management needs to catch up to our emotional love — here I feature my favorite river songs.
My list has an admittedly American bias, but the celebration of river in song is universal. So, I invite all readers to submit their favorite #riversongs via social media and we’ll compile them.
Johnny Cash: Five Feet High and Rising — “How high is the water mamma?” Johnny repeatedly asks, drawing on his memories of the Mississippi River flooding his family farm in tiny Dyess, Arkansas in 1937. With each verse, the answer is that the river is one foot higher and the chords echo that pattern by modulating up one key higher. But really, all you need to know is that the Man in Black is singing about a flood.
Aaron Neville: Louisiana 1927 — Written by Randy Newman, the song chronicles the heartbreak of the catastrophic 1927 Mississippi River flood, which displaced 700,000 people. The first time I heard this song was when Aaron Neville performed it during a televised benefit concert during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the words mournfully captured the sense of loss and despair of late summer 2005: “Some people got lost in the flood, some people got away all right. Louisiana….Louisiana…they’re trying to wash us away…they’re trying to wash us away.”
Led Zeppelin: When the Levee Breaks — Efforts to reform how we manage river floods should draw sustenance from this song’s relentless drums, wailing harmonica and nasty slide guitar: “Crying won’t help you, praying won’t do you no good…When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.” The song was originally written by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie and chronicles the same 1927 Mississippi flood as Louisiana 1927. That flood inspired numerous songs and left a huge mark on American music: the flood accelerated the great northward migration of African Americans to cities like Chicago, where the Delta Blues got plugged in and contributed the key DNA to rock and roll.
Joni Mitchell: River — On first listen, you may be lulled into thinking this beautiful ballad is a Christmas song. But listen closer and you’ll hear a woman lamenting that she’s torched the relationship with the love of her life. A heartsick Canadian in southern California — disoriented by how it stays green even as “they’re putting up reindeer” — she longs for a river. Not to wash away her sorrow, not to float home, but — being a girl from Alberta — a frozen one that she could “skate away on.”
Drive-By Truckers: Uncle Frank and TVA — Dams are complicated things; they can provide important economic benefits, but they can also cause significant negative impacts to rivers and the people and communities that depend on them. Scientists can tell you that. But so can Drive-By Truckers. The seminal alt-country band has two songs about dams, rivers and people. In one, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) callously inundates a valley for a hydropower dam, flooding out towns and farmers, eventually leading one of the displaced people, Uncle Frank, to commit suicide. In another song, they “thank god for the TVA” for bringing “power to most of the South” and helping to relieve the misery of the Great Depression. These narratives are not conflicting; both can be true because they reflect the varying perspectives of dam beneficiaries and victims affected by impacts that manifest differentially over space and time. In other words, just what a scientist would say — but with guitars!
Randy Newman: Burn On — When I tell people that I’m from Cleveland, Ohio they often respond, “Isn’t that where the river caught on fire?” Randy Newman’s song, with its maudlin arrangement and whimsical lyrics, deftly capture the cognitive dissonance of a river catching fire. Perhaps it took one catching fire for Americans to remember how much they valued rivers. The Cuyahoga fire has been credited with sparking the United States’ Clean Water Act that, along with local efforts, has led to a remarkable recovery for the river, which now is the centerpiece of a national park, has 40 species of fish in places none previously occurred, and is lined by restaurants, pubs and boathouses on the stretch of river that once burned. The only flames that now rise from the Cuyahoga are on the label of “Burning River Pale Ale”, though, elsewhere in the world, rivers, and even lakes, are still catching fire.
Townes Van Zandt: Texas River Song — The Brazos River features prominently in this traditional song, but, as the lyrics remind us, “there’s many a river that waters the land,” so the song glides over nine other rivers from the Lone Star state. Great versions by Texan singers Townes Van Zandt and Lyle Lovett (the Brazos winds its way into at least three other of Lovett’s songs).
Bruce Springsteen: The River — I’ve written about what Springsteen’s approach to performing can teach us about conservation, namely his drive to save and uplift those who need it, carried out with exuberant passion. But on “The River” he explores loss, using a river as a symbol of youthful optimism and love that cannot be sustained into adulthood in a dying industrial town:
At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take.
Now those memories come back to haunt me, they haunt me like a curse.
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?
That sends me down to the river, though I know the river is dry…
Ike and Tina Turner: Proud Mary — Though written by John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Ike and Tina Turner certainly do the most rollicking version of this song about life on the Mississippi and “rolling on the river.”
Charles Lloyd and the Marvels: Shenandoah — A traditional song with lyrics that originated among the voyageurs, Canadian and American fur trappers who traveled by canoe along the rivers that traverse the heart of North America. This is the end of the playlist, so just sit back and relax and let the beautiful notes flow over you, as Lloyd and bandmates interweave instruments from the various forms of music, namely jazz and country, that also arose from the same region. The sax and pedal steel establish themselves and then commingle like tributaries forming a great river of American music.
This is just a fraction of the world’s river songs — songs that remind us of how we all value rivers for so much more than the water they carry. Yet rivers are under increasing pressure and the diverse values of healthy rivers are being lost.
So scour your memory banks and send us your favourite #riversongs and we’ll curate playlists for everyone to explore — a musical call to protect and restore the rivers we all love.