We don’t know why rivers are so effective on us. Poems and songs using rivers as metaphors are countless, and they mean a lot.
Feelings grow, things are lost, and numb or dull emotions are reflected in the river. Many cities are established around rivers, so maybe that’s why they are a big part of our lives.
We tell our stories to rivers; they take our pain away or comfort us. Let’s see how artists reflect the river with our list of the best songs!
- 1. Down by the River – Neil Young (1969)
- 2. Rivers – Six60 (2017)
- 3. Cold River – A-ha (1988)
- 4. Like a River – Carly Simon (1994)
- 5. Harlem River – Kevin Morby (2013)
- 6. River Is Wild – The Killers (2006)
- 7. Green River – Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
- 8. Cry Me a River – Ella Fitzgerald (1961)
- 9. River – Eminem ft. Ed Sheeran (2017)
- 10. The River – Bruce Springsteen (1981)
- 11. Take Me To The River – Talking Heads (1978)
- 12. River – Herbie Hancock (2007)
- 13. Big River” by Grateful Dead (1976)
- 14. ‘Ol’ Man River – Paul Robeson (1928)
- 15. River Euphrates – The Pixies (1988)
- 16. Moon River – Andy Williams (1961)
- 17. Proud Mary – Creedence Clearwater Revival (1970)
- 18. Cry Me a River – Justin Timberlake (2002)
- 19. By the Rivers Dark – Leonard Cohen (2001)
- 20. Boat on the River – Styx (1979)
- 21. Find the River – REM (1992)
- 22. By This River – Brian Eno (1977)
- 23. Following the River – The Rolling Stones (1972)
- 24. River – Joni Mitchell (1971)
- 25. I am a River – Foo Fighters (2014)
- 26. Yes, The River Knows – The Doors (1968)
- 27. Rivers of Babylon – Boney M (1968)
- 28. River Man – Nick Drake (1969)
- 29. My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song) – Pete Seeger (1982)
- 30. Watching the River Flow – Bob Dylan (1971)
- Final Note
1. Down by the River – Neil Young (1969)
We start with a strong folk tune with an anthemic verse. Here, a man can’t stand the emotional burden he carries and shoots his lover.
Well, N.Young said that it is not about shooting but ending the relationship in 1970, but he asserted in the 80s that it is about a guy who shot his lover to death.
We’ve got to know about the song: the prolific violent guitar jam floats all over the music like the river.
2. Rivers – Six60 (2017)
This electronic dance tune has the river as the primary focus. The moving hand-picking accompaniment and surrounding vocals give the song a fresh vibe.
Here the lover is depicted as the river itself, which is running deep. The man would like to catch that river and get into it, so they are floating happily together.
3. Cold River – A-ha (1988)
Cold River talks about an incredible lady and is one of A-ha’s most impressive and rocking tunes. Cold River is a metaphor for her attitude. She seems like she needs a ride, but she wants to drive.
She seems unattended and full of herself and “took the pride” of the man. The song is divided with sexy guitar solos, and enchanting synths also give the 80s mood.
4. Like a River – Carly Simon (1994)
Grammy award winner singer-songwriter Carly Simon comes up with an emotional issue. The song is about her somewhat problematic relationship with her mother.
She declares that she will not follow in her mother’s footsteps. The tune starts with a slow piano introduction, and changing rhythms makes the lyrics much more meaningful.
5. Harlem River – Kevin Morby (2013)
A very successful indie tune enjoyed by many since its release, Harlem River is one of those river tunes where the singer talks to the river directly.
Incredible jazzy instrumentation gives a comforting atmosphere, yet it keeps things foggy.
It feels like the song is a short moment of a man running to the shore of a river and expressing his feelings. We sometimes need that too, don’t we?
6. River Is Wild – The Killers (2006)
A loud and majestic rock tune, River is Wild functions entirely with its music and lyrics. The river mentioned here is a unique one also, the singer itself.
Things are calm, it is a nice day, but as long as we have troubles in our heads, “the river will turn wild.” The rhythm and loud atmosphere of the music suggest to us that it is wild indeed.
7. Green River – Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
Another perfect blues-rock jam from 1969, Green River, also brings an original meaning to the word. Green River is the place to be, a shelter for troubled souls.
With great guitar riffs and vocals, the tune says, “…If you get lost, come on home to Green River”.
8. Cry Me a River – Ella Fitzgerald (1961)
One of the most famous jazz standards of all time, Cry Me A River is still the flag of many broken-hearted. The river is used inside the idiom “to cry a river,” but it is repeated in each line successively.
Incredibly velvet voice holds a feeling of sorrowful revenge. She cried rivers for so long for love, and now she explains how it felt for her as her lover cried a river.
9. River – Eminem ft. Ed Sheeran (2017)
Among few takes on the word river for rap music, Eminem creates a scene of a failed relationship ending with an abortion.
His poetry connects raindrops going on the river. That’s an analogy for lies and truth (raindrops) reaching the river and letting it run.
Ed Sheeran sings melodic verse parts while Eminem tells us this sad story.
10. The River – Bruce Springsteen (1981)
Springsteen’s take on the river is also unique in itself. Not only do the harmonica parts in the song directly put you in the mood, but also how the word river is expressed.
River in the song is the dream. Why not? It is a blurry, shining, floating water in front of our eyes, and it’s only one of the many great metaphors for the word.
11. Take Me To The River – Talking Heads (1978)
This great hit from the late 70s guarantees smoothness and uncontrollable body moves.
Smoothness comes from the soft vocal, and the reverse motion on the accompaniment carries the heavy beat.
Here we see a man in love who wants to be taken to the river and washed by his lover.
12. River – Herbie Hancock (2007)
The river here is the place to escape from troubles. However, what is enchanting in this song is the quality of the cover.
The mood is entirely different from the original one, as the bass line floating and piano chords act as shining sunbeams upon a river.
13. Big River” by Grateful Dead (1976)
Big River is yet another great Grateful Dead tune to enjoy, telling a story of sweet love disappointment in a humorous folk-rock manner.
The river here is associated with the extreme amount of tears he shed for the woman he loved. In another verse, the word is used with its actual meaning to refer to the riverside.
14. ‘Ol’ Man River – Paul Robeson (1928)
Composed as a showpiece, Ol’ Man River is a powerful song about black oppression in the USA. Very touching poetry accompanies the orchestral music as the slave men float their boat on the river Mississippi.
“Let me go ‘way from the white man boss; Show me that stream called de river Jordan” are the most significant lines of the song indeed.
15. River Euphrates – The Pixies (1988)
River Euphrates is the river where the first civilizations we know so far have flourished around it in Mesopotamia.
This great indie rock classic is like a road song, where we see pirate-like figures arriving from the Dead Sea and trying to reach the river Euphrates. Musically, it is hypnotic and violent, surrounded by brutal vocals and sharp guitar tunes.
16. Moon River – Andy Williams (1961)
Moon River is another beautiful classic melody from the early 60s. Moon River is an enchanting dream told in an entirely dreamy musical space.
A very tender melody can melt your heart with the magical voice of Andy Williams. The river here is the happiness and pureness that he’s longing for.
17. Proud Mary – Creedence Clearwater Revival (1970)
The second song from the folk-rock band on our list again depicts the river as a “place to be.” We roll in between sweet vocals and guitar solos, starting with almost grunge-like visionary guitar riffs.
Proud Mary is a reference to marijuana, and it is just a story of a couple of people having a great time by the river, inviting their friends.
18. Cry Me a River – Justin Timberlake (2002)
A quite modernist of a pop song when looking from 2022, Cry me a River still keeps being one of the greatest pop songs ever released. This is the story of a broken-hearted yet proud man.
In a song of refusal to her love, the man explains things he has endured. He repeats the famous verse “Cry Me a River” with sarcasm to show that he still doesn’t believe her.
19. By the Rivers Dark – Leonard Cohen (2001)
By The Rivers Dark is yet another example of great poetry by Leonard Cohen. The lyrics are so rich, telling a personal story of a man.
Rivers Dark is the shady, troubling and lonely phase of our life. İt signifies different episodes of life rather than a particular place.
20. Boat on the River – Styx (1979)
One of the few songs that used mandolin and accordion was effective and maybe the most popular song written about the river.
The rhythm feels like a boat on the river, a boat that he wants to go back to desperately. If he reaches the boat, he will get closer to the river, which he calls “wise,” and be able to comfort himself.
21. Find the River – REM (1992)
Another rock band used mandolin in their most famous tune (Losing my Religion) and wrote that slow tune with a heavy dose of melancholy.
It is also hopeful as it advises the way to reach the river. While counting a lot of advice, the vocal also tells his own story, which seems more desperate.
22. By This River – Brian Eno (1977)
This one is just a little melody among many hidden gems of great Brian Eno. A very visionary electric piano insistently repeats its line, depicting the river.
All pieces are built around that melody. The song is like telling a story of a troubling moment between lovers.
Just as many of us do, they feel stuck by the river they watch as Eno expresses his feelings about the relationship.
23. Following the River – The Rolling Stones (1972)
An unforgettable slow hit from the Stones, Following the River, tells a story of a man going through places, seeing the river, and remembering his love.
Music gets more prominent in scope with the entrance of strings as he promises that he will follow the river and reach the sea.
24. River – Joni Mitchell (1971)
From the most phenomenal Canadian singer-songwriter album, River is a sad Christmas song.
Starting with a piano quotation of “Jingle Bells”, you’d assume this is a sweet winter melody.
Well, no, we witness the story of a sad woman watching everyone feel good, dreaming of better days, and wishing for a river for herself to escape.
25. I am a River – Foo Fighters (2014)
Beginning with an excellent synth entrance cut by beautifully written guitar parts, I Am A River is a mysterious take on the word’s meaning.
Dedicated to the lover, we see a man explain how he feels and associate himself with a river floating underground.
26. Yes, The River Knows – The Doors (1968)
At the start, you only hear poetry like vocals of Jim Morrison until this little hidden Doors jam turns into a country-like melody walking by the river.
In this tenderly composed love song, we see that the river is both a witness of their love and the savior taking the bad things away.
27. Rivers of Babylon – Boney M (1968)
A classical tune in the style of Boney M, Rivers of Babylon begins with mystical ethnic-like vocal lines. Very soon though we got the beat we expected, and can start dancing without thinking twice!
The river here is associated directly with the exodus of Jewish people. In fact, the song is directly referring to the story of them mentioned in the hymn known as Psalm no.137.
28. River Man – Nick Drake (1969)
River Man can be considered the masterwork of Nick Drake. Not only the poetry but also the orchestral line and syncopated guitar part of the piece are making this piece a classic.
River Man is a reference to an unknown, probably the river itself, where a woman called Betty would like to meet and see how he floats, “how things come and go”.
29. My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song) – Pete Seeger (1982)
A legend of American folk music, Pete Seeger again amazes us with the mixture of simplicity and wisdom. The song has an environmental concern directed at the Hudson River.
Written as it is a folk tune from the 19th century, Seeger dreams of better days, and clear water as he sails on the river. Sweet mourning for the dying nature.
30. Watching the River Flow – Bob Dylan (1971)
The last tune on our list is from another giant of folk music. Seems like rock, blues, and folk musicians loved to express their feelings with the word river more than artists of other genres.
Starting directly with a sharp fun blues progression on guitar, Bob Dylan seems like telling one of those days we feel estranged. He pictures a man who resents the people, and the world, and finds comfort by the river.
Well, that’s the end of our list. Unlike other words, the river is used with a great variation in lyrics throughout the years.
Something about them affects us, the way it floats sometimes brings memories back, and the other day the same floats mean hopes for the future.
It is the unknown, mysterious feelings, it is the friend we tell our troubles and it is something to protect as well.
We surely have time to enjoy the river, and also sit for hours looking at it and thinking of our troubles. No matter what, they mean to us and artists bigger than we assume.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the list. Hope to see you on another one! 28All suggestions