Rollin’, rollin, rollin’ on the river

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From the Mighty Mississippi to the banks of the Seine, from the Rio Grande to the Blue Danube, from the great Amazon to the historic Jordan, rivers have provided inspiration for songwriters that dates back centuries.  Oceans, forests, mountains and plains have given composers food for thought as well, of course, but there’s something mysterious and compelling about rivers, the way they continue their onward march to the sea.

They are home to fishes and plant life, they move industry, they provide fun and recreation, they offer baptismal waters.  When settlers headed into the wilderness to establish outposts and cities, they followed or sought out rivers because they knew of the important role they would play in the development of the communities on which they were located.

images-163In the rock era, songwriters in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s made ample use of rivers in dozens of songs, be they #1 hits or obscure deep tracks.  The Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” and Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” while not using “river” in their titles, aptly describe life on the paddleboats that navigate the Louisiana waterways.

The dozen songs about rivers I’ve selected here, and the “honorable mention” choices that follow, do indeed use “river” in the title, and they comprise a pretty great playlist, if I do say so myself.  Hope you enjoy reading their back stories as you contemplate your next trip to your nearest riverbank.

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“The River,” Bruce Springsteen, 1980

The_River_(Bruce_Springsteen)_(Front_Cover)Influenced by the forlorn music of Hank Williams’ “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” Springsteen wrote his 1980 title song “The River” as the story of a young couple whose hopes for the future must take a back seat to the realities of life.  The river, once the scene of romantic interludes, has now run dry, much like their dashed dreams:  “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…”

“She’s a River,” Simple Minds, 1995 

1200x1200bb-1England’s Simple Minds was a hugely popular band in their native UK (five #1 albums), but they struggled to make much chart success here beyond “Don’t You Forget About Me” in 1985.  Too bad; US listeners have missed out on many choice tracks on their other dozen album releases.  The opening tune from “Good News From the Next World” does a sweet job of pointing out how rivers and people’s lives both take many turns as they progress:   “Shadow let go, there’s something you should know, I just found my new direction and I hope you like the key, she’s a river and she’s turning there in front of me…”

“Watching the River Flow,” Bob Dylan, 1971

5c7c961b7ebfb29f9ad5ab3a83dd8063Eager to set a new course for himself and his music, Dylan contacted Leon Russell in 1970 to help him produce his next album.  He had been struggling with writer’s block as he tried to avoid the political lyrics of his early work, and then during a recording session covering older songs, he had a epiphany about how a river’s current could be likened to the creative muse when it kicks in.  “Right now I’ll just here so contentedly and watch the river flow…”  The result was a spirited blue tune carried by Russell’s piano, which stalled at #41 when released as a single that year.

“Take Me to the River,” Talking Heads, 1978

Unknown-271Soul singer Al Green wrote this fine tune in 1974 while visiting Hot Springs, Arkansas, located along the Ouachita River.  The lyrics make reference to the time-honored tradition of cleansing one’s soul by immersion in the river like a baptism, which Green evidently felt he needed after entertaining lustful thoughts of his first girlfriend.  Once he became a pastor, he deleted the song from his performance repertoire for many years.  The Talking Heads used a slower tempo and a swampy arrangement in their cover version of the song, which reached #26 in 1978.

“The River,” Dan Fogelberg, 1972

images-160“I was raised by a river, weaned upon the sky, and in the mirror of the waters, I saw myself learn to cry…”  Fogelberg was born in Peoria, Illinois, which sits on the banks of the Illinois River.  Among the songs found on his 1972 debut LP “Home Free” is this tune that presaged the many tunes he wrote about nature and environmental concerns.  Fogelberg was best known for the ballads that did well on the charts, but each album had deeper tracks (like this one) that showed he knew how to rock out as well.  He died of prostate cancer in 2007 at age 56.

“Green River,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969

Unknown-272For three or four years, Creedence could do no wrong.  Everything John Fogerty wrote and everything the band released turned to gold, albums as well as singles.  They came up with a funky rock sound that came to be known as swamp rock, bringing a bayou vibe to rock ‘n roll roots.  I’ve always thought “Green River” epitomized the CCR groove, with lyrics that paint an evocative picture of carefree rural life:  “Well, take me back down where cool water flow, let me remember things I love, stoppin’ at the log where catfish bite, walkin’ along the river road at night, barefoot girls dancin’ in the moonlight…”

“Following the River,” The Rolling Stones, 1972

Unknown-273“Exile on Main Street” was viewed unfavorably upon its release but now is considered one of their top three albums.  I find it technically sloppy, and I don’t think the songs are as strong as they could be.  They could’ve deleted a throwaway like “I Just Want to See His Face” and inserted the sublime “Following the River,” which had been shelved and didn’t surface until the 2010 re-issue as a bonus track.  “Oh, if I can’t have you, I’ll be dreaming all about you, ’cause you always brought the best in me, I’ll be following the river, gonna join hands with the sea…”

“Rivers,” Lazarus, 1971

images-161One of the great unknown bands of the early 1970s that should’ve made it was Lazarus, a folk rock trio from Texas led by the great singer-songwriter Billie Hughes.  Their debut LP is truly stunning, with gorgeous soft melodies, soothing harmonies and a fine blend of acoustic guitar and piano.”  The album closer, “Rivers,” creatively uses piano to resemble the flow of a river, at first gently flowing and then more aggressively as it hits rapids. In the lyrics, Hughes urges us to live like rivers “which flow freely into the sea, joined in happy congregation.”

“Cry Me a River,” Joe Cocker, 1970

Unknown-274Written by Arthur Hamilton in 1953 as a bluesy jazz ballad, this tune was first made famous by Julie London when her smoldering version was featured in the 1956 rock ‘n roll film “The Girl Can’t Help It,” sending it to #9 on the pop charts.  Hamilton came up with the title phrase as a way of expressing bitter heartbreak:  “You say you’re sorry for being so untrue, well, cry me a river, I cried a river over you…”  Most of the 400-plus renditions of the song echoed London’s approach, but Joe Cocker tried a soulful rock arrangement that reached #11 in 1970.

“River Man,” Nick Drake, 1969

images-162Drake was a tragic example of a very talented musician suffering from “tortured artist syndrome.”  He wrote several dozen beautiful folk-rock tunes over three albums in 1969-1974, yet never achieved much success because of his unwillingness to perform due to a severe depression the made him take his own life.  The self-analysis that marks a song like “River Man” shows his feelings of unworthiness:  “Going to see the river man, going to tell him all I can, if he tells me all he knows about the way his river flows, I don’t suppose it’s meant for me…”

“Find the River,” R.E.M., 1992

Unknown-275“A river to the ocean goes, a fortune for the undertow, the river empties to the tide, all of this coming your way…”  On the closing track of R.E.M.’s popular 1992 LP “Automatic For the People,” the band reminds us of the inevitability of the river’s waters flowing inexorably to the sea, which can be a powerful metaphor for hope.  This talented group from Athens, Georgia got their start as one of the pioneers of alternative rock and eventually evolved into a more pop/rock sound that took them to the top of the charts in the early 1990s.

“River,” Joni Mitchell, 1971

Unknown-276In Canada, Mitchell’s home country, rivers often stay frozen over for many months.  When she wrote this gorgeous tune, she was hoping to escape some painful emotional feelings from a romantic breakup and, rather than run away, just skate away on the nearest river.  The song appeared on her 1971 “Blue” album and has become something of a Christmas standard in the years since.  British singer Ellie Goulding had a #1 hit in the UK with her cover of “River” last year.  “It makes me so happy that people have become new fans of Joni as a result,” she said.

 

 

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Honorable mentions:

Down By the River,” Neil Young, 1969;  “The Sea Refuses No River,” Pete Townshend, 1982;  “Meeting Across the River,” Bruce Springsteen, 1975;  “Moon River,” Henry Mancini, 1960;  “Black Muddy River,” Grateful Dead, 1987;  “Back to the River,” Damnation of Adam Blessing, 1970;  “Don’t Cross the River,” America, 1972;  “The River of Dreams,” Billy Joel, 1993;  “Across the River,” Bruce Hornsby and The Range, 1988;  “River of Jordan,” Peter Yarrow, 1971;  “Watching the River Run,” Loggins and Messina, 1973.

Ain’t the afterlife grand?

I figure the best way to know if a songwriter is any good is by reading what others, particularly other songwriters, have to say about him.

If that’s true, then damn.  John Prine must be one of the best there ever was.

Unknown-259Asked in 2009 to list his favorite songwriters, Bob Dylan put Prine front and center. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism.  Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree.  And he writes beautiful songs.”

Kris Kristofferson, upon discovering Prine in a small club in Chicago in 1971:  “No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy.  John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs.”

Close friend and frequent collaborator Bonnie Raitt:  “He was a true folk singer in the best folk tradition, cutting right to the heart of things, as pure and simple as rain.  For all of us whose hearts are breaking, we will keep singing his songs and holding him near.”

Jack Antonoff, songwriter/guitarist/singer in the indie rock ban “fun.”, said:  “John Prine is as good as it gets.  An honor to be alive in his time.”

Bruce Springsteen tweeted, “John was a true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages.  He wrote music of towering compassion with an almost unheard-of precision and creativity when it came to observing the fine details of ordinary lives. He was a writer of great humor, funny, with wry sensitivity. It has marked him as a complete original.”

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Music critics can be a fickle bunch, but they have been nearly unanimous in their admiration for Prine over the years.  A few quotes:

Alanna Nash of Entertainment Weekly:  “John Prine’s best work has always been slightly cinematic and hallucinogenic, full of images that transport as well as provoke.”

Margaret Renkl, a New York Times contributing opinion writer, wrote in 2016:  “The new John Prine — older now, scarred by cancer surgeries, his voice deeper and full of gravel — is most clearly still the old John Prine: mischievous, delighting in tomfoolery, but also worried about the world.”

Michael Branch of CNN:  “John Prine was a gifted writer and vintage American troubadour who reminded us that life is as comical as it is heartbreaking, and that we should never fail to empathize with others.”

Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post:  “Many journalists loved John Prine because he did what we try to do:  document America.”

The late Roger Ebert, writing about a Prine concert in 1971:  “He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off.  He starts slow.  But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics.  And then he has you.”

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Unknown-257By all accounts, Prine was a kind, sweet guy, but he was also one tough cookie.  Despite a lack of much commercial success during his five decades in the music business, he nevertheless persevered, started his own record company (Oh Boy Records) and recorded 18 studio LPs and two live albums.  He was on the road a lot in the early days, and he continued performing well into his ’60s and ’70s as health permitted.  He also survived two major cancer-related surgeries in 1998 and 2013.  But on April 7, he fell victim to the coronavirus.  He was 73.

You’ll all pardon me if I’m kicking myself these days.  I somehow failed to pick up on Prine and his work when he was first starting out in the early ’70s when he wrote and recorded many of his best songs.  I’m pretty sure a couple of my friends in college tried to turn me on to some of his tunes, but I too quickly dismissed him because his gruff voice wasn’t much to my liking.

Ah, but here’s the thing:  Prine’s voice was perfect for the kind of songs he wrote.  Like his inspirations, Dylan and Johnny Cash, he sang in a sometimes-wry, sometimes-bitter conversational style that was perfectly suited to his simple melodies and common-man lyrics.

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Prine’s 1973 LP

I’ve always put Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen at the forefront of my list of the greatest lyricists of my lifetime, but I have discovered (after the fact, I’m embarrassed to admit) that John Prine belongs in that exalted group.  He offered such wonderfully keen observations on the human condition, often very concise:

“Just give me one extra season so I can figure out the other four.”

“I don’t care if the sun don’t shine, but it better, or people will wonder.” 

“Broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see.”

“We were trying to save our marriage and perhaps catch a few fish, whatever came first.”

“If it weren’t so expensive, I’d wish I were dead.” 

In these and other examples, Prine often wrote in the first person, sharing his own experiences and fantasies, in turn poignant, angry and whimsical.  But he just as often served as narrator for his fictional and true-to-life tales, putting potent words into the character’s mouths.

A mother speaking to her son about his absent father:  “Your daddy never meant to hurt you ever, he just don’t live here, but you got his eyes.”

An elderly woman referring to her husband:  “My old man is another child that’s grown old.”

An adolescent boy singing about his troubled father:  “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes.”

Most provocatively, speaking for Jesus:   “I’m a human corkscrew and all my wine is blood. They’re gonna kill me, Mama.  They don’t like me, bud.”

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His 1991 comeback

Prine echoed the belief many songwriters share when he said, “I felt sometimes I was a conduit, a channel through which songs arrive from an unknown source, maybe God.”

He had periods when songwriting came almost effortlessly.  “Sometimes, a song takes about as long to write it as it does to sing it.  They come along like a dream or something, and you just got to hurry up and respond to it, because if you mess around too long, the song is liable to pass you by.”

When major or minor life events occurred, both good and bad, they became fodder for new material. “  After my second divorce,” he said with a chuckle in 1990, “about a month later, the song truck pulled up and dumped a bunch of great songs on my lawn.”

Prine had a singular approach to songwriting.  “I think the more the listener can contribute to the song, the better.  Rather than tell them everything, you save your details for things that exist.  Like what color the ashtray is. How far away the doorway was.  So when you’re talking about intangible things, like emotions, the listener can fill in the blanks.  You just draw the foundation.”

In his 1973 song “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” Prine painted a picture in such a way that listeners could easily insert memories of their own grandfathers:  “”Well, he used to sing me ‘Blood on the Saddle’ and rock me on his knee, and let me listen to radio before we got TV, well, he’d drive to church on Sunday and take me with him too, stained glass in every window, hearing aids in every pew.”

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Prine’s 1971 debut

Last year, Prine was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, where he summed up why he chose a life as a songwriter: “I gotta say, there’s no better feeling than having a killer song in your pocket, and you’re the only one in the world who’s heard it.”

There were two Prine tunes I discovered long ago as cover versions by other artists.  One was “Angel From Montgomery,” recorded by Raitt on her 1974 LP “Streetlights.”  She and Prine sang it together often, most recently at the 2020 Grammy Awards, where he won a long-overdue, well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award.

The other one was the heartbreaking “Hello In There,” which Bette Midler recorded for her first album.  In it, Prine described the pain and loneliness that aging brings, and he urged us all to pay attention:  “Old trees just grow stronger, and old rivers just grow wilder every day, old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.'”

I’m sure as hell paying attention now, Mr. Prine.

He left behind an impressive legacy of nearly 200 songs, and you’d be hard pressed to find one you could label a clunker.  His favored genres were country, folk, a little bluegrass and what is now popularly called Americana, and he did them all well. His songs are generally pretty basic, three- or four-chord construction, which makes them easy to learn on guitar, something I’ll be doing for the next few weeks.  And they’re easy to sing too, so you can bet they’ll start showing up at occasional singalongs by the fire pit, especially the funny ones.

Unknown-264Take “In Spite of Ourselves,” the title track from his 1999 album which features duets with some of country music’s best female vocalists.  The song’s blunt lyrics offer a fairly hilarious yet poignant dialog between Prine and Iris DeMent as husband and wife who adore each other but view their marriage quite differently.  Husband:  “She thinks all my jokes are corny/ convict movies make her horny/ she likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs and swears like a sailor when shavin’ her legs/ she takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’,/ I’m never gonna let her go…”   Wife:  “He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays/ I caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies/ he ain’t too sharp but he gets things done/ drinks his beer like it’s oxygen/ he’s my baby and I’m his honey/ never gonna let him go…”

Or consider 1973’s “Please Don’t Bury Me,” a whimsical look at death that now takes on an entirely deeper meaning:  “Please don’t bury me down in that cold cold ground, no, I’d druther have ’em cut me up and pass me all around, throw my brain in a hurricane, and the blind can have my eyes, and the deaf can have both of my ears if they don’t mind the size.”

I see that the new generation of country singers adores Prine with as much enthusiasm as their predecessors do.  Check out this YouTube video of Prine sitting on stage with Kacey Musgraves as she plays a song she wrote called “Burn One With John Prine.”  It’ll bring tears and chuckles in equal amounts.

Rest in Peace, John.  Much obliged for your fine body of work.

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A Spotify playlist of some of Prine’s finest tunes.  Dial ’em up!