By Jeff Opperman, The Nature Conservancy
In honor of World Water Day on March 22, I’ve made a list of my 10 favorite river songs (not in any ranked order). American roots music provides a flood of songs about rivers (pun intended). Rock, blues, folk and country celebrate rivers perhaps more than any other habitat type or environmental issue.
Listen to my soundtrack on Spotify and tell me what you think of these songs and, more importantly, what your favorite river songs are. What’s your soundtrack for World Water Day?
1. Woody Guthrie: “Roll On Columbia.” We tend to associate opposition to dams with left-leaning populism, so this song is a good reminder of the complex realities of dams. Although conservationists now emphasize the loss of salmon, it’s instructive to remember that at one time providing electricity to rural America by harnessing the mighty Columbia was a theme celebrated by America’s greatest folk singer with lyrics such as “Your power is turning our darkness to dawn, so roll on Columbia roll on.” (Admittedly, he was contracted by the Bonneville Power Administration to write songs, but he seemed generally inspired by the scale and power of the Columbia dams.)
2. Randy Newman: “Burn On.” Newman’s maudlin arrangement and whimsical lyrics deftly capture the cognitive dissonance of a river—the Cuyahoga—catching fire. Several other songs have referenced the fire, including REM’s “Cuyahoga” and Adam Again’s “River on Fire.” But note that the river has recovered considerably, as celebrated in songs by Alex Bevan and Crookneck Chandler as well as in the title of a tasty beer, Burning River Pale Ale, from Great Lakes Brewing Company.
3. Johnny Cash: “Five Feet High and Rising.” The Man in Black singing about a flood on the Mississippi. Enough said.
4. Adam Acuragi: “Bottom of the River.” Check out this impromptu live performance captured by Take Away Show. Adam and bandmates form a semi-circle in the Chelsea flea market and belt out a rollicking version of this song. Shoppers’ reactions range from puzzled to pure joy—observe the beaming woman just before the two-minute mark in the video, illustrating that songs just make you feel good.
5. 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. I first heard this song played at benefits during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the words mournfully echoed 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.”
6. Emmanuel Jal: “Many Rivers to Cross.” When Jal—a Sudanese-born hip hop and soul artist—sings about crossing rivers as one of life’s challenges in this adaptation of a Jimmy Cliff song, he’s not being metaphorical. After serving as a coerced child soldier, he escaped his captors and, during his flight, had to swim across rivers filled with crocodiles and hippos. I challenge anyone to read his story and listen to his album Warchild and not feel overwhelmed with amazement for what he’s done, co-mingled with heartache for the ongoing misery in war-torn parts of the world.
7. Townes Van Zandt: “Texas River Song.” Although Texas may be mired in an epic drought, Van Zandt’s geographic tour of Texas reminds us that, even in a parched country, “there’s many a river that waters a land.” Lyle Lovett does a great version.
8. Led Zeppelin: “When the Levee Breaks.” The effort to reform floodplain management in the United States 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 a great number of songs and left a huge mark on American music, accelerating the great northward migration of African Americans to cities like Chicago, where the Delta Blues got plugged in and eventually became rock-and-roll.
9. The Tragically Hip: “Chagrin Falls.” This Canadian band named their song after the small town in northeast Ohio (population 2,500) where I live. To them, its name seemed the geographical embodiment of an emotional descent to a low place. Despite the somber name, Chagrin Falls is actually a very pretty and friendly town that is centered around a river and picturesque waterfall.
10. Bruce Springsteen: “The River.” I’ve already written about my love for Springsteen’s music. Here he uses the river as a symbol of youthful optimism and love that cannot be sustained into adulthood in a dying industrial town.
What are your favorites? Add them in the comments below.
Jeff Opperman is The Nature Conservancy’s senior advisor for sustainable hydropower. He works to promote ecologically sustainable water management in river basins with hydropower infrastructure. Through this work, Jeff has provided strategic and scientific assistance to environmental flow assessments for several rivers in the United States and for the Yangtze River and the Patuca River (Honduras).