Endless river songs

Isn’t there a seemingly endless list of songs about rivers?

(Yes, you might want to read the title again. I’m being naughty, looking for a reason to exercise the mind and compile another song list, so please excuse me for teasing you with a misleading, capitalised title.)

The new Pink Floyd album, out next month, as everybody knows, is called The Endless River. The title is taken from a line in ‘High Hopes’, off the last Pink Floyd album, largely recorded on David’s houseboat studio – Astoria – which floats on the River Thames.

I trust you’re enjoying the audio clips over at PinkFloyd.com.

How many songs there are about, or including, rivers. How inspirational the river has always been in the music and other art forms we cherish most dearly. Not surprising when you consider that the river has been used so many times as the ultimate metaphor for life itself.

I thought I’d include some of my favourite river-related songs, starting with this one from Billy Joel from the album of the same name, a hit single back in 1993. Sing along now.

We all end in the ocean
We all start in the streams
We’re all carried along
By the river of dreams

Possibly my favourite of all Neil Young songs is ‘Down By the River’ (and least favourite, ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’). Led Zeppelin’s ‘When the Levee Breaks’, with its haunting backwards harmonica and drumming of the highest order, is arguably their finest moment.

One of the all-time great opening lines – the Beatles’ ‘Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds’ – mentions a river:

Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies

There are plenty of famous rivers named in song, too, such as Gerry & The Pacemakers’ ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Mississippi’. I’m sure you can think of many more.

There is, of course, ‘Moon River’, recorded so many times by so many different people, I can’t choose whose version I’m fondest of (oh, fine, it’s probably Sinatra’s), but Louis Armstrong and more recently The Killers have covered the old Breakfast at Tiffany’s number particularly well. What an exquisite song it is.

There have been rivers of many colours; Christie and later Elton John sang of a yellow one, Elvis recalled a blue one (as indeed most people would), Midnight Oil’s ‘River Runs Red’ reminds us of man’s determination to destroy the planet with a simple yet effective chorus:

The river runs red
Black rain falls
Dust in my hand
The river runs red
Black rain falls
On my bleeding land

Ocean Colour Scene, in ‘The Riverboat Song’, wanted to know when it might run green. The Doobie Brothers gave us a (bluegrass) ‘Black Water’, while The Grateful Dead’s river was both black and muddy – a song of such poignancy.

I will walk alone by the black muddy river
And listen to the ripples as they moan
I will walk alone by the black muddy river
And sing me a song of my own

Most of the songs featuring a river in some shape or form, in fact, seem to be rather sad. Make that desperately sad. Taking away the familiar themes of water to cleanse and renew, because that’s the positive note we absolutely must finish on, many focus instead on loneliness, futility and regret.

Take Peter Gabriel in ‘Washing of the Water':

River, show me how to float
I feel like I’m sinking down

Or Eric Clapton in ‘River of Tears':

It’s three miles to the river
That would carry me away

Or, similarly, Joni Mitchell in ‘River':

Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on

If their anguish hasn’t moved you, there’s always the despair and ultimately resignation in Patti Smith’s ‘Pissing In a River’.

In ‘River Guard’, Smog/Bill Callahan (himself very fond of the old river motif), imagines himself as a prison warden observing the prisoners. It’s undoubtedly one of the gloomiest songs I ever heard.

Soon we will all be back in the yard
Behind the wall, living hard
Dreaming of cool rivers and tall grass

After that, how we need uplifting. Some of Pete Townshend’s most inspiring words can be found in ‘The Sea Refuses No River’ (which features our very own David and his red Strat on 1985’s Deep End Live! concert, you might not already know), its message one of hope for all of us, however we have sinned.

The sea refuses no river
We’re polluted now
But in our hearts still clean
The sea refuses no river
We tried not to age
But time had its rage
We’re washed over stones
From babes into clones of the mean
The sea refuses no river
Won’t deny the sulphurous stream

So many great songs incorporating the river; which are your favourites?

I wasn’t being completely insensitive in my choice of heading, by the way. I know what you really want as the release date draws ever nearer, so here’s another morsel to savour until the next one is thrown.

Chris Evans will play a track from Pink Floyd’s The Endless River on his BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show tomorrow morning, so be sure to listen from 6.30am (UK). If that’s too early for you, the show should be available later on demand thanks to the wonders of the internet.

Hope you like it. Do let us know.