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85+ Songs About Rivers

What is a river really? A place of life? Of power? Of salvation?

Or a place of sadness? Blight? Danger? Death?

A river can be all of these things, many at the same time, which may be what makes them such frequent subjects (or symbols) for song.

When it comes to river songs, the rivers in them may be real or imagined. Arteries of life and joy, or pathways of death and destruction.

Whatever the theme of a river song, the river itself wends the way, rolling through verses and chorus, carving out a path for listeners’ ears to follow.

With our river song list, we have tried to preserve that essence, letting the current carry us through songs about rivers in a variety of categories.

These are the river songs we think are absolutely worth a listen. Plus the eleven you might want to make tops on your list.

Contents show

The 11 River Songs You Should Absolutely Hear

1. The River – Chely Wright

  • Songwriters: Chely Wright
  • Release Year: 2005
  • Album: The Metropolitan Hotel

Our must-hear songs about rivers are not in any particular order. Except for this one.

If we absolutely had to put an order to it, this incredibly emotional ode to rivers by Chely Wright would definitely top our list.

What makes this song so poignant, and our number one must-hear, is that it is based on true losses Wright experienced in her life. And you can feel it in the lyrics. The raw realness of it all.

The verses tell the tale, but it’s the bridges that take you through the emotions.

Be warned. It’s sad.

(Sorry for the lack of a non-subscription listening option. It’s just not out there.)

2 . Black Muddy River – The Grateful Dead

  • Songwriters: Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter
  • Release Year: 1987
  • Album: In the Dark
Black Muddy River (2015 Remaster)

One of the writers of “Black Muddy River,” Robert Hunter, told Rolling Stone the song is “a bit of whistling in the dark. It’s about the perspective of age and the necessity of living in spite of a rough time and the ravage of anything else that’s going to come at you.”

And it sounds like it.

Dark and poetic, you’ll feel this one in your soul.

3. Burn On – Randy Newman

  • Songwriters: Randy Newman
  • Release Year: 1972
  • Album: Sail Away
Burn On (Remastered)

In June of 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio caught fire. For the 13th time. That’s how polluted it had become with industrial waste.

This song is about that. But, unlike other songs about that, this one goes the parody homage route.

And the music makes it sound like a circus.

Because, honestly, when you allow a river – a large snake of water – to become so filled with filth, the water itself burns, what else can you call it?

Then, the bridge comes along and you’re like “Hm. Well, there’s somethin’.”

(For the same theme done differently, check out “Cuyahoga” by R.E.M.)

Cuyahoga – R.E.M.

  • Songwriters: Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills & Michael Stipe
  • Release Year: 1986
  • Album: Lifes Rich Pageant
Cuyahoga (2011 Remaster)

4. In The Mississippi River – Mavis Staples

  • Songwriters: Marshall Jones
  • Release Year: 2007
  • Album: We’ll Never Turn Back
Mavis Staples - "In The Mississippi River" (Full Album Stream)

What can turn something that should be beautiful and sustaining for everyone into something ugly and sinister for a few?

This song holds (one of) the answer(s).

And the power.

Many songs have been written about the Mighty Mississip (and the tragedies that have taken place on and around it) and Marshall Jones and his group, The Freedom Singers, created an entire catalog of songs about racism.

But this one stands out.

Written in 1964 about the bodies of eight black men found by Navy divers as they dragged the Mississippi River looking for the bodies of three missing civil rights activists (none of the bodies were the missing men), it tells it’s tale in the most haunting possible way.

In 2007, Mavis Staples recorded it, bringing this lesser-known civil rights song a little closer to mainstream attention.

5. Only Our Rivers Run Free – Christy Moore

  • Songwriters: Mickey MacConnell
  • Release Year: 1983
  • Album: The Time Has Come
Only Our Rivers Run Free

Speaking of civil rights songs, this song right here is one of the most popular civil rights hymns ever written.

How popular?

It’s been recorded over 400 times in 16 different languages.

But it was Irish artist Christy Moore who first made it a hit.

Apparently, a gently poetic song about oppression and the dark shadow it casts over even the joys in life is a troublingly universal one.

6. Banks of the Ohio – Olivia Newton-John

  • Songwriters: Unknown
  • Release Year: 1971
  • Album: If Not for You
Olivia Newton-John - Banks Of The Ohio

This song was all but a standard in country music long before Olivia Newton-John recorded it, but it was Newton-John who made this murder song a hit (her first #1 in her native Australia).

Though you already know where it’s going – I kind of spoiled it for you with the whole “murder song” description – it’s also a bit misleading. At least the Newton-John arrangement is.

Because although it starts out sounding like a story song – musically, there’s no mistaking it’s not just a simple love song – the second verse still catches you a bit by surprise. (You know, if no one has already told you about the murder bit.)

A lovey-dovey song this is not.

And while the river is secondary, it also isn’t. After all, what more romantic a place to take a walk?

7. Watching the River Flow – Bob Dylan

  • Songwriters: Bob Dylan
  • Release Year: 1971
  • Album: Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II
Bob Dylan - Watching the River Flow (Single Version - Official Audio)

It’s been assumed by many critics and music listeners that this song is about Bob Dylan going through a dry patch as an artist. Or maybe as an activist.

And Dylan did say around the time of this song’s release he wasn’t feeling inspired to say anything particular with his music.

So, that may be what this song is about. A lack of inspiration. It probably is.

But there is also a serious stepping-out-of-the-fray vibe in this song.

Like, dude’s uninspired, but he ain’t that worried about it.

8. All Is Found – Evan Rachel Wood (from Frozen II)

  • Songwriters: Kristen Anderson-Lopez & Robert Lopez
  • Release Year: 2019
  • Album: Frozen II
Evan Rachel Wood - All Is Found (From "Frozen 2"/Sing-Along)

The river in this song is both a literal and a metaphorical one. (Well, as literal as a river in a Disney movie can be.)

The literal river is essential to the plot. So essential, the Norwegian version of this song is titled “The River There Is Everything.”

But many of the lyrics are also metaphorical – river full of memory, all magic flows.

It’s about facing a real (fictional) river – Dive down deep into her sound – and also a symbolic one – Can you brave what you most fear?

And it’s this very duality that gives the song a subtle universalness about facing fear and finding truth in life, and makes it far more than a song about a fictional river in an animated movie.

9. Down By The River – Albert Hammond

  • Songwriters: Albert Hammond & Mike Hazlewood
  • Release Year: 1972
  • Album: It Never Rains in Southern California

The river as a place of environmental destruction was a popular topic for a few years in music.

(There’s a reason this song came out the same year as Randy Newman’s “Burn On.”)

While “Burn On” was about a specific event in a specific city, though, this song is more about the general desecration of our world everywhere.

It could be any river in any city. Poisonous to its wildlife. Poisonous to its people.

And that’s why… sadly… it’s just as topical now as it was 50 years ago.

10. The River – Toby Lightman

  • Songwriters: Toby Lightman, Aaron Albano & Peter Zizzo
  • Release Year: 2004
  • Album: Little Things

Holy mixed metaphor, Batman!

Do most rivers have tides now?

We’ll be generous and assume this song was written about a tidal river, which would make it make a little more sense.

Unless, of course, it means the tide would have to roll in THAT far, like well beyond the coast. Which maybe makes the entire idea of the song just a little more pronounced?

I don’t know, but despite the somewhat perplexing tide/river situation, it’s still a good metaphor for taking action in your life over a fairly groovy beat.

11. River – Leon Bridges

  • Songwriters: Leon Bridges, Joshua Block, Austin Jenkins & Chris Vivion
  • Release Year: 2015
  • Album: Coming Home
Leon Bridges - River (Official Video)

Of all the songs about rivers, the ones about rivers as spiritual places and places of baptism may carry the most power.

And of all the songs about rivers as spiritual places of baptism, this one may have the most soul. Which is really saying something.

It’s a bold statement to make, I know, but I’m sticking by it… for now.

More Songs About Rivers You Should Add To Your Playlist

Choosing eleven songs about rivers from the considerable catalog of river songs in existence wasn’t easy. And we’re sure we’ve missed a few of the best.

But these are just some our favorite river songs of the moment.

So, for your own ranking pleasure, here are a butt-ton more river songs, separated (as best as we could) by theme.

Just keep in mind, many of these songs encompass a number of themes and their meanings are wide open to interpretation.

Love Songs to Rivers

River In The Rain (1985 Original Broadawy Cast)

1. River In The Rain (from Broadway’s Big River)

  • Songwriters: Roger Miller
  • Release Year: 1985
  • Album: Big River

2. Something’s Always Happening On The River (from Broadway’s Say, Darling)

  • Songwriters: Jule Styne, Betty Comden & Adolph Green
  • Release Year: 1958
  • Album: Say, Darling

3. Sitting by the Riverside – The Kinks

  • Songwriters: Ray Davies
  • Release Year: 1968
  • Album: The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society

Songs About Rivers As Home or A Place To Get Back To

1. The River’s Own – Chris Knight

  • Songwriters: Chris Knight
  • Release Year: 1998
  • Album: Chris Knight

2. Green River – Creedence Clearwater Revival

  • Songwriters: John Fogerty
  • Release Year: 1969
  • Album: Green River

3. Yellow River – Christie

  • Songwriters: Jeff Christie
  • Release Year: 1970
  • Album: Christie

4. Oh, Shenandoah (Standard)

Such a standard, it’s been sung by everyone from Judy Garland to Harry Belafonte to Bruce Springsteen to Celtic Woman.

  • Songwriters: Unknown
  • Release Year: Early-19th Century
  • Album: Folk Standard

5. The River – Bruce Springsteen

  • Songwriters: Bruce Springsteen
  • Release Year: 1981
  • Album: The River

6. The River – Dan Fogelberg

  • Songwriters: Dan Fogelberg
  • Release Year: 1972
  • Album: Home Free

7. On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away (Standard)

  • Songwriters: Paul Dresser
  • Release Year: 1897
  • Album: Popular Standard

8. River Song – Dennis Wilson

  • Songwriters: Dennis Wilson & Carl Wilson
  • Release Year: 1977
  • Album: Farewell My Friend

9. Tennessee River – Alabama

  • Songwriters: Randy Owen
  • Release Year: 1980
  • Album: My Home’s In Alabama

Songs About Rivers as Escape

The Byrds - Ballad of Easy Rider (1969)

1. Ballad of Easy Rider – The Byrds

  • Songwriters: Roger McGuinn
  • Release Year: 1969
  • Album: Easy Rider

2. River – Joni Mitchell

  • Songwriters: Joni Mitchell
  • Release Year: 1971
  • Album: Blue

3. Moon River

  • Songwriters: Henry Mancini & Johnny Mercer
  • Release Year: 1961
  • Album: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

4. Proud Mary – Creedence Clearwater Revival

  • Songwriters: John Fogerty
  • Release Year: 1969
  • Album: Bayou Country

5. Muddy Water (from Broadway’s Big River)

  • Songwriters: Roger Miller
  • Release Year: 1985
  • Album: Big River

6. River – Bill Staines

  • Songwriters: Bill Staines
  • Release Year: 1978
  • Album: The Whistle of the Jay

7. Just Around the Riverbend – Pocahontas

  • Songwriters: Alan Menken & Stephen Schwartz
  • Release Year: 1995
  • Album: Pocahontas

8. River Song – Charley Pride (from Tom Sawyer)

  • Songwriters: Robert B. Sherman & Richard M. Sherman
  • Release Year: 1973
  • Album: Tom Sawyer

Songs About Rivers as Spiritual Places & Places of Baptism

1. Wade In The Water (Standard)

  • Songwriters: Unknown
  • Release Year: 1901 (original publication)
  • Album: African American Spiritual Standard

2. Down By The River Side (Standard)

  • Songwriters: Unknown
  • Release Year: 1918 (original publication)
  • Album: African American Spiritual Standard

3. Rivers of Babylon – The Melodians

  • Songwriters: Brent Dowe & Trevor McNaughton
  • Release Year: 1970
  • Album: Rivers of Babylon

4. Deep River (Standard)

  • Songwriters: Unknown
  • Release Year: 1867 (original publication)
  • Album: African American Spiritual Standard

5. Baptize Me – Chelsea Amber

  • Songwriters: Chelsea Amber
  • Release Year: 2018
  • Album: Face the Waves

6. The River of Dreams – Billy Joel

  • Songwriters: Billy Joel
  • Release Year: 1993
  • Album: River of Dreams

7. Down To The River To Pray (Standard)

  • Songwriters: Unknown
  • Release Year: 1867 (original publication)
  • Album: Spiritual Standard

8. Take Me to the River – Al Green

  • Songwriters: Al Green & Mabon “Teenie” Hodges
  • Release Year: 1974
  • Album: Al Green Explores Your Mind

9. The River – Delta Goodrem

  • Songwriters: Delta Goodrem, David Hodges & Steven Solomon
  • Release Year: 2016
  • Album: Wings of the Wild

10. Many Rivers to Cross – Jimmy Cliff

  • Songwriters: Jimmy Cliff
  • Release Year: 1969
  • Album: Jimmy Cliff

11. River – Eminem ft. Ed Sheeran

  • Songwriters: Marshall Mathers, Ed Sheeran & Emile Haynie
  • Release Year: 2017
  • Album: Revival

12. The River – Good Charlotte ft. M. Shadows & Synyster Gates

  • Songwriters: Joel Madden & Benji Madden
  • Release Year: 2007
  • Album: Good Morning Revival

Songs About Rivers As Party Spots

Willie Jones - Down by the Riverside (Official Video)

1. Down by the Riverside – Willie Jones

  • Songwriters: Willie Jones, Joshua Logan & Jason Afable
  • Release Year: 2021
  • Album: Down by the Riverside (single)

2. Down By The Lazy River – The Osmonds

  • Songwriters: Alan Osmond & Merrill Osmond
  • Release Year: 1972
  • Album: Phase III

3. Black Water – The Doobie Brothers

  • Songwriters: Patrick Simmons
  • Release Year: 1974
  • Album: What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits

4. Chattahoochee – Alan Jackson

  • Songwriters: Alan Jackson & Jim McBride
  • Release Year: 1993
  • Album: A Lot About Livin’ (And a Little ‘bout Love)

Songs About Rivers as Carefree

1. River Roll On – The Judds

  • Songwriters: Brent Maher & Wayland Holyfield
  • Release Year: 1985
  • Album: Rockin’ With The Rhythm

2. Ol’ Man River (from Broadway’s Showboat)

  • Songwriters: Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein
  • Release Year: 1928
  • Album: Ol’ Man River (single)

3. Goin’ Down – The Monkees

A subversive entry, this song could easily be placed in the category of Songs About Rivers as Places of Death & Danger.

Instead, it takes you on the opposite journey of most of those songs, starting from a place of misery and ending with optimism.

It’s a pretty chill piece of songwriting.

  • Songwriters: Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Diane Hildebrand
  • Release Year: 1967
  • Album: Daydream Believer (single)

4. Night Boat to Cairo – Madness

  • Songwriters: Mike Barson & Graham McPherson
  • Release Year: 1979
  • Album: One Step Beyond…

Songs About Rivers as Places of Death & Danger

1. Ode To Billie Joe – Bobbie Gentry

  • Songwriters: Bobbie Gentry
  • Release Year: 1967
  • Album: Ode to Billie Joe

2. Five Feet High and Rising – Johnny Cash

  • Songwriters: Johnny Cash
  • Release Year: 1959
  • Album: Songs of Our Soil

3. Down the River – Chris Knight

  • Songwriters: Chris Knight
  • Release Year: 2001
  • Album: A Pretty Good Guy

4. Moody River – Pat Boone

  • Songwriters: Gary D. Bruce
  • Release Year: 1961
  • Album: Moody River

5. Kern River – Merle Haggard

  • Songwriters: Merle Haggard
  • Release Year: 1985
  • Album: Kern River

6. Down By The River – Neil Young

  • Songwriters: Neil Young
  • Release Year: 1969
  • Album: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere

7. Hazard – Richard Marx

  • Songwriters: Richard Marx
  • Release Year: 1992
  • Album: Rush Street

8. Patches – Dickey Lee

  • Songwriters: Barry Mann & Larry Kolber
  • Release Year: 1962
  • Album: The Tale of Patches

Songs With Rivers as Metaphors or Metaphoric Places

The River In Reverse

1. The River In Reverse – Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint

  • Songwriters: Elvis Costello
  • Release Year: 2006
  • Album: The River in Reverse

2. Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst) – Kathy Mattea

  • Songwriters: Bob McDill, Bucky Jones & Dickey Lee
  • Release Year: 1993
  • Album: Lonesome Standard Time

3. When the River Meets the Sea – (from Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas)

  • Songwriters: Paul Williams
  • Release Year: 1977
  • Album: Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas

4. Yes, The River Knows – The Doors

  • Songwriters: Jim Morrison, John Paul Densmore, Raymond D. Manzarek & Robby Krieger
  • Release Year: 1968
  • Album: Waiting for the Sun

5. The River Sings – Enya

We’ll just have to take her word for it…

  • Songwriters: Eithne Ni Bhraonain, Nicky Ryan & Roma Ryan
  • Release Year: 2005
  • Album: Amarantine

6. All Roads to the River – Janis Ian

  • Songwriters: Janis Ian & Jon Vezner
  • Release Year: 1993
  • Album: Breaking Silence

7. The River – Garth Brooks

  • Songwriters: Victoria Shaw & Garth Brooks
  • Release Year: 1992
  • Album: Ropin’ the Wind

8. Let the River Run – Carly Simon

  • Songwriters: Carly Simon
  • Release Year: 1989
  • Album: Working Girl

9. The River and the Highway – Pam Tillis

  • Songwriters: Gerry House & Don Schlitz
  • Release Year: 1996
  • Album: All of This Love

10. Hold Back the River – James Bay

  • Songwriters: Iain Archer & James Bay
  • Release Year: 2014
  • Album: Chaos and the Calm

11. Whiskey River – Johnny Bush

  • Songwriters: Johnny Bush & Paul Stroud
  • Release Year: 1972
  • Album: Whiskey River

12. River Euphrates – Pixies

  • Songwriters: David Faragher, John Hickman & David Lowery
  • Release Year: 1988
  • Album: Surfer Rosa

13. Satan’s River – Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton

  • Songwriters: Porter Wagoner
  • Release Year: 1973
  • Album: We Found It

Songs With Rivers as Metaphors for Love (Good & Bad)

1. Every River – Kim Richey

  • Songwriters: Kim Richey, Tom Littlefield & Angelo Petraglia
  • Release Year: 1997
  • Album: Bitter Sweet

2. ‘Til the Rivers All Run Dry – Don Williams

  • Songwriters: Don Williams & Wayland Holyfield
  • Release Year: 1975
  • Album: Harmony

3. River of Love – Dana Glover

  • Songwriters: Dana Glover
  • Release Year: 2002
  • Album: Testimony

4. That Was A River – Collin Raye

  • Songwriters: Rick Giles & Susan Longacre
  • Release Year: 1993
  • Album: In This Life

5. Watching the River Run – Loggins & Messina

  • Songwriters: Jim Messina & Kenny Loggins
  • Release Year: 1973
  • Album: Full Sail

6. I Am A River – Foo Fighters

  • Songwriters: Dave Grohl, Oliver Hawkins, Nate Mendel, Christopher Shiflett & Pat Smear
  • Release Year: 2014
  • Album: Sonic Highways

7. You Are the River – Chely Wright

  • Songwriters: Chely Wright & Edie Carey
  • Release Year: 2016
  • Album: I Am the Rain

8. Blue River – Elvis Presley

  • Songwriters: Paul Evans & Fred Tobias
  • Release Year: 1967
  • Album: Double Trouble

9. River of You  – Trisha Yearwood

  • Songwriters: Leslie Satcher & Marv Green
  • Release Year: 2005
  • Album: Jasper County

10. River – Bishop Briggs

  • Songwriters: Bishop Briggs, Mark Jackson & Ian Scott
  • Release Year: 2016
  • Album: Church of Scars

11. Down by the River – Milky Chance

  • Songwriters: Clemens Rehbein & Philipp Dausch
  • Release Year: 2014
  • Album: Sadnecessary

12. Love Like a River – Girls

  • Songwriters: Christopher Owens
  • Release Year: 2011
  • Album: Father, Son, Holy Ghost

13. River Lea – Adele

  • Songwriters: Adele Adkins & Brian Burton
  • Release Year: 2015
  • Album: 25

14. The River – Breed 77

  • Songwriters: Pedro Caparros Lopez, Stuart Cavilla, Danny Felice & Paul Isola
  • Release Year: 2004
  • Album: Cultura

15. Big River – Johnny Cash

  • Songwriters: Johnny Cash
  • Release Year: 1958
  • Album: Johnny Cash Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous

And there you have it. More than 85 songs about rivers that are definitely worth some ear-time.

So, smooth waters and happy listening!

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