Rivers run their way through American music. Beyond lyric and metaphor, what can natural rivers tell us about what makes a great song?
At the famous “meeting of the waters”, near the city of Manaus, Brazil, the cafe-o-light-colored Solimões River meets the espresso Rio Negro. At first, the streams of water flow side by side in polite parallel, like opposing bars on a flag, before the first tentative eddies form. A few miles downstream, the Amazon, born of its bright and dark tributaries, is fully mixed. But while it looks uniform, the Amazon still bears the chemical signature of its opposite parts and the soil from which they emerged: light-colored sand and mud from the Andes mountains in Solimões, dark tannins from forested swamps in Negros.
And so, a great river is made up of the varied inputs of all that have drained into it, blending them together, even as its legacy components remain detectable to those who look beneath the surface.
As with a great song. Absorbing various influences (derived from Latin influence or “flowing in”), a great song combines them into something recognizably new. Yet the constituent parts are still there, chemical traces of the sonic terrain traveling from its tributaries.
These musical musings of a river scientist were inspired by a wonderful song, aptly titled “River”, by Jason Isbell. Beyond his contribution to the river song tradition, this is the kind of writing we need today—songs that bring together, in a more perfect union, cultural strains that might otherwise drain too quickly into polarized channels.
How Jason Isbell’s ‘River’ unites the two tributaries of the river song tradition
People have been writing poems and songs about rivers since, well, the beginning (Genesis 2:10: “Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden”).
And since then, songs about rivers can be roughly divided into two biblically themed tributaries: 1) those about sinners, disasters, and punishments, and 2) those about redemption, grace, and generosity.
On “River”, from the 2020 album Reunions, Jason Isbell gathers the tributaries into a blended new channel, creating something of an Amazon River for American river songs.
To understand what Isbell has done, consider the fractured lyrical landscapes from which river songs flow (here’s a Spotify playlist of those songs).
On the one hand, rivers punish, disrupt and destroy. They catch fire (“Burn On”), flood (“When the Levee Breaks”, “Louisiana 1927”) and wipe out entire towns (“Night of the Johnstown Flood”). The murders take place on their banks (“Down by the River” and “Banks of the Ohio”), as does a gunfight that claims the life of a headstrong boy (“Powerderfinger”). When dammed, they flood valleys and cause social displacement and suicide (“Uncle Frank”). And, tragically, it is the canals where the bodies float as a grim rebuke to a society that has turned its back on immigrants (“Banks of Matamoros”).
On the other hand, rivers bless and redeem. It’s where you go to be cleansed (“Take Me to the River”) and washed free of sin (“Down to the River to Pray,” “The River Jordan” and “Meet Me by the River’s Edge”). They offer refuge in a life of chaos (“River Song”) and the ultimate destination as life ends (“Find the River”). In the service of people, they bring light to darkness (“Roll on Columbia”) and lift entire regions out of poverty (“TVA”).
American river songs tend to flow into one tributary or another. So “The River” can be a refuge from life’s challenges (Bruce Springsteen’s song of that title) or it can be where the weight of small-town sin and crisis drives a young woman to kill herself ( Audra Mae’s “The River”, with dark tributary echoes of Dolly Parton’s “The Bridge” from 1968).
Rarely, if ever, does a song attempt to combine the tributaries of darkness and light for a lyrical meeting of the waters.
With “River,” Jason Isbell did just that.
River as Savior, River as Criminal
The song opens in the gentle streams of tributary light:
The river is my savior, because it was a cloud…
and even when it dries up, a thousand years from now,
I will lie down next to her and call her name out loud.’
Then the first, trial mixing of light and dark waters:
The river is my savior, the only one I will ever need
I wash my head when I sin, I wash my joints when they bleed
Hmm, we can recognize the river in its familiar role as a purifier of sin. But then: Why are his knuckles still bleeding?
Subsequently, the river transforms from a redemptive refuge to a crime scene, a turbulent lyrical confrontation. its sonic equivalent would be dropping Neil Young’s dissonant guitar solo from “Down by the River” into the middle of Alison Krauss’s ethereal “Down to the River to Pray.”
The river hears my secrets, things I cannot tell a soul
Like the children I orphaned and the property I stole
The neighbor who asked questions, until he washed up in the herd…
We now sink into the dark tributary, enveloped in a miasma of crime and death. Even more, the river is more than a scene of crime, it is an active accomplice to crime:
Protect me from my neighbor, all his jealousy and greed
Take the body to the delta, hide the gun in the weeds
In this narrative, the river helps the murderer by disposing of the body and hiding the murder weapon in its tangled riparian vegetation.
From this dark place begins the meeting of the waters.
The narrator becomes increasingly lost and haunted, unable to sleep or protect his family from his rage. So he turns back to the river, recognizing that he was complicit in sin only because he did so, and that his body can follow the same flow path downstream to redemption.
The river is my savior, it runs into the sea
And to reach its destination is simply to cease to be
And running until you’re nothing is a lot like being free
So I’ll lie inside her and let her carry me
This is not a river as a redeemer of sin through a pleasant cleansing. No, redemption and peace can only be achieved through the narrator’s total commitment. And while the song stems from an American form traditionally steeped in Judeo-Christian imagery of sin and redemption, the resolution in “River” comes down to a very Buddhist construct: eternity and peace as nothing. With this image, Isbell merges more than the dark and bright tributaries of American river songs, but connects the form to an even broader tradition: Rivers are sources of life and sacredness for almost all cultures and religions.
As a river scientist, I must add that “River” is the most hydrologically accurate river song I’ve come across, its narrative arc tracing the cycle of water from cloud to river to delta to sea. The song’s lyrics are full of references to places and actions that function as much as story elements as fluvial forms and processes—a poet might recognize their meaning, but so could a fluvial geomorphologist. In a river, shoals are where the energy of the flow falls, allowing sand and gravel to be deposited. In “River”, a herd is also where the bodies are deposited.
Did Isbell intend to achieve such scientific accuracy as well as a historical union of the two tributaries of the American river song tradition? I don’t really know — but it’s consistent with his overall songwriting style to embrace complexity and combine elements from across the sonic and cultural landscape. He was a member of the Drive-by Truckers when they tackled the full complexity of hydroelectric dams, rivers and people through a pair of songs (one from each of the dark and light tributaries of the river songs above). In “TVA” they celebrated how dams can electrify rural areas and bring widespread economic recovery, while in “Uncle Frank” they showed how the development of dams, including dams built by TVA, can cause hardship to those displaced by the rising tanks. There is truth in both songs and value in the exposure to these different perspectives.
“River” and so many other songs in Isbell’s catalog draw their inspiration from different parts of our culture’s increasingly fractured terrain—and flow toward a place beyond that fracture. They exemplify what author David Brooks has called a “grand synthesis that can take us across today’s divide.” As the culture wars take hold, songs play a role in forging this kind of composition, including those evoked by great rivers and their ability to merge unified channels of flow from disparate sources.