Long and awe-inspiring bodies of water, rivers are often associated with beauty, peace, and danger. Rivers have played a part in human society for thousands of years, so it’s no wonder why they’re in so much of our art.
Songs centered on them are often about specific places, such as rivers they miss from home or somewhere in large cities everyone feels connected. Others invite the listener on a journey down its choppy waters or sometimes just invite the listener to take a long look at their reflection.
In this guide, we’ll take a look at 21 of the best songs about rivers.
1. “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Proud Mary” is perhaps the most iconic song about rivers, telling the story of someone abandoning city life and taking a riverboat ride. The title references the name of the boat that takes the singer on a life-changing experience.
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s frontman John Fogerty originally wrote the lyrics about a down-on-her-luck maid. Bassist Stu Cook supposedly came up with the idea for the song to take place on a river while watching the show Maverick.
Ike & Tina Turner later recorded a cover of “Proud Mary,” which they won a Grammy Award for in 1972. Many other artists have covered it, including Solomon Burke, Checkmates Ltd, and the TV series Glee.
2. “Moon River” by Audrey Hepburn
“Moon River” is an Academy Award and two-time Grammy Award-winning song from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote “Moon River” about the many bodies of water around his childhood home in Georgia.
Hepburn’s love interest catches her singing this gentle lullaby about home part way through Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It has since been covered by Frank Sinatra, Frank Ocean, Dave Koz, and Reneé Dominique.
According to Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn, a Paramount Pictures executive wanted to cut “Moon River” from the movie. Furious, Hepburn insisted the song would be cut “over [her] dead body!”
3. “Mouth of the River” by Imagine Dragons
“Mouth of the River” is an upbeat Imagine Dragons song about overcoming depression. The song describes a river reaching a sea, symbolizing a long journey reaching fulfillment. While the river was rough, rocky, and claustrophobic, this larger body of water lets them actually be happy.
Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds had reportedly been struggling with depression for some time when writing this song. “Mouth of the River” expressed some of his greatest struggles like his anxiety, self-destructive tendencies, and sense of self-importance. The song was released on the album Evolve.
4. “The River” by Bruce Springsteen
The title song of his 1980 album, “The River” is a deeply meaningful Springsteen song about income inequality. It centers on a young couple who loved going down to the river. But after she becomes pregnant, the two reassess their lives and enter an unending workflow that never truly pays the bills. The titular river becomes a place where they can escape, albeit briefly.
Springsteen’s sister and brother-in-law inspired the story of “The River.” During concerts, Springsteen would often dedicate the track to unions and their workers. During the song’s intro, he would sometimes call for the working class to unite and stand up for themselves.
5. “The River of Dreams” by Billy Joel
“The River of Dreams” is one of many Billy Joel songs focused on the iconic singer’s imagination. It depicts Joel walking at night across rivers and mountains in search of something. However, he doesn’t even know what he’s looking for.
Joel plays this track in a gospel style, which is very different from most of his other music. The song takes on many religious themes, despite Joel being an avowed atheist himself.
As a phrase, “river of dreams” is supposed to be a replacement for “stream of consciousness.” The river symbolizes Joel’s thought process in searching for answers. Much of Joel’s album River of Dreams took on similarly serious themes.
6. “Down by the River” by Neil Young
“Down by the River” tells the story of a man who supposedly killed his significant other by the river after learning she cheated on him. The song is a metaphor for destroying a relationship or ruining your chances at love, often due to anger.
Neil Young wrote “Down by the River” for his album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. The beat of this song is both gentle and violent. At some moments, the guitar plays quietly in a staccato style. Then, quite suddenly, the guitar plays ferociously and loudly.
7. “Following the River” by The Rolling Stones
Musically speaking, “Following the River” was written by The Rolling Stones several decades ago. This piano-led ballad started as an instrumental track that neither Mick Jagger nor the other band members knew what to do with.
So, it stayed in the band’s archive until 2010 when Jagger finally added lyrics. The song is now about saying goodbye to someone you love, possibly by choice. In the song, the narrator observes that they have been following the river all the way to the sea.
As they do, they cannot stop dwelling on the other person. Even though they’re being carried away, they’ll still always think of their love.
8. “Red River” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Tom Petty’s “Red River” is an easy-going rock song about looking past blind faith to find yourself. The subject of the song has a photo of Jesus, a rosary, a rabbit’s foot, a tiger’s tooth, and many other religious and spiritual objects. Nevertheless, she still feels disconnected from her soul until she looks into her reflection at the Red River.
Petty wrote “Red River” three years before his death. In an interview with USA Today, Petty stated he is not personally religious and wrote the song as a question of other people’s faith. He wondered why people wouldn’t quit a “club” that has caused almost “every war that’s gone down” and embodies this question throughout the lyrics.
9. “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon
“Let the River Run” was written by Carly Simon for the 1988 movie Working Girl, starring Sigourney Weaver, Melanie Griffith, and Harrison Ford. The song won successful nominations at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and Grammys. It was the first song written by a singular artist to win all three awards.
The lyrics are a beautiful and honest homage to New York City. It praises the city for its beauty and being a place for dreamers, but also acknowledges the pain it takes to endure this city. “Let the River Run” delves into the aching anxiety that being in a busy world makes us feel. Regardless, we all have to keep moving like the river.
10. “Take Me to the River” by Al Green
“Take Me to the River” is an upbeat soul song about sin and rebirth. Its story follows a man who finds himself in the middle of thievery, cigarettes, and trouble in pursuit of love. In the chorus, the man yearns to be dropped in the water and have that life washed off of him—a metaphor for baptism.
Al Green grew up in a particularly religious family. Even in adulthood, Green’s family did not want him singing anything that wasn’t gospel or soul. “Take Me to the River” was one of Green’s songs that fell somewhere in between family expectations and the music he wanted to make.
Covers of “Take Me to the River” have been recorded or performed by Talking Heads, the Dave Matthews Band, Bruce Springsteen, Eva Cassidy, the Grateful Dead, Courtney Love, and Annie Lennox. It is also one of the most-used songs for Big Mouth Billy Bass speakers.
11. “Watching the River Flow” by Bob Dylan
“Watching the River Flow” is a medium-paced blues-rock about having nothing to say while watching the river flow by. The song is believed to be about singer and songwriter Bob Dylan’s writer’s block.
Dylan’s career had taken on a political spin at the time, which added a lot of weight to a writer’s words when you know so many eyes are on you. In the song, Dylan wishes things were back to the way they were. Dylan has performed “Watching the River Flow” at over 500 shows since 1978.
12. “Back to the River” by Susan Tedeschi
The title track of her seventh studio album, “Back to the River” is a blues-rock song by Susan Tedeschi. The singer of the song is far away from their home on the river and all they can think of is going back.
Stylistically, “Back to the River” may take inspiration from a few other memorable songs. For example, the intro is very reminiscent of the opening guitar riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” The melody of the main verses is very similar to that of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious.” Tedeschi admitted to being rushed when writing this song.
13. “Yes, The River Knows” by The Doors
“Yes, The River Knows” is a slow and somber song about drowning. The song was written by The Doors’ guitarist Robby Krieger and recorded for their third album Waiting for the Sun.
The song repeatedly mentions that the river has softly called to them. As “Yes, The River Knows” goes on, the singer mentions making a promise to drown themself in wine. Because of the nature of the lyrics, this song is believed to be about suicide. One line even mentions breathing underwater ”‘til the end.”
14. “River Euphrates” by Pixies
The Pixies are an alternative rock band best known for writing songs about sex, both implicitly and explicitly. “River Euphrates” is no exception. This rockin’ song takes the listener on a long ride down the Euphrates, the largest river in Western Asia.
The lyrics cleverly use the Euphrates River to make a variety of innuendos, with some being self-explanatory and some being best left to the imagination. “River Euphrates” was released on the Pixies’ first full-length album Surfer Rosa, which won multiple “Album of the Year” awards in the UK.
15. “River” by Joni Mitchell
“River” is a slow, piano-led Christmas song by Joni Mitchell about a breakup. The singer has trouble coping with everyone around her celebrating peace and joy for the holidays, unable to feel that herself. She wishes she was next to a river she could use to escape these horrible feelings.
Mitchell wrote “River” to be a Christmas song that could resonate with those who are lonely during the festive period. It was originally released on Mitchell’s fourth studio album Blue. “River” has since been covered by Barry Manilow, James Taylor, Judy Collins, Ben Platt, Sam Smith, Sarah McLachlan, Ellie Goulding, and Pentatonix.
16. “Big River” by Johnny Cash
“Big River” is a steady-paced country-blues song by Johnny Cash about going after love by the Mississippi River. It tells the story of a man who falls in love with a Southern woman. He follows her to the Mississippi River but can’t find her. Left devastated, his tears only add to the water.
Cash supposedly came up with the idea for “Big River” after reading a newspaper headline that said, “Johnny Cash Has the Big River Blues in His Voice.” According to Cash, “Big River” was originally intended to be a slow, devastating blues song, but record producers preferred the up-tempo recording.
17. “Ballad of Easy Rider” by Roger McGuinn
Roger McGuinn wrote “Ballad of Easy Rider” for the 1969 movie Easy Rider starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson. Fonda, who also produced and co-wrote Easy Rider, initially wanted Bob Dylan to write the movie’s song.
Dylan instead wrote a few of the lyrics on a napkin and told Fonda to give that to McGuinn, saying, “he’ll know what to do with it.” Dylan was credited as a co-writer in early cuts of the movie and reportedly demanded his name be removed. It was believed he was not fond of the movie’s ending.
Lyrically, “Ballad of Easy Rider” is a simple and peaceful song. The singer wants the river to take him away to somewhere new. He doesn’t care if the river only takes him to the next town or sea—he just wants to be part of its flow.
18. “River Lea” by Adele
The real-life River Lea lies between the boroughs of Tottenham and Walthamstow in London where Adele grew up. “River Lea” was released on Adele’s third studio album 25 right after the song “Water Under the Bridge.”
The lyrics detail Adele’s upbringing and the perseverance of her character. Even with everyone telling her to change or move on, Adele still holds the water of the River Lea in her heart.
Water pollution is referenced in the song, which she blames the pain in her heart on. Though she won’t forever be a child, the child that walked along that river lives on within her.
19. “I Am a River” by Foo Fighters
From the Foo Fighters’ eighth album Sonic Highways, “I Am a River” is an alternative rock song about Minetta Creek, a “secret river” that runs underneath New York City. Each song of Sonic Highways was recorded in a different state, with “I Am a River” having been appropriately recorded in New York.
Foo Fighters frontman and songwriter Dave Grohl explained that he was in awe over the idea of a river underneath all of New York City. Grohl immediately felt connected to this “natural and prehistoric” river and felt as though it linked all of New York’s residents.
20. “The Riverbank” by Paul Simon
Paul Simon was reportedly inspired to write “The Riverbank” after attending the funeral of a teacher killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting. He was also inspired to write it after visiting wounded veterans. “The Riverbank” was released on Simon’s 13th solo album Stranger to Stranger, which consisted of many experimental tracks.
The song is upbeat rhythmically but very dark lyrically. It discusses a school being tragically closed (presumably after a shooting), a suicidal veteran, and a grieving mother. Everyone finds solace at the bank of the river, where they can all shed tears in peace and solitude.
21. “Whiskey River” by Johnny Bush
“Whiskey River” is a roots country song co-written and recorded by Johnny Bush. The song was most popularly performed in 1978 by Willie Nelson, whom Bush was good friends with. Nelson opened most of his shows with “Whiskey River,” which became one of his signature tunes.
The song has somber themes, with a focus on alcoholism and addiction. Lyrics tell of a singer who is partway through a bottle of whiskey and wishes it will never run dry. Should the whiskey ever run out, the singer has no idea how he’ll get by.
Falling into a river can begin an exciting adventure or be a terrifying experience. These songs about rivers explored just about every nook-and-cranny that river metaphors can explore.
Which songs about rivers do you think best exemplify these bodies of water? What songs did we miss? If you were to write a song about rivers, what emotions would you draw from?