Skip to main content

10 Songs About the Mississippi River

Harry has been an online writer for many years. His articles examine New World history and its resulting traditions.

This late 19th century lithograph depicts a steamboat race on the Mississippi River.

This late 19th century lithograph depicts a steamboat race on the Mississippi River.

The Mississippi River is unquestionably the most important waterway in American history. It begins at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, three hours from the Canadian border, and dumps into the Gulf of Mexico, an hour and a half south of New Orleans. It literally separates the eastern half of the U.S. from the west.

That "Ol' Man River" has inspired numerous songs is unsurprising. Whether it's a direct reference to The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the river as metaphor for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or the river as metaphor for ceaseless inevitability, the Mississippi is an American icon. Like New York City, "The Great River" is often a character in songs; here are ten of the best.

10 Mississippi River Songs

1. "Ol Man River"—Paul Robeson
2. "High Water Everywhere"—Charley Patton
3. "When The Levee Breaks"—Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy
4. "Mississippi River Blues"—Jimmie Rodgers
5. "Mississippi River Blues"—Big Bill Broonzy
6. "Proud Mary"—CCR
7. "Proud Mary"—Ike & Tina Turner
8. "Evangeline"—The Band w/Emmylou Harris
9. "Old Time River Man"—John Hartford
10. "Catfish John"—Alison Krauss w/The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

1. "Ol Man River"—Paul Robeson

When Paul Robeson lays his baritone into "Ol' Man River," he's not just some dockworker complaining about the heat. He's revealing the painful truth of the African-American experience, forever existing in the shadow of white hypocrisy.

Show Boat: A Revolutionary Musical

The musical Show Boat premiered on Broadway in late 1927, running for a year and a half and inspiring hundreds of revivals. The story covers the years 1887 to 1927 and follows the lives of performers, stagehands, and dock workers on a Mississippi River show boat known as the Cotton Blossom. Featuring music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, this was a revolutionary theater experience.

As Jeff Lunden of NPR wrote in 2000:

Show Boat was unlike any musical before it. Based on Edna Ferber's novel of the same name, the show unflinchingly dealt with themes like race relations, middle-age disappointment with young love, and the ravaging effects of alcoholism. It was also one of the first Broadway shows to feature an integrated cast, all this when the average musical was little more than frivolous entertainment.

2. "High Water Everywhere"—Charley Patton

Following are two blues songs about The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, both written and recorded by blues musicians who lived along the river. "High Water Everywhere" was recorded in 1929 by Mississippi Delta blues legend, Charlie Patton. Broken into two parts, the song tracks the flood's devastation in multiple communities (Leland, Greenville, Rosedale, and Blytheville).

3. "When The Levee Breaks"—Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy

The second song, "When The Levee Breaks," is known worldwide for Led Zeppelin's 1971 cover. And while no one can deny John Bonham's massive drum sound, the original recording showcases Memphis Minnie's delicate fingerpicking in a country blues arrangement. Her soon-to-be husband, Kansas Joe McCoy, handles lead vocals and rhythm guitar, but Minnie's lead guitar is the highlight. She doesn't get enough credit for being a superlative singer, songwriter, performer, and guitarist. You can make an argument that Memphis Minnie was Sister Rosetta Tharpe before Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

4. "Mississippi River Blues"—Jimmie Rodgers

Around 1930, two musicians—one white and one black—recorded very different tunes with the same title. In 1929, Jimmie Rodgers, also known as "The Singing Brakeman," recorded his country version of "Mississippi River Blues." Born in Meridian, Mississippi, Rodgers is very much the "Father of Country Music," a singer-songwriter who incorporated blues, dixieland, and a healthy amount of yodeling into his country repertoire.

5. "Mississippi River Blues"—Big Bill Broonzy

A few years later, in 1934, Big Bill Broonzy put out a delta blues version of a song entitled "Mississippi River Blues." Interestingly, Broozny later wrote two songs about the 1937 floods along the Ohio River: "Terrible Flood Blues" and "Southern Flood Blues." He also recorded Bessie Smith’s 1927 classic, “Back Water Blues,” arguably the definitive blues song about the Great Flood.

6. "Proud Mary"—CCR

Creedence Clearwater Revival may have been from California's East Bay, but few bands have better captured southern moods. Nowhere is this more evident than in their huge hit, "Proud Mary," a song that features a ride on a Mississippi River steamboat.

Big wheel keep on turnin'

Proud Mary keep on burnin'

Rollin', rollin', rollin' on the river

— John Fogerty

7. "Proud Mary"—Ike & Tina Turner

However, it was the music of Ike and Tina Turner that truly defined this timeless classic. "Proud Mary" went from a jaunty rock 'n' roller to sexy and triumphant.

8. "Evangeline"—The Band w/Emmylou Harris

"Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie" was first memorized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in an epic poem, written back in 1847. Since then, the lengthy narrative poem has become an American classic, memorializing the name of Evangeline for centuries to come. Then, some one hundred years later, The Band recreated the sad story of this Acadian exile in a song performed by The Band and Emmylou Harris for The Last Waltz.

Evangeline, Evangeline

Curses the soul of the Mississippi Queen

That pulled her man away

— Robbie Robertson, The Band

9. "Old Time River Man"—John Hartford

For many boatmen, the Mississippi River and those distinctive paddle steamers have an existential appeal, especially when you were raised in St. Louis like Hartford. He expounded on his philosophy in the existential ballad, "Old Time River Man."

Does his soul live on in the engine's soul

While the striker checks the gears?

Is he still afloat on an old steam boat

After he's gone from here?

— John Hartford

If you know John Hartford, it's probably from his song, "Gentle On My Mind," famously covered by Glen Campbell in 1967. Though it wasn't a smash hit in the traditional sense, it became one of Campbell's signature tunes, which meant that Hartford started seeing hefty royalty checks. In the wake of this songwriting success, he became a licensed Mississippi River boat pilot, which he explains in the video above.

10. "Catfish John"—Alison Krauss w/The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

"Catfish John" is a slave narrative written in 1972 by Bob McDill and Allen Reynolds for McDill's Short Stories album. His version didn't make much of a dent, but when Johnny Russell not only covered it, but made it the title track of his 1973 album, that version peaked at #12 on the country charts. Since then, "Catfish John" has been recorded by many artists, including Jerry Garcia, reggae artist Toots Hibbert, and Alison Krauss and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose poetic rendition of the song is featured here.

7 More Songs About the Mississippi River

I know, ten songs isn't nearly enough! Here are seven more to guide you down the Mississippi. All links to YouTube.

  1. Joe Bonamassa, "High Water Everywhere"
  2. Led Zeppelin, "When The Levee Breaks"
  3. Zepparella (all-female Zep cover band), "When The Levee Breaks"
  4. Bottle Rockets, "Get Down River"
  5. Johnny Cash, "Big River"
  6. Fandango, "River Boat Song" [JJ Cale cover]
  7. JJ Cale, "River Boat Song"
The Mississippi River Basin, the second-largest drainage system on the North American continent, second only to Hudson Bay.

The Mississippi River Basin, the second-largest drainage system on the North American continent, second only to Hudson Bay.

Mississippi Pre-History

To the indigenous tribes of pre-Columbian America, the Mississippi River was known by many different names. The Kiowa called it Xosau. The Pawnee called it Kickaátit. The Choctaw called it Misha Sipokni. But, it was the Ojibwe tribe who gave the river its most enduring name. They called it Misi-Ziibi for "great river."

In the late 17th century, French explorers René-Robert Cavelier (better known by his title, La Salle) and Henri de Tonti translated that Ojibwe word as Michi Sepe. In 1798, Congress applied the Ojibwe name of the river to the newly-christened Mississippi Territory, organized from lands inhabited by the Natchez, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes. The state itself was formally admitted into the union in 1817.

The Mississippi River is the second longest river in the United States, 2,340 miles from its source in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to its mouth in southern Louisiana. It's been estimated that the Mississippi watershed occupies about one-eighth of the North American continent, draining all or parts of 32 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 killed 500 people, displaced more than 700,000, and caused close to $1 billion in damage.

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 killed 500 people, displaced more than 700,000, and caused close to $1 billion in damage.

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927

There's a reason that The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 inspired some of the most powerful blues and folk music ever heard. The rains began falling in the summer of 1926 and did not cease until the following August. The worst part of the flood came in April 1927, when a whole series of levees from Illinois to Louisiana gave way. The flooded river was reportedly 80 miles wide at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and covered 16 million acres of land. In total, 640,000 people were displaced, with African-American communities particularly hard hit.

The flood spurred a mass migration of black Americans from the flooded areas of the south to the large, industrial cities of the north. Simultaneously, the Republican Party's response to the disaster was so dismal—most visibly represented by President Herbert Hoover—that his 1928 presidential campaign began the shift of African-Americans from the Republican Party to the Democratic.

Questions & Answers

Question: Does the 'Deep River Blues' have something to do with the 1927 flood?

Answer: Since the Deep River is the actual name of a river in North Carolina, I seriously doubt there is any connection between the two.

© 2019 Harry Nielsen