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10+ Powerfully Moving Songs About Rivers

I grew up in the "classic rock" era, but I love music of every genre. I love sharing my old favorites while still discovering new artists.


A river has the power to move boulders and cut through mountains. Rivers have been an important way for people to travel since before the invention of modern machinery. They have the power to turn darkness into light.

They also have the power to touch our hearts and move our emotions. That power has moved many to write songs about rivers.

  1. Alison Krauss: “Down in the River to Pray”
  2. Sammy Davis Jr: “Ol’ Man River”
  3. Grateful Dead: “Big River”
  4. Talking Heads: “Take Me to the River”
  5. Doobie Brothers: “Black Water”
  6. Country Joe: “Roll on Columbia”
  7. The Kingston Trio: “Oh Shenandoah” or "Across the Wide Missouri"
  8. Andy Williams: “Moon River”
  9. Willie Nelson: “Whiskey River”
  10. Kate Wolf: “Like a River”
  11. Bonus Song

1. Alison Krauss: “Down in the River to Pray”

Artist: Alison Krauss
Album: Oh Brother Where Art Thou
Released: 2000

When Alison Krauss sings "Down in the River to Pray" a capella, her voice is musical perfection. For any who doubt why she is the female artist with most wins in Grammy history, they only have to listen to this angelic vocal performance.

The song is off of the soundtrack to the movie "Oh Brother Where Art Thou." The soundtrack is an integral part of the movie. The album was actually recorded before filming the movie.

The song, also called "Down to the River to Pray," "Down in the Valley to Pray," "The Good Old Way," and "Come, Let Us All Go Down," is a traditional American song. It likely was composed by an African-American slave. The exact origins are unknown.

2. Sammy Davis Jr: “Ol' Man River”

Artist: Sammy Davis Jr.
Album: Sammy Davis Jr. at Town Hall
Released: 1958

I knew I had to have this song on the list. I just didn't know which version I would use. While I was trying to decide I discovered this version. What a singer, with an incredible voice. I love this fantastic performance. I love Paul Robeson's version. It is very moving, but it is so slow and feels very old-fashioned. I was just looking for something a little different, but maybe not as different as The Beach Boy's rendition.

Sammy Davis Jr. doesn't try to sing like Robeson. He makes this song his own, but gives it just as much emotion as Robeson did.

3. Grateful Dead: “Big River”

Artist: Grateful Dead
Album: Steal Your Face
Released: 1976

The Grateful Dead had two wonderful River songs. The other one is, of course, "Black Muddy River." I love both of them, but somehow "Big River" is the one that brings back the most memories for me.

Johnny Cash wrote and originally recorded "Big River" in 1958.

4. Talking Heads: “Take Me to the River”

Artist: Talking Heads
Album: More Songs About Buildings and Food
Released: 1978

Al Green originally recorded “Take Me to the River” for his 1974 album, Al Green Explores Your Mind. Al Green wrote the lyrics and he collaborated with Mabon Hodges on the music. In 1978 it was a breakthrough single for Talking Heads.

David Byrne reworked the song without sacrificing its funk. The Talking Heads slowed the tempo and made the song their own. Green approved and jokingly commented that he hoped to cover one of Talking Heads' songs one day.

5. Doobie Brothers: “Black Water”

Artist: Doobie Brothers
Album: What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits
Released: 1974

"Black Water" has a laid-back vibe and a more bluegrass-influenced sound than the Doobie Brother’s early hits like “Long Train Runnin'' and “China Grove.”

The song speaks of floating down the Mississippi River on a homemade raft. A delicate acoustic guitar and Appalachian strings support the laconic melody. If you have ever spent an afternoon floating down a lazy river, you will relate to the lyric "I ain't got no worries / 'Cause I ain't in no hurry at all."

When it came out in 1974, it did not sound like anything else on the radio. It has been one of the Doobie Brothers' signature songs for almost 45 years.

6. Country Joe: “Roll on Columbia”

Artist: Country Joe
Album: Thinking of Woody Guthrie!
Released: 1969

I have always loved this song and found it quite inspiring. Apparently, Country Joe felt the same way. His rendition of the song is very faithful to the original.

Woody Guthrie's most passionate cause was the plight of the worker during the Great Depression. During that time the building of the Grand Coulee Dam across the Columbia river provided employment to many in need, as well as providing irrigation and electricity for the area.

The dam had unforeseen negative consequences for Native Americans whose traditional way of life revolved around salmon fishing. The dam does not have a fish ladder, so it blocks fish migration. It also flooded the lands of indigenous people and did not provide them with the electricity they were promised for their cooperation. Besides all of that, the nature of the Columbia River was forever changed.

Woody Guthrie of course, wrote this song and it was included on his album “Dust Bowl Ballads” in 1940. I used Country Joe's version here mostly because all of the recordings I could find of Woody's version were very scratchy and the audio was not good.

7. The Kingston Trio: “Oh Shenandoah” or “Across the Wide Missouri”

Artist: The Kingston Trio
Album: Here We Go Again!
Released: 1959

This song has been recorded an unbelievable number of times. It was hard to single out any one of them to feature here. In the end, I think I chose this one because it is the first one I ever heard, so it stuck with me.

This is a traditional American folk song. It originated with American and Canadian fur traders working along the Missouri River in the 1800s.

8. Andy Williams: “Moon River”

Artist: Andy Williams
Album: Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes.
Released: 1962

“Moon River” is a lovely song. Audrey Hepburn's original version of this in Breakfast at Tiffany's is quite beautiful, sweet and touching.

I have listened to Frank Ocean's version. I am so glad he is bringing this iconic song to a new generation. Still, to me it does not compare.

There is so much power in Andy Williams' voice, and I so remember him starting his TV show with it each week. I just had to choose this version of the song for my list.

Henry Mancini composed “Moon River,” with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.