10+ Moving Songs About Rivers

Updated on June 18, 2020
Sherry Hewins profile image

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 to 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”

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.

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

2. Sammy Davis Jr: “Ol' Man River”

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.

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

3. Grateful Dead: “Big River”

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.

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

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

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 redid 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.

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

5. Doobie Brothers: “Black Water”

"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 related 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.

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

6. Country Joe: “Roll on Columbia”

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.

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

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

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.

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

8. Andy Williams: “Moon River”

“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.

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

9. Willie Nelson: “Whiskey River”

When I remember the joy of my first acquaintance with the music of Willie Nelson, back in the early '70s, the album Shotgun Willie, and the song “Whiskey River” topped the list. After decades in the music business, it was just at the beginning of Willie’s sudden rise to super stardom.

Listening to it now, I am just drifting along on those lovely, amber currents. In my mind, this is really the best of the old Outlaw.

Johnny Bush and Paul Stroud wrote the song. Johnny Bush recorded it himself in 1972.

Artist: Willie Nelson
Album: Shotgun Willie
Released: 1973

10. Kate Wolf: “Like a River”

This song is not really about a river, but it is like a river. It reminds me of sitting on a hillside above the beautiful Yuba River in Nevada County, California. Kate Wolf was a well-known resident there.

Kate Wolf is probably least known of the artists on this list. She was an American folk singer and songwriter. Born in San Francisco, she made ten albums and toured nationally in the late '70s and early '80s. Her rising career ended abruptly when she died of leukemia in 1986 at the age of 44.

Even though her career was short, she had significant impact on the folk music scene. Musicians continue to cover her songs. Her best-known songs include "Here in California," "Across the Great Divide," "Unfinished Life," and "Give Yourself to Love."

Thousands celebrate her memory each summer at the Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival in Laytonville, California.

Artist: Kate Wolf
Album: Close to You
Released: 1980

Bonus - Marilyn Monroe: “The River of No Return”

This is a bonus track/honorable mention. Marilyn sang this song so sweetly in the movie of the same name.

Artist: Marilyn Monroe
Movie: River of No Return
Released: 1964

Rivers and music both have the power to move our hearts and minds. These songs are meaningful to me, I hope you can feel their power.

© 2018 Sherry Hewins


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Sherry Hewins profile imageAUTHOR

      Sherry Hewins 

      20 months ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Dianna, Age is nothing to hide! It is a beautiful song, then and now.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      20 months ago

      I am telling my age but I remember when Moon River as a hit with the young crowd. Still enjoy hearing it today.

    • Sherry Hewins profile imageAUTHOR

      Sherry Hewins 

      20 months ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Shauna, Thanks for letting me know about the broken link. It was working yesterday! Anyway, I have replaced it now.

      I'm glad you appreciate Kate Wolf. She was a very pure talent; it's too bad her life and career ended so soon. I bet she would have been a star.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      20 months ago from Central Florida

      My favorite in this playlist is "Take Me to the River". Unfortunately, the link is broken so I couldn't play it.

      I've never heard of Kate Wolf, but I sure do like her voice. She reminds me of Joni Mitchell.

    • profile image

      Pat Mills 

      20 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      I'd also recommend Ballad Of Easy Rider by the Byrds and River by Joni Mitchell, the latter of which is sometimes considered a holiday song. Also, if you've never heard Jerry Butler's version of Moon River, I hope you'll give it a listen.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, spinditty.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)