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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

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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.

9. Willie Nelson: “Whiskey River”

Artist: Willie Nelson
Album: Shotgun Willie
Released: 1973

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 superstardom.

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.

10. Kate Wolf: “Like a River”

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

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 the 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 a 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.

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


Sherry Hewins (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on November 07, 2018:

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

Dianna Mendez on November 07, 2018:

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 (author) from Sierra Foothills, CA on October 31, 2018:

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.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on October 31, 2018:

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.

Pat Mills from East Chicago, Indiana on October 26, 2018:

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.

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