This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #237: The River by Bruce Springsteen.
In many books and movies, flowing rivers have acted as metaphors for journeys that the main characters must take. One of my favourite examples of this is the river from the book, “The Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad which, in turn, was made into one of my favourite movies of all-time, “Apocalypse Now”. In the song, “The River”, Bruce Springsteen uses the water as a metaphor for the American Dream and how difficult it can be to achieve it. “The River” is the title track from his fifth album with The E-Street Band and is often heralded by critics as being one of the foundational songs that helped create the musical genre known as “Heartland Rock”. It is a detailed, poetic song based upon the marriage of his sister and brother-in-law. In a larger sense, it is a treatise on economic disparity in America (and other Capitalist countries), where those in need find it harder to get what they need and those without want tend to get more than they need. In Springsteen’s world, greed is not good because it tends to limit opportunity and, after all, having equal opportunity to succeed is what he feels is truly the concept behind the myth of “The American Dream”.
For me, the beauty of a song like, “The River” lay in the story it tells. For most of the people I know (and I include myself in that category), having a happy, successful life is hard work. Nothing is given to you. You make your own breaks by always doing your best, having the kind of character that draws supportive people around you and by giving of yourself to others. But, how easily it can all slip away with an accidental injury, a freak storm or the loss of a job because of a company’s restructuring that happened despite how good of a worker you may have been. We always control our own fate to a certain degree because of the choices we make but, at other times, Fate can be a fickle mistress and we end up at her mercy.
“The River” tells the story of a boy and a girl who fall in love while in Highschool. An unexpected pregnancy results in a rushed wedding and the responsibilities of parenthood; all while the couple are still in their teens. Hopes and dreams of a better life are always tempered by the fickleness of economic upturns and downturns. This brings the couple, again and again, to the mythical “river” to refresh, recharge and renew their hopes in the quest for a better life as promised in “The American Dream”.
I have always loved “story songs” and this is one of the best. Bruce Springsteen is a songwriter with a poet or a novelist’s touch. But, more than just his words, Springsteen is a master of using music to add depth to the stories he weaves so well. In “The River”, the piano intro is from the movie, “Once Upon a Time in the West” by Sergio Leone. His use of a harmonica elevates this song before a single word has been sung. There is something haunting afoot; something foreboding. And then, he starts to sing. I like how the piano keys are used to give the impression of water trickling. I, also, like how Patti Scialfa adds a whispery back up, marrying her voice to his during the choruses, fusing the notion that this song is about a couple, not just about Springsteen’s character. It is the attention to detail such as this, that makes “The River” such a classic song.
So, without further delay, lets get to listening to a song that was never released as a single but, has gone on to become one of Springsteen’s most well-regarded and most-requested live songs. Here is, “The River” from the album of the same name. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “The River” by Bruce Springsteen, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Bruce Springsteen can be found here.
The link to the official website for KEXP can be found here. Thanks, as always, for helping to inspire the writing of this post.