The incomparable Langston Hughes wrote a poem about rivers long ago, how the water flowed through time and people – shaping, sharing … building worlds along its edges.
In some of the ancient family lore, I’m descended from a French/Norman water witch. She and “all her children” were to be forever strengthened by their association to oceans and rivers and waterfalls.
That silliness colored how I looked at water throughout my life. This morning, as I drove past a pasture pond, rippled by wind, and silvered by sunlight – I thrilled at its music, seeing it laugh at the horizon.
When I was a college girl (not quite in the Middle Ages), there was a park in my hometown. It was green with nature, redolent of flowers and an actual brook babbled through it. There was this one perfect spot, a jog in the course of the water where an old twisty willow tree stood. It made a little fort – frond fingers tenting and trailing in the water. It was my dreaming spot, my ‘city’ oasis, and a place to co-exist with the natural world. Quite often as I sat there secluded, book in hand, I would get a delicious show of babies & moms, to paddling ducks, to clumsy groundhogs and curious bunnies – all ignoring the blonde in their midst, watching the water and dreaming.
I’ve floated on the Seine (is that not the most perfectly wonderful phrase?), played at the foot of waterfalls in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland and Hawaii, danced in the surf of the Atlantic and Pacific and the Tennessee River – I boated down the Swanee river trying to avoid the scary snakes and definitional racism.
The past couple of years I’ve been able to watch the “mighty” Susquehanna as she traverses the seasons – her variability, constancy as they color the year. I’m a southern girl; my rivers meander. The Susquehanna is rougher, more defiant. Watching her ice floes crash against one another in the winter half-life, the magic of her rhythms taught me patience as I waited for the winter snows to melt, the new year to begin.
In recent days, I’ve watched my rivers; my hidden creeks muddy and swell as rain and melted snow engorge them. Watching them eddy around small trees, creating islands – imagine the stories the silt could tell as the water recedes.
While I love the romantic notion that my charisma and sparkliness increases if I dance in a rainstorm, the gentle reality that 70% of our essence is damp – the watery connection breathes life into the world.
Back to Mr. Hughes – if I haven’t mentioned, my favorite American poet – he was a fierce and formidable poet/author/activist of the Harlem Renaissance. His voice was clarion loud reminding the world that America was painted, created, shared by black voices – an “I exist,” in a society slow to acknowledge that basic fact (this was the 1920s, not just 2016). Humanity’s heritage, its essence, will not and cannot erase presence – the world itself bears witness. As I opened today, in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, he lets water; its rhythms flowing through time make his point:
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
gently down the stream:
- River (Natalie Merchant) -off of her 1st solo album (Tigerlily) — it explores the tragic death of River Phoenix — the anger breaking like waves at the cult of celebrity that uses pain as fodder — the entire album has an edge that makes a song as ostensibly joyous as Carnival become a motif for American Horror story/serial killer, or a song like Wonder to spawn an amazing children’s book by RJ Palacio.
- Cry Me a River (Jeff Beck & Imelda May) — a jazzy torch song, written in the 50s, I always loved Shirley Bassey’s version — although, Jeff Beck & Imelda May’s recording just makes me so happy!!
- Just around the Riverbend (from Disney’s Pocahontas) – the history in the movie is as valid as Meeko the cute little raccoon, the music is another story. Several of the songs are amazing — this song of adventure and water is one of them, wondering what lies ahead and does it have to be what has been….
- Bridge over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel) – so for being essentially Simon & Garfunkel’s break-up song, Bridge was a triumph of cooperation, including the lovely part where Paul Simon gave gospel singer Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones credit & compensation for the similarities to their ’58 song, “Mary don’t you weep”.
- Lazy River (The Mills Brothers) Hoagy Carmichael’s iconic song has conservatively a million covers (approximately, give or take a few hundred thousand) since it was published in 1930 — one of my favorites is that of the Mills Brothers — their easy, jazzy delivery mimics the song lyrics
- Come Away to the Water (Maroon 5) — one of those “cool” factor songs — written by Glen Hansard and performed by Maroon 5 and Rozzi Crane — both Hansard and Levine suffer from a surfeit of exposure, so when they do a song like this that just surrounds your brain — it often gets overlooked
- Moon River (Frank Sinatra) — Mancini and Mercer created this Academy Award winning song for Breakfast at Tiffany’s — and it later became Andy Williams’ theme. Frank Sinatra’s version brings all the yearning and romance to the forefront — in his on inimitable style….
- Long & Lazy River (Nellie McKay) feminist singer, satirist and activist — has an impeccable sense of timing and an ear for rhyme — and whether she’s touting Ralph Nader, PETA or Planned Parenthood — her voice and lyrics make sure she’s a joy and a bit to the point: I know I wear you down/You’re looking awful bored/But if you’re skipping town/And say you’ll take no more…How do you know you can’t be wrong?/You’ve got a long and lazy river to your soul”.
- Ol’ Man River (Paul Robeson): the first time I watched Showboat, I was focused on Ava Gardner, after all we were born in the same town. I’d read Edna Ferber’s classic, so a musical about race, alcoholism, and lightfooted husbands was new – and indeed, its creation in 1927 is considered a watershed in musical theater – it created the concept that we know – a storyline furthered by people suddenly bursting into songs. Though others have sung it, Paul Robeson’s version is timeless – and his fingers up your spine bass vocals haunt you like a watery after-image the last note.
- Red River Valley (Riders in the Sky) – the western part of Country Western music, this Bob Wills-ish group makes music for adults and kids, often salvaging old campfire and trail songs…. This one wrapped in dark blue and firelight, cozies up to you as a half forgotten memory
- Every Teardrop is a Waterfall (Coldplay) ok; the line in the Boston Herald’s review is one of the best things ever, as they write that Coldplay gives “force to wimp music”. Its release helped the band realize/learn that sampling music for a song, like quotes in an essay needed acknowledgement.
- God Was in the Water (Bonnie Raitt) – “God was in the water that day/Pickin’ through the roots and stones/Trippin’ over sunken logs/Tryin’ not to make his presence known”. Randall Bramblett’s evocative lyrics matched with Bonnie Raitt is a perfect bluesy jaunt
- Ride the River (JJ Cale & Eric Clapton) – Maybe not as well known as some of the other songs – this blues/rock collaboration is star stuffed – and this song is perhaps the coolest hang out on some rocks down at the river (the Eno in Durham, NC comes to mind), watching the water tumbling, catching and reflecting sunbeams in the leaf shadowed forest.
- Reminiscing (Little River Band) – a little bit of a cheat, the song has absolutely to do with water. It just gives off one of those pontoon boat vote/summer drink, float on a lake auras. Plus, this Australian band’s hit was reputedly John Lennon’s favorite song (? who knew).
- The River (Garth Brooks) – I must confess, I secretly love a lot of Garth Brooks’ songs. His anthems are so sincere, and this one using the river metaphor about choosing your destiny always reminds me of the Louisa May Alcott quote, “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship”.
- River Deep – Mountain High (Tina Turner) – Technically, the song is credited to Ike & Tina, but in one of those things that would be really cool if it wasn’t Phil Spector – Ike was paid to stay out of the studio. The relationship(s), real & in the song, aren’t necessarily what one would call healthy, though my beloved George Harrison said it was a “perfect” record.
- Welcome to Pittsburgh (River City Extension) – one of those cool little bands that breaks up before you get a chance to really enjoy them. Technically, a river song, in that Pittsburgh does have 3 rivers, the lyrics are intricately emotional, “Why does everyone feel paper-thin these days”, a phrase often used, but well done in their context.
- Down to the River to Pray (Alison Krauss) – one of those perfect harmony songs edged with smoke and rue. An old love, a true Alison Krauss fanboy who often said she was the most talented, most beautiful performer ever. He liked to enthuse about how much his possibly previous girlfriend resembled her.
- River Lullaby (from Prince of Egypt) – My Daddy gave my oldest a copy of the movie for her 2nd birthday, and we watched it several times a day for at least 6 months – this crooning lullaby never fails to bring a smile
- This River is Wild (The Killers) – Considered, by some, to be one of the best rock bands of the 21st century; this Nevada based group is the biggest rock band ever from Nevada (one of their bios actually brags). This song, off the incredibly popular Sam’s Town album, is all about chancing fate – which is rather apt for some Las Vegas guys…
- Take Me to the River (Talking Heads) – 2 things: it’s the Talking Heads and it’s Take Me to the River… and when the two mingle – it’s like the music reviewer/historian Thomas Ryan said, “the best ingredients of conventional pop music and classic soul music, stirring them together, and then presenting the mix in the guise of punk rock”. Yes, that works….
Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?” That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future –> Hermann Hesse