I’ve decided to use this blog to take an in depth look at some of my favorite songs. This piece will tackle Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” from the 1980 double album of the same name. Its regarded as one of his best songs by fans, critics and this blogger – I’d probably put it in my top 5 Springsteen songs in fact.
This song was, for all intents and purposes the first expression of to that point a long running interest that Bruce had in two American icons: Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. “The River” certainly has an implicit political consciousness that reminds me of some of Guthrie’s work like “Pretty Boy Floyd”. Musically “The River” is patterned after Williams “I’m a long gone Daddy” (that title would later find its way into “Born in the USA””) and shares all the bleak and lonesome qualities of William’s best work. Clearly this was the point where Springsteen began to internalize the American folk tradition, much like Born to Run proved he had internalized American Rock and Roll.
So what about the lyrics? Lets go line-by-line.
I come from down in the valley
Already Springsteen establishes the economic conditions of the protagonist by using simple geography. Typically the poorer residents of a community live “down in the valley”. Think Everclear - “I will buy you a new house – in the west hills"
where mister when you're young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
After an economic boom people are again finding themselves less mobile, both economically and geographically. Theres less class mobility as well. This is what happens during recessions, be they our current mess, the economic climate of the late 70’s that Bruce lived through, or the dust bowl era of woody guthrie. There is also a certain amount of destiny woven into the story here, and father issues, always father issues with Bruce.
Me and Mary we met in high school when she was just seventeen
We'd ride out of that valley down to where the fields were green
So its with Mary that he’s able to get out of the Valley. This is important to note.
We'd go down to the river
And into the river we'd dive
Oh down to the river we'd ride
The River is really the other main character of the song. Consider all the meaning rivers have. Think Mesopotamia. All the Biblical language surrounding rivers. Clearly The River in this song is also a symbol of life and vitality.
Then I got Mary pregnant and man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteen birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse and the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle
No flowers no wedding dress
This is purely expository, but heartbreaking nonetheless.
That night we went down to the river
And into the river we'd dive
On down to the river we did ride
Despite all this, the narrator is still able to escape with Mary. Life is still full of possibilities.
I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy
This is where things go off the rails. Springsteen, like Steinbeck understood the spiritual dimension of work and what happened when good people found themselves in poor circumstances.
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Circumstances have changed. Instead of a life of possibility and opportunity its a life of obligations that can’t be fulfilled.
Now I just act like I don't remember, Mary acts like she don't care
This is where things get really tragic. How many marriages have been destroyed as a result of economic hardship. I’m no Marxist but its hard not to see the alienation that capitalism can create, even between life partners.
But I remember us riding in my brother's car
So he acts like he can’t remember. But he does.
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
The symbolism could not be richer here. He remembers her in a resevoir.
At night on them banks I'd lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she'd take
Now those memories come back to haunt me, they haunt me like a curse
What could be worse than losing the things that mean the most? Not being able to forget them, to get any respite from your loss.
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true
Or is it something worse
This is probably the best line in the song. It reminds me of this poem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
"Harlem" - Langston Hughes
When I think of this line I think about some of the failures in my life. I had many moments where I failed because I didn’t try. I could always tell myself that things could have been different had I applied myself. The moments that really hurt were the times where I tried my hardest and came up short. Did the narrator’s dreams not come true because he didn’t believe in them? Or did they simply not happen for other reasons? What are those reasons? What does that mean? This is biblical stuff.
that sends me
Down to the river
Its these kinds of questions that send him searching – for things he can’t have and moments he can’t relive.
though I know the river is dry
Down to the river, my baby and I
Oh down to the river we ride
The first performance of this song: