My Top Ten River Songs from USA

Guest Article by: Lori Udall

Loneliness, heartache, longing, travel, prayer, hardship, wonder, love, death, beauty… it’s all there in songs about rivers. Humans and rivers are intrinsically and eternally interlinked as is embedded in these songs, old and new.  Our relationships with rivers span the ages and underscores the timelessness of rivers, and the livelihoods that depend on them. This article provides a collection of my top ten of the best-known river songs from USA (and one from Jamaica).  I hope the songs have an appeal to river lovers across the globe.

The Mississippi River; Ole Man River, music by Jerome Kern, Lyrics Oscar Hammerstein II; Performed by Paul Robeson

Many artists have sung ‘Ol Man River’ from the 1936 musical Showboat, but Paul Robeson is- hands down- the best in my view. He performs this dramatic song with high emotion and drama. The song, unusual for the era, details the pain and hardship of African American dockworkers who are loading and unloading ships on the Mississippi. The song compares/ contrasts the suffering of these workers with the uncaring Mississippi river that “just keeps rollin along.”

Ol man river
That Ol man river
He must know somethin
But he don’t say nothin
He just keep rolling
He just keeps rolling along

Mississippi Rivers Blues written and performed by Jimmie Rodgers (1929)

Jimmie Rodgers was a huge influence in country music in the 1920s and 1930s and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970. He was famous for his yodeling style and his simple lyrics and melodic guitar style. In this song, the muddy waters and the width of the Mississippi are highlighted as is his longing for the river.  

Oh you Mississippi River with waters so deep and wide
My thoughts of you keep rising like an evening tide
I`m just like a seagull that’s left the sea
Oh, your muddy waters keep calling on me

Roll On Mississippi written by Kye Flemming and Denis Morgan (1981) Performed by Charley Pride

Country singer Charley Pride sings this song so beautifully. Pride was one of three African American members of the Grand Ole Opry.  He was inducted into the country music hall of fame in 2000.  This song intermixes childhood memories and dreams of simpler times living near the river. The world has become complicated, and the writer longs to go back to memories of a life on the river.

Roll on Mississippi, you make me feel like a child again
Roll on Mississippi, big river roll
You’re the childhood dream I grew up on
Roll on Mississippi, carry me home

Proud Mary Written by John Fogerty (1969) and performed by rock band Credence Clearwater Revival.  Riverboats rolling down the Mississippi are legendary and CCR captures the legacy and lore.

If you come down to the river
Bet you gonna find some people who live
You don’t have to worry cause you have no money
People on the river are happy to give
Big Wheel keep on turnin`
Proud May Keep on Burnin`
Rollin`, Rollin`, Rollin on the river

The Missouri River Oh Shenandoah, Traditional, performed by Kingston Trio

Oh Shenandoah is an old American folk song with unknown origins and many lyrical versions.  It is most often described as a song about a Canadian fur trapper travelling on the wide Missouri river who falls in love with the daughter of Shenandoah, an Oneida Iroquois Indian chief. A melodic song of river travel and longing.

Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Away you rolling river
Oh, Shenandoah I long to see you
Away, I’m bound away
Across the wide Missouri
Oh, Shenandoah I love your daughter
Away you rolling river
For her I`ll cross your roaming waters
Away, I’m bound away
Across the wide Missouri

The Moon River, music by Henri Mancini, Lyrics by Johnny Mercer, Performed by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

This song was about the Back River near Johnny Mercer’s home in Savannah Georgia. Later the Back River was renamed Moon River in honor of Mercer and his song. My huckleberry friend refers to the huckleberries that Mercer used to eat as a child on the banks of the river.

Moon river wider than a mile
I’m crossing you in style some day
Oh dream maker, you heart breaker
Wherever you’re goin`, I’m goin` your way

The Sacred River Down To the River to Pray, Traditional, Performed by Allison Krauss

This song is traditional, the exact origins are unknown. It has been written that the song comes from the Slave Songbook of 1867. The song is also known as Down in the Valley to Pray, Come let us all go down, and The Good Old Way.  Allison Krauss sang and popularized this song in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? Krauss, known for her fiddle playing, is an equally talented singer songwriter.  The river symbolizes a place for prayer, baptism, gatherings and washing away sins.  

O Sisters, Lets go Down
Lets go Down, Come on down
O sisters Lets go down
Down in the river to pray
As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about the good ol` way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord show me the way

The River as Metaphor Cry Me a River written by Arthur Hamilton (1953), Performed by Ella Fitzgerald

This song about a river of tears has been performed by many greats like Billie Holiday, Etta James and Sarah Vaughan. This is an American torch song originally written for Ella Fitzgerald to sing in the film Pete Kelly Blues (1955), but the song was later dropped from the film.  It was first made popular by Julie London in a 1955 release.

Now you say you’re sorry
for bein`so untrue
Well, you can cry me a river, cry me a river
I cried a river over you

Now you say you love me
Well just to prove that you do
Cry me a river, Cry me a river
I cried a river over you

Many Rivers to Cross, written and performed by Jimmy Cliff

While we can’t claim Jimmy Cliff as ours since he was born in Jamaica, he is well loved in the USA.  The writer/singer is tired and weary, and the river is a metaphor for the barriers to break through to carry on and find new life and love.

Many Rivers to Cross
And its only my will that keeps me alive
I’ve been licked, washed up for years
And I merely survive because of my pride

And this loneliness won’t leave me alone
It’s such a drag to be on your own
My woman left me and she didn’t say why
Well I guess I have to try

Deep River Blues, traditional, performed by Arthel Lane `Doc` Watson

In this last song we return to the illustrious Mississippi. Several sources say that this song is based on `I’ve Got Them Big River Blues` written in 1933 and probably based on a catastrophic flood in 1927 along the lower Mississippi River.

The Mississippi River flood of 1927 was the most devastating flood in the U.S. history. Around 23,000 square miles were submerged, and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced when the entire levee system along the river collapsed after torrential rains.  

Doc Watson was blind from the age of two, when he lost his vision from an eye infection. That did not stop him from becoming one of the great American guitarists and singer of folk, bluegrass, country and gospel.  Watsons guitar style was renowned, and he is remembered for his fingerpicking and flatpicking style that made him highly influential in music circles.

I hope you enjoyed these river songs as much as I enjoyed putting this together. But I am sure many of you would have your favorite river songs that are different from mine. I would like to hear from you with a list of such songs from you all!

Lori Udall (loriudall7@gmail.com)







The American Folklife Center at Library of Congress www.loc.gov

3 thoughts on “My Top Ten River Songs from USA

  1. Thank you for this lovely post! We have happily shared it with our friends via social media (@expeditionsindia on Instagram).

    Thinking on it more, I also came up with three more river songs that you may want to add to your collection, or at least have a listen to:

    “Roll on Columbia” by Woody Guthrie: Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, this song was a staple of my childhood.

    “Peace Like a River”: Our young daughter appreciates Elizabeth Mitchell’s rendition.

    “River” by Ibeyi: A friend used this song in a video he made for us, which was my first introduction to it.

    Thank you again for your post. I look forward to more! And I look forward to exploring SANDRP’s archives for related posts on songs from India.


    1. Thanks so much, Ing-Marie, This is so wonderful feedback with three move river songs. Also great to know you shared it widely.

      The link to the three songs you shared (the embedded links do not show in the comments here) are:

      Some of the SANDRP links to river related songs and literary works include:

      Hope you enjoy. Keep sending your feedback.



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