The future of music

25 Best Songs About Rivers

December 11, 2023
Songs about rivers

I’ve selected the best songs about rivers, capturing the flow and tranquility of these natural wonders in music.

This article is a serene journey through melodies that mirror the peaceful yet powerful essence of rivers.

Top songs about rivers

  • Lykke Li – “I Follow Rivers”
  • James Bay – “Hold Back the River”
  • Ibeyi – “River”
  • Leon Bridges – “River”
  • Nick Drake – “River Man”
  • Bishop Briggs – “River”
  • Boney M – “Rivers of Babylon”
  • Leonard Cohen – “By the River Dark”
  • Bruce Springsteen – “The River”
  • Joni Mitchell – “River”

1. Lykke Li – “I Follow Rivers”

Lykke Li released this familiar, indie track on her album “Wounded Rhymes” in 2010.

However, “I Follow Rivers” became a big hit the following year, after the release of The Magician remix.

Both versions have their charm, but the original has a very captivating and unique sound characteristic for Lykke Li’s first albums.

“Oh I beg you, can I follow?
Oh I ask you, why not always?
Be the ocean, where I unravel
Be my only, be the water where I’m wading.”

2. James Bay – “Hold Back the River”

Rivers can be fast and overwhelming, so they often represent something challenging.

In his 2014 hit, James Bay wants to hold back the river to stop for a second and focus on important things. 

The singer had a very busy life at the time of writing the song. In fact, he explained that “Hold Back the River” is really about spending time with friends and family which can sometimes be tricky if you’re a successful musician.

“Once upon a different life
We rode our bikes into the sky
But now we crawl against the tide
Those distant days are flashing by.”

3. Ibeyi – “River”

If by any chance you haven’t heard of Ibeyi, it’s an Afro-French Cuban musical duo consisting of two young twin sisters.

Just like most of their songs, “River” is characterized by authentic, captivating melodies and emotions.

They sing the song in English and Yoruba language, mostly about the river which they see as something pure and positive. 

“Carry away my dead leaves
Let me baptize my soul with the help of your waters
Sink my pains and complains
Let the river take them, river drown them.”

4. Leon Bridges – “River”

Another song about the river where the river represents something pure and healing is this beautiful, soulful track by Leon Bridges.

In fact, the river in this song is a metaphor for being born again, and it’s pretty clear that the singer perceives rivers as spiritual.

“River” is also a song about redemption and cleansing sins, as it’s often the case with gospel songs about rivers.

“Tip me in your smooth waters
I go in
As a man with many crimes
Come up for air
As my sins flow down the Jordan.”

5. Nick Drake – “River Man”

When it comes to songs with river in the title, Nick Drake’s 1969 tune certainly comes to mind.

“River Man” is one of his most touching pieces, and according to Drake’s manager, the singer also believed it was a centerpiece of the album.

Unfortunately, Nick Drake recorded only three albums before his tragic death. And “Five Leaves Left” featuring “River Man” was his first one.

“Going to see the river man
Going to tell him all I can
About the plan
For lilac time.”

6. Bishop Briggs – “River”

“River” peaked at number three on the US Alternative Chart, and it’s part of Bishop Briggs’ debut album.

With this powerful track, the Scottish-American singer wanted to inspire people to “push their limits” and do their best.

Well, after listening to this song, you’ll surely feel motivated and empowered. 

“Shut your mouth and run me like a river
Choke this love ’til the veins start to shiver
One last breath ’til the tears start to wither.”

7. Boney M – “Rivers of Babylon”

This is definitely an all-time classic among songs about rivers.

“Rivers of Babylon” was originally recorded and written by the Jamaican reggae group The Melodians, and it became even more popular after Boney M covered it in 1978.

Some of the lyrics are taken from Psalm 137 from The Bible expressing the yearnings of Jewish people during the Babylonian exile.

Moreover, in Rastafarianism, the term “Babylon” refers to an oppressive system, which gives the title of this song much more meaning.

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

8. Leonard Cohen – “By the River Dark”

“By the rivers dark
I wandered on.
I lived my life
In Babylon.”

Another song that depicts the Babylonian exile is “By the River Dark” by Leonard Cohen.

And it does that in a very delicate and mildly dark way – so, in Cohen’s style.

It’s a beloved song from his album “Ten New Songs” which once again proved Cohen’s charm and unique, thoughtful creativity back in 2001.

 9. Bruce Springsteen – “The River”

“That night we went down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh, down to the river we did ride.”

Bruce Springsteen is known for writing songs about social inequality and the working class. His song “The River” is a good example.

In this 1980 track, Springsteen talks about a man who is doing hard work to support his wife and child. The story is based on his brother-in-law who married his sister when she was young.

And the lyrics about driving down to the river add nicely to the atmosphere of the song.

10. Joni Mitchell – “River”

The beginning of Joni Mitchell’s “River” sounds a lot like Christmas.

After all, the song is set in the holiday season, and although it actually talks about an end of a relationship, it’s considered one of the most beautiful Christmas ballads.

And her whole iconic album “Blue” provides a perfect blend of simplicity, romance, and melancholic yet warm emotions.

“I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on
I made my baby say goodbye.”

11. Bob Dylan – “Watching the River Flow”

This easy-going track by the great Bob Dylan is hands down one of the best songs about rivers flowing.

The rock-blues sound with a touch of country, Dylan’s distinctive vocals, and some interesting songwriting make “Watching the River Flow” always nice to listen.

“Walkin’ to and fro beneath the moon
Out to where the trucks are rollin’ slow,
To sit down on this bank of sand
And watch the river flow.”

12. The Doors – “Yes, the River Knows”

Bob Dylan is not the only big name inspired by rivers. Jim Morrison also sang about it, in his own recognizable style.

The Doors guitarist Robby Krieger wrote most of the song. He has also claimed it’s one of his favorite compositions.

“Please believe me
The river told me
Very softly
Want you to hold me.”

13. Enya – “The River Sings”

Enya is a pro in creating music that makes people feel connected to nature and the world around them.

And her beautiful track “The River Sings” is no different – you can easily imagine yourself floating down the river while listening to it.

This song is one of Enya’s trilogy of songs about rivers and water, and it’s written in a Loxian language.

Loxian language is a fictional language created by Irish poet Roma Ryan. Well, you can give it a try:

“Mmer-hymm a rhee-a ka-n
Mmer-hymm a vl-a lu-ua
E-a hymm llay hey
A rhee o mmay.”

14. Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Green River”

Creedence Clearwater Revival released this catchy tune on their 1969 album of the same name.

And it’s definitely a song about the river since the lead singer John Fogerty was inspired by the place b the river he used to visit as a kid.

“Love to kick my feet way down the shallow water
Shoo fly, dragon fly, get back to your mother
Pick up a flat rock, skip it across Green River.”

15. Neil Young – “Down By The River”

“Be on my side. I’ll be on your side, baby.
There is no reason for you to hide.
It’s so hard for me staying here all alone,
When you could be taking me for a ride.”

Neil Young first released “Down By The River” in 1969.

The song tells a story of a man who feels betrayed and shoots his lover by the river.

Neil Young reportedly wrote this song while delirious in bed with high fever. Perhaps that explains the lyrics.

16. Kevin Morby – “Harlem River”

“Harlem River” was released on the debut album by American indie rock artist Kevin Morby.

It’s also one of those literal songs about rivers. Well, Morby was inspired by the real river at least.

He was inspired by the river in uptown Manhattan, to be precise, as he claimed in one of the interviews.

Either way, “Harlem River” is a rather popular tune among indie music lovers, and it’s surely a unique and captivating one.

Harlem River talk to me
Where are we headed now?
Harlem River I’m in love, love, love, love
All because of you.

17. Tom Misch – “South of the River”

Are you searching for a groovy song about the river?

If yes, “South of the River” by Tom Misch is perfect for you. It’s catchy, smooth, and inspired by the singer’s neighborhood in south London.

You should come south of the river
This is where it all starts
I think that we could stay here forever
Lie on the roof ’til it’s dark.

18. Agnes Obel – “Riverside”

When that old river runs past your eyes
To wash off the dirt on the riverside
Go to the water so every near
The river will be your eyes and ears.

Songs about rivers often entail a touch of melancholy. And Agnes Obel knows how to add melancholy to her music, gently and poetically.

Her song “Riverside” is a beautiful, piano-driven song about rivers and transformation.

The river is clearly used metaphorically, but Agnes Obel allegedly spent a lot of time by the river Spree in Berlin at the time of writing the album.

19. Talking Heads – “Take me to the River”

Many songs with river in the lyrics refer to it as something cleansing, and “Take me to the River” is one of them.

In fact, Talking Heads’ 1978 single refers to baptism, but it can also be seen as a love song.

Either way, it’s a catchy, seductive song with interesting lyrics and David Byrne’s familiar vocals.

Take me to the river, drop me in the water
Push me in the river, dip me in the water
Washing me down, washing me.

20. AURORA – “The River”

AURORA often creates a dreamy and melancholic yet youthful atmosphere in her music.

However, “The River” is an uplifting, hopeful song delivering an important message of acceptance and emotional openness.

With the river symbolism, the singer claims that it’s perfectly alright to express your emotions and cry, regardless of your gender. You just need to “let the river run wild.”

You can cry, drinkin’ your eyes
Do you miss the sadness when it’s gone?
And you let the river run wild
And you let the river run wild.

21. Justin Timberlake – “Cry Me a River”

Although Justin didn’t aim for the same message as AURORA with his song “Cry Me a River,” it’s certainly a song we can’t skip mentioning.

After all, the song won a Grammy, and Rolling Stone included it on their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

In a nutshell, “Cry Me a River” is about Justin’s former relationship with Britney Spears, and it became one of his most popular hits.

You were my sun, you were my earth
But you didn’t know all the ways I loved you, no
So you took a chance, made other plans
But I bet you didn’t think that they would come crashing down, no.

22. Milky Chance – “Down by the River”

“Down by the river I was drawn by your grace
Into depths of oblivion and to the lovers’ place
I was stuck in a puddle full of tears and unwise
Dark doings, now I know that we’ve paid unlike.”

Although these lyrics seem like the river is used as a metaphor, Milky Chance was reportedly inspired by the literal river.

“Down by the River” is the most popular song of the German duo, and although it was released in 2013, it’s still regularly played on the radio.

23. Phil Collins – “River So Wide”

There is something very positive and genuine about this track by Phil Collins.

“River So Wide” was released on the singer’s 1996 album “Dance into the Light,” and although it’s not one of his most famous tunes, it’s definitely worth the attention. And it’s sweetly reminiscent of the memorable Tarzan soundtrack.

“If we can cross at the place that divides us.
Cross the river, the river so wide.”

24. The Head and the Heart – “Rivers and Roads”

A year from now we’ll all be gone
All our friends will move away
And they’re goin’ to better places
But our friends will be gone away.”

Rivers can also represent big distances. After all, people used rivers and roads to navigate in the past.

In the song “Rivers and Roads,” the narrator is willing to cross rivers and roads to reach someone they love.

In essence, it’s a song about love, friendship, and separation. And a perfect soundtrack for driving by the river.

25. The Rolling Stones – “Following the River”

We’re completing the list with this powerful, emotional song by The Rolling Stones.

“Following the River” was released on their album “Exile on Main St.”, and it somehow still remains one of the band’s hidden gems.

“I’ve been following the river, until it joins hands with the sea
I’ve been thinking of you so bad
Because you always saw the best in me.”

Songs About Rivers – Final Thoughts

After picking the best songs about rivers, we’ve realized that even though rivers in music often have a symbolic meaning, there are many songs about literal rivers.

Places by the river can be very calming and visually interesting, so it’s no wonder that musicians find their inspiration there.

On the other hand, some songwriters refer to rivers when talking about transformation and cleansing, which is another common association for water in general.

Either way, we hope this article reminded you of some forgotten gems but also introduced you to some new tunes!

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Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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