Bruce Springsteen – The River

This was the title track to Bruce’s 1980 double album. I picked this song off the album because it is so easy to relate to. I’ve known friends who have lived this song. The lyrics are sad because they are so real. It contains one of my favorite Springsteen lines “And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.” The song didn’t chart in America or Canada but did make it to #35 in the UK.

The album was #1 in the Billboard album charts, #1 in Canada, and #2 in the UK.

The wedding in the story relates to Springsteen’s sister, who got married when she was still a teenager. She knew it was about her and her husband the first time she heard it. It was also based on conversations Springsteen had with his brother-in-law. After losing his construction job, he worked hard to support his wife and young child but never complained.

From Songfacts

Always a champion of the working class, Springsteen has often spoken out against income inequality, which became a big political issue in the late ’00s. Back in the ’80s though, Springsteen was talking about it, and he often did so through the context of this song.

At a show in Pittsburgh on September 22, 1984, he dedicated the song to union steelworkers in Pennsylvania who were fighting for better wages and working conditions. Said Springsteen: “There’s something really dangerous happening to us out there. We’re slowly getting split up into two different Americas. Things are gettin’ taken away from people that need them and given to people that don’t need them, and there’s a promise getting broken. In the beginning, the idea was that we all live here a little bit like a family, where the strong can help the weak ones, the rich can help the poor ones. I don’t think the American dream was that everybody was going to make it or that everybody was going to make a billion dollars, but it was that everybody was going to have an opportunity and the chance to live a life with some decency and some dignity and a chance for some self-respect. So I know you gotta be feelin’ the pinch down here where the rivers meet.”

This was influenced by the Hank Williams song “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It.”

Regarding this song, Springsteen wrote in the liner notes to his Greatest Hits album, “A breakthrough song for me. It was in the detail. One of the first of my story songs that eventually led to Nebraska.”

Springsteen performed this for the first time on September 21 and 22, 1979 at the “No Nukes” concerts at Madison Square Garden. Springsteen headlined a show with James Taylor, Carly Simon, and Crosby, Stills & Nash as Musicians United for a Safe Energy (MUSE). This was the only new song he played at the shows. 

This performance at the “No Nukes” concerts was included in a film documenting the shows released in 1980.

This was the title track to a double-album released in 1980. The year before, Springsteen recorded it for an album called The Ties That Bind, which he decided not to release. This and six other tracks from that album were included on The River.

The River

I come from down in the valley
Where mister when you’re young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
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

We’d go down to the river
And into the river we’d dive
Oh down to the river we’d ride

Then I got Mary pregnant
And man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth 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

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

I got a job working construction for the Johnstown Company
But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don’t remember
Mary acts like she don’t care

But I remember us riding in my brother’s car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
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
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
That sends me down to the river
Though I know the river is dry
That sends me down to the river tonight
Down to the river
My baby and I
Oh down to the river we ride

Author: badfinger20

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

17 thoughts on “Bruce Springsteen – The River”

  1. I *almost* used this song for Song Lyric Sunday last (?) week when the prompt was river. Listened to it for the first time (that I remember) then and felt it spoke a powerful message. At the time didn’t know it was about Springsteen’s sister. Also listened to that Hank Williams song yesterday. You can’t go wrong with The Boss.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great, and underplayed Springsteen track. Reading your info on it and him playing in Pittsburgh in support of union workers was coincidental– just this week Sting (of all people) did a benefit show in my old hometown in support of GM workers who are having their jobs eliminated (I grew up in a GM factory city but they announced the last of their factories there are shuttering this summer). May write a piece on that shortly

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    1. The song is sad…no doubt but in a relatable way because it’s so real. I had a friend play it for me and I went out and bought the album…of course being me…I didn’t hear it until the album had been out for a few months. Love the album but this song is what made me buy it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hungry Heart is the one that I thought at the time…was out of place on the album…Now I don’t think that…but at the time to me it didn’t fit with the rest….why I thought that I dont know.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. One of the things I love about that album- a great mix of song styles. One of my favorite Bruce albums. Of course I seeing him on the tour for that album brings back some great memories. Saw him a week before John was assassinated.

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      3. Pending folder again Hans… WP is doing this a lot recently.
        I would have loved to see him then. You are fortunate to see him before the massive mass Bruce hysteria started with Born in the USA.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. I know what you mean about the song- i never liked it that much either but assumed everyone else did. I really dig the album but find this track just a touch ponderous. Just a touch, mind. I’ll still listen and enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A truly outstanding song. As Bruce says, it’s “in the detail.” There aren’t many songwriters these days who write as musically with the eye for detail that Bruce does. “Racing In The Streets” is another great one from him. Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

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