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.
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.
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