"Misery Is the River of the World" as written by and Tom Waits Kathleen Brennan....
The higher that the monkey can climb
The more he shows his tail
Call no man happy 'til he dies
There's no milk at the bottom of the pail

God builds a church
The devil builds a chapel
Like the thistles that are growing
'Round the trunk of a tree
All the good in the world
You can put inside a thimble
And still have room for you and me

If there's one thing you can say about Mankind
There's nothing kind about man
You can drive out nature with a pitch fork
But it always comes roaring back again

Misery's the river of the world
Misery's the river of the world
Misery's the river of the world

The higher that the monkey can climb
The more he shows his tail
Call no man happy till he dies
There's no milk at the bottom of the pail

God tempers all the winds for the new shorn lambs
The devil knows the bible like the back of his hand
All the good in the world
You can put inside a thimble
And still have room for you and me

If there's one thing you can say about Mankind
There's nothing kind about man
You can drive out nature with a pitch fork
But it always comes roaring back again

For want of a bird
The sky was lost
For want of a nail
A shoe was lost
For want of a life
A knife was lost
For want of a toy
A child was lost

And misery's the river of the world
Misery's the river of the world
Everybody row, everybody row
Misery's the river of the world
Misery's the river of the world
Misery's the river of the world
Everybody row, everybody row
Everybody row, everybody row
Misery's the river of the world
Misery's the river of the world
Everybody row, everybody row
Everybody row, everybody row
Everybody row
Misery's the river of the world
Misery's the river of the world
Misery's the river of the world
Misery's the river of the world
Everybody row, everybody row
Everybody row


Lyrics submitted by daffy, edited by Mellow_Harsher

Misery Is the River of the World song meanings
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10 Comments

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  • +3
    General CommentThis might just be a coincidence, but the final lines of the ancient Greek play, Oedipus Rex, are:

    "Now as we keep our watch and wait the final day,
    count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last"

    Which is almost word-for-word for Tom's "Call no man happy till he dies" bit. Which is pretty interesting!
    Appers66on April 19, 2008   Link
  • +1
    General CommentAs far as the latter part of his career is concerned this is one of the highlights.
    The higher that the monkey can climb
    The more he shows his tail

    these first three lines I believe refer to humanity as "the monkey". The higher it climbs, the more we think of ourselves as great, the more civilization advances. the more we show our tail. That is the more our bad deeds and mistakes stretch out behind us.
    Mammoth_Manon January 27, 2008   Link
  • +1
    General Commentthere's a mother goose type poem that goes something like this:

    For want of a nail, the shoe was lost
    For want of a shoe, the horse was lost
    For want of a horse, the rider was lost
    For want of a rider, the battle was lost
    For want of a battle, the war was lost
    For want of a war, the country was lost
    All for the want of a horseshoe nail.
    FishThatSwimson November 03, 2008   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI agree that the monkey symbolizes the human climbing up the evolutionary ladder, showing it's ass . . . hydrogen bombs, genocide.

    as far as "for want of a toy/ child was lost," etc . . . I thought of "desire" as it relates to "Samsara" or the suffering of the world, as detailed in Buddhist philosophy. In Buddhist thought, our negative desires contribute directly to the origin of suffering--"misery is the river of the world--everybody row."

    on a brighter note, recognizing the origin of suffering, in and of itself, lifts this veil of ignorance, reducing suffering and increasing happiness. a universal goal in life.

    i think Tom was feeling a bit dark--the music beautifully and strangely reflects that mood. this song always gives me chills. a great one.
    jdkeeson May 12, 2012   Link
  • 0
    General Commenttom waits is so fucking cool
    daffyon July 07, 2002   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI freakin' love that chromatic-pirate-bizarre circus part
    MardyAsson July 12, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis makes me think of Charon, in mythology, talking to yet another dead guy about his own view of mankind.
    Ex Abruptoon September 17, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General Commentshould be,

    "for want of a life
    life was lost"

    love this song. somehow seems surreal to me. otherworldly.
    sortileguson May 09, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThe Pixie's "This Monkey's Gone To Heaven" makes a good comparison, as in both mankind, through an odd evolutionary synecdoche, is a single, symbolic monkey who can't help but destroy himself and everything around him.

    In FishThatSwim's nursery rhyme's [above] moral, every object, every animal, every person is given an infinite worth through a kind of 'butterfly effect'. In Wait's take, everything in the world is found lacking, and that lack (which we might call desire, for we can only want what we don't have) engulfs us, destroys us.

    There's nothing kind about mankind uses one of my favorite rhetorical devices: antanaclasis, where a word is repeated with different meanings, like othello's "Put out the light[candle], and put out the light[murder]."

    I'm assuming the bit about thistles and tree trunks doesnt refer to the prior church/chapel, but to the miniscule good in the world - big as a thistle up against an oak. But that doesnt seem quite right to me- any ideas?

    I like to think of the song as a Theodicity- a meditation on the origin of evil in the world.

    I love especially the line where the devil knows the bible like the back of his hand.
    KubalahtKoalaon April 24, 2010   Link
  • -2
    General CommentAAAARRRRR!
    MardyAsson July 12, 2005   Link

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