"The River" as written by Martin Terefe and Katie Victoria Tunstall....
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 this 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

Lyrics submitted by WishYouWereHere, edited by Loraqs, franklintitan, Groujo, Pontusjpp, Mellow_Harsher

The River song meanings
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  • +5
    General CommentThere's a layer of meaning to this song that Springsteen may or may not have been intended - but it's there. MusicLover-MRM points out that the River is figuratively meant as "belief in how good things would always be". The river offers a baptismal soul-cleansing. When the narrator was young it never mattered how bad things in life got because he (and Mary) could go down to the river and somehow that would make everything alright - at least for a little while.

    This is why the symbolism towards the end of the song is so damn heartbreaking. In the end even the river isn't there anymore. It dried up. Now there's no escape, no source of redeption for the narrator. You grow up and there's nothing that can make things right anymore. Springsteen is a pretty switched-on writer - and I think he's hip to the multiple layers of meaning that can be contained in a rich powerful song like this.
    juancircledon February 24, 2009   Link
  • +3
    General CommentThis song is so beautifully sad. It's about the narrator's amazing love for Mary, and how their early marriage ruined everything. Over time, they've basically become strangers, but he still thinks about how things used to be and still remembers "her body down by the resorvoir" and how they felt when they were young and they were everything to each other. I can't explain why it's so sad. It's almost like they thought they had something amazing and they had so much faith in it; even right after getting married, they went back to the river like they always had. They were so optimistic about their future, and now the narrator is trapped because he loved someone so much so many years ago and now he has to deal with that sadness and regret every day. It's a really powerful song.
    batkinson October 25, 2004   Link
  • +3
    General CommentDamn, just writing and thinking about it drove the tears into my eyes.

    "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true
    Or is it something worse"

    Lwison October 29, 2004   Link
  • +3
    General CommentOne of the most amazing songs, by rock's most amazing songwriter.

    It's not just the words he sings here, but the way he sings them. The line about pulling Mary close just to feel each breathe she takes brings in such powerful feelings of young and new exciting love, but then Bruce wails "these memories come back to haunt me" and then spits "they haunt me like a curse." Wow.

    The line about "no wedding day smiles, no walks down the aisles, no flowers, no wedding dress." Is one of the saddest I have ever heard.

    Bruce did say this song was dedicated to the man that married his sister, but it could be anyone (and everyone out there knows someone) who married young as a result of an unplanned pregnancy and had the dreams of a different life destroyed in the process.

    Powerful, powerful stuff.
    Pirtyfool22on May 17, 2007   Link
  • +3
    General CommentI really love the double meaning of "the river" as a physcal place they went when they were young, and also figuratively as belief in how good things would always be, as compared to the earth (reality) where all the things they thought were so important disappeared.

    Then when he tries to go back, the river is dry, reality has over taken them.

    They try to act like they don't care or remember, but they do, and they can never go back. Echos of Thoreau "most men lead lives of quiet desperation".

    Wonderful deep meaning-good lesson for young folks today to be careful with thier youth.

    MusicLover-MRMon January 28, 2008   Link
  • +3
    My InterpretationI can't be sure that Springsteen is using "the river" as analogous for life in general, OR a vagina as the source of the beginning of life - youth, optimism, hope etc. I tend to the former, as he says repeatedly "we" go down to the river, rather than "I" go down to the river.

    As others have said, a river is a lot like life in that it rolls on relentlessly, carrying with it all sorts of positives - irrigation, transport, a food source, and obviously the very basis of life - water.

    But... it can flood, or dry up, with devastating consequences - just like life. I'm guessing that Springsteen is just expressing the loss of hope for the future of the boy and Mary's life together, as they've been beset with disaster; he's broke and unemployed, and she's (possibly?) terminated an unwanted and unsupportable teenaged pregnancy.

    From an optimistic future, they've fallen permanently on hard times - the river has dried up.
    ausGeoffon August 01, 2012   Link
  • +3
    General CommentI prefer to take the lyrics literally rather than treat "the river" as a metaphor for anything. The song is thus pretty self-explanatory. The narrator grew up in a very conservative rural village. His teenage romance with Mary resulted in her getting pregnant, so they had to have a shotgun wedding, otherwise they would have ended up as outcasts. Some years later, they are now returning to the river - the place where they used to play and romance together during the best days of their lives.

    The most notable thing about the lyrics is that the song sounds pretty innocent up until the start of the second verse. Then it takes a rather sudden turn. ("Then I got Mary pregnant...") The second chorus has the same lyrics as the first chorus but this time, their visit to the river has a different purpose - they're going there to escape their wordly troubles.

    The third verse describes how they are some years later. Their situation isn't dire. He's got a job and they're not the outcasts they could have been. But he struggles to find work and money (the song was written at a time of industrial decline). Worse than that, there's a feeling of emptiness. Their love has faded, they have no dreams for the future and have a past they try to ignore. But he can't ignore it, because his memories of their romance by the river, as he describes in the final section, were actually the best moments of the life and that's why they "haunt" him. He has a melancholy life and marriage which is haunted by nostalgia for the time when they used to have fun.

    So in the end, they both go down to the river ("My baby and I") to revisit the place of their favourite memories and see if they can find some of their old love again. But it's not going to be the same. The fact that the river is dry represents this. There's going to be a certain emptiness about it no matter how hard they try.
    noonebeatsdylanon September 22, 2013   Link
  • +2
    General CommentGod...this song is so incredible. I can't believe no one else has posted on it. I can't even explain it. I have a thing for melancholy songs, but even if I didn't...Jesus. It's just so real.
    clasicrockon September 04, 2002   Link
  • +2
    General CommentA wonderful song that has probably moved me to tears more than any song that has ever been written. 'The river' itself is fairly clearly a reference to sex and the desperation of the end of a relationship. But the song seems to be about the futility of life in general, and how we keep on doing things even when we know there is no point to them anymore.
    Toby1974on August 17, 2012   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI think the river is just a metaphor for their hopes and dreams. In the beginning of the song, they're young, in high school, and have all these dreams of the future. They dive into them, meaning they just bask in their hope of what's to come.

    In the next verse, he's 19 and has to marry Mary and get a job with the union. Even though it seems like this would destroy his plans of the future, he is still only 19, and so he and Mary still have the hopes and dreams that everything will be better eventually. Their setback is only temporary, so they can still go down to the river, they still have that reserve of dreams.

    By the end of the song however, the river is dry because at this point it is clear that their dreams are never coming true. Even though he wants to believe that his hopes are still possible, he knows that they are not, and now he only has the memories of those hopes.
    GuyNemethon July 01, 2013   Link

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