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By 1981, Bruce Springsteen had solidified his place as one of the world’s most celebrated artists, riding a wave of critical acclaim and commercial success throughout the 1970s. Albums like “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and songs like “Born to Run” and “Badlands” had established him as a masterful songwriter and storyteller, capturing the struggles and triumphs of everyday life with poetic lyricism and raw emotional power.

Released in 1981 as the title track of his fifth album, “The River” was a hit single across Europe for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The song itself was originally recorded in 1979. During the song’s debut live performance in 1979, Bruce Springsteen dedicated “The River” to his brother-in-law and sister. His sister, Ginny, later confirmed in Peter Ames Carlin’s 2012 biography, “Bruce,” that the song accurately depicted her early life with her husband, Mickey. Springsteen affirmed this inspiration in his 2016 autobiography, describing “The River” as a tribute to the couple.

Let’s dive into the heart of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River,” exploring the lyrics about desperation, unwavering determination, and the relentless pursuit of dreams amidst life’s trials and tribulations.


The River” Lyrics

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 drive 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
Yeah, yeah

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-ide

Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh
Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh

Bruce Springsteen – “The River

Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: Bruce Springsteen

The River lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group


Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” Meaning

During the song’s debut live performance in 1979, Bruce Springsteen dedicated “The River” to his brother-in-law and sister. His sister, Ginny, later confirmed in Peter Ames Carlin’s 2012 biography, “Bruce,” that the song accurately depicted her early life with her husband, Mickey. Springsteen affirmed this inspiration in his 2016 autobiography, describing “The River” as a tribute to the couple.

Let’s break some lines to understand the meaning of the song better:

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

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

Meaning: The opening lines immediately ground us in a specific, working-class milieu. This sets the scene and hints at the narrator’s pre-determined path, a life shaped by tradition and familial expectations. The “valley” evokes a sense of isolation and limited opportunity, while “do like your daddy done” suggests a cycle of blue-collar labor that’s hard to escape. The song depicts how economic difficulties are interlaced with local culture.

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

Meaning: The river is a powerful motif throughout “The River,” representing more than just a physical location. It embodies the bond between the narrator and Mary, a shared space where they can escape the disappointments and burdens of their lives. The river becomes a refuge, a place of solace where they can reconnect with their youthful love and dreams.

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

Meaning: These lines reflect the narrator’s haunting memories of a happier past and the profound disappointment of unrealized dreams. The memories of him and his wife, enveloped in young love and sharing romantic nights down at the river, starkly contrast to their current lives’ harsh realities. These memories, once cherished, now torment him as a “curse,” a painful reminder of what they’ve lost.

That sends me down to the river,
Though I know, the river is dry.
It sends me down to the river, tonight

Meaning: The river, once a symbol of dreams and escape for the future, has dried up, mirroring the narrator’s dwindling optimism as those dreams begin to fail realistically. Yet, he is compelled to return to this symbolic place, seeking comfort in a familiar ritual, even though he knows it can no longer offer the solace it once did. The river is now a haunting reminder of what could have been, yet it’s also a testament to the enduring power of hope, even in the face of despair.


5 Interesting Facts About the Song “The River”

Personal Inspiration

Bruce Springsteen wrote “The River” after conversations with his brother-in-law, who struggled to support his family after losing his construction job. This theme of economic hardship is mirrored in the song.

Family Ties

The song’s reference to a “shotgun wedding” is based on Bruce Springsteen’s sister’s experience of marrying young and facing the challenges of early adulthood.

Socio-Political Commentary

“The River” is an early example of Bruce Springsteen’s advocacy for the working class, foreshadowing the later political focus of his work.

Musical Influence

Hank Williams’ “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” inspired “The River,” particularly its opening lines and melancholic tone.

Narrative Breakthrough

Bruce Springsteen considers “The River” a breakthrough in his storytelling songwriting, paving the way for his later, more narrative-driven albums like “Nebraska.”


The River” Video

YouTube player
Bruce Springsteen – The River (The River Tour, Tempe 1980)
YouTube player
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – The River (Live in Glastonbury, 2009)
AlexandreG.
Is just a guy who got tired of bothering his friends talking about music, and decided to create a blog to write about what he loves the most.
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