RIVERBOAT SONG by Gillian Welch

In November of last year I wrote approvingly about Boots No 1 – The Official Revival Bootleg, a double CD set of outtakes and alternative versions from Gillian Welch’s 1996 album Revival, her much acclaimed debut recording. In particular I have come to love a song therein called ‘Riverboat Song’, a gently swaying ragtime tune with a hint of blue, about the river that flows past the singer’s door, a lament for a time when this river, referred to always as ‘she’, carried far more traffic than it does today and seemed to have a greater purpose beyond ‘[tumbling] to the sea to find some company’; in truth it’s a rather melancholy song of sympathy for the barren times on which her treasured river seems now to have fallen.
Set to a gorgeous melody that, like many of Welch and her partner Dave Rawlings’ compositions, sounds as if it could have been written at any time in the last 100 years, we hear about the river’s more prosperous era, when a huge cotton crop came floating past, and when the paddle-steamers – ‘the Mississippi Queen and the Alabama Pearl’ – were floating dancehalls that rang with the sound of gamblers and Dixieland jazz as they made their way down to the Gulf of Mexico. After a lovely chorded ragtime guitar solo, reminiscent of John Fahey at his best, we learn about how the river flooded ‘in the spring of ’65’, becoming ‘ten miles wide’ and how those on the banks should have seen it coming because, after all, ‘a woman’s gonna make a fuss if no one pays her any mind’. 
The songs ends where it began, with Welch serenading her river in spite of everything, ‘the blue old girl travelling past’, urging this neighbour of hers that she loves so much on its watery way. A delightful sense of affection towards her river just about prevents the whole piece from descending into a well of sadness.
Rivers have inspired countless songwriters over the ages, and in some respects Welch and Rawlings’ ‘Riverboat Song’ is a grandchild of ‘Ol’ Man River’, from the 1927 musical Showboat, sung most famously and with unfathomable warmth by the great bass singer and political activist Paul Robeson. While some songs use a river as a metaphor for overcoming hardship (‘Many Rivers To Cross’ by Jimmy Cliff or ‘The River’ by Bruce Springsteen) and others dwell on things that happen alongside them (‘Take Me To The River’ by Talking Heads and ‘Down By The River’ by Neil Young) or even celebrate their power (‘Grand Coulee Dam’ by Woody Guthrie and ‘Proud Mary’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival), ‘Ol’ Man River’ and ‘Riverboat Song’ are simply celebrations of the wonders of a river as nothing more, and nothing less, than a creation of nature.
Talking of unchained power, my favourite Led Zeppelin track is river related: ‘When The Levee Breaks’, from their fourth album, originally recorded in 1927 by Memphis Minnie and Kansas John McCoy, and written about the Great Mississippi Flood that destroyed homes and crops that year. There’s a hint of this song in Welch and Rawlings’ verse about when their river flooded, and also in the ragtime bluesy feel of the original. Of course, Page & Co take the song by the scruff of the neck and shake it like a chorus girl, but there’s genuine old-time authenticity in Plant’s shrill harmonica when it arrives over Bonham’s relentless drum pattern, and Page’s slide guitar is unfussy, strident and similarly relentless, suggesting a warning call and the very real feeling of impending doom felt by those who live by a river during a particularly bad rainstorm.
The insistent feel of this Zep track is in some ways shared by Creedence’s surging ‘Proud Mary’, bringing to mind the reality that a river never stops moving, not even a tidal one like the Thames which, when the flow changes from upstream to down, seems to swirl around like a whirlpool, re-arranging itself for the next phase but still stirring, still in motion. So it’s no wonder that rivers, in themselves or as a metaphor, inspire songwriters; be it the contrast between Paul Simon’s troubled water and the stately progress of Art Garfunkel’s complementary vocal, or Dylan brooding on his luck as he watches the river flow, or Springsteen drawing a parallel between a river that has dried up and died and the broken dreams of Mary and her man.
You can hear Gillian Welch singing ‘Riverboat Song’ on YouTube, both the version on Boots No 1, and a different take that features a bluesier acoustic guitar and an accordion in the solo. Here’s the links:
Boots version:
Alt version: