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The River

by

Bruce Springsteen



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

This song is 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.
The shotgun 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.
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 (M.U.S.E.). 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.
A long, intense version was featured on the 1999 E Street Band reunion tour.
Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen Artistfacts
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Comments (35):

A dream that didn't come true means simply the reality of life and facing that may be hard and painful (at least to me). So the person regrets that it didn't 'happen' for him and for his wife, but in the end it did happen, for it is his life.

A dried up river may point at the years that have passed or the end of someone's life.
- Delilah, Paramaribo, Suriname
Buy Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band live 1975 - 1985. The best part about that box set is the harmonica being played on The River.
- Cody, Windber, PA
This album changed my life. Just wanted to say that (not that anyone cares). But this song (along with the whole album) makes you think about who you are and what you've done and makes you look through yourself in the mirror. Thank you Bruce!
- Ryan, warren ohio,
The River is about his sister. He usually dedicates it to her when he plays it in concert.
- Joe, Philadelphia, PA
One of the most beautifully crafted songs I've ever heard- the hopes dreams and excitement of his youth encapuslated into a perfect moment by the river on the eve of entire lifetime. Then the trials of real life overtake and begin to crush his dreams, slowly wearing him down until he grimly accepts his fate. But he will never forget....
If you listen to/read Fast Car by Tracy Chapman you will see that the theme and structure is exactly the same.
- Tim, Clarkdale, AZ
This tape was a gift for me my Senior year of High School. My girlfriend and I rode around with Bruce blasting in our radio. Thanks for the memories.Still 20 + years still a fan. J.Hume
- jennifer, harrodsburg, KY
This song continues the story of Mary, introduced in Thunder Road. The love he and Mary used to share dries up like the river they used to dive in during their courting days.
- Mike, Johnstown, PA
Growing up in the eighties my girlfriend had a black fiat. We rode around many a night listening
to The River. We would ride around on cold nights
cruising around our local hometown with the top down and the heater blowing wide open. Ha! Bruce thanks for the memories.

jennifer harrodsburg ky
- jennifer, harrodsburg, KY
"Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?" One of the most powerful and Haunting lines I have ever heard, and, like many Springsteen lyrics, can be interpreted many ways. I've always thought this line means that when your dreams are destroyed, you would be better off unable to dream at all. It could also mean that the only thing worse than a dream not coming true is losing your ability to dream at all. Either way, this song is one of my favorites of all time.
- Brad, Lexington, KY
Life imitates art. My wife and I separated yesterday. We met at high school 25 years ago. Had a baby before I could say "so Rosy come out tonight", got married for a total outlay of $200 at 4 weeks notice and lurched between triumph and tragedy for a quarter of a century. We still love each other but Jackie (not Mary - that would be really bizarre) loves someone else too now.
What a song, it has been putting a lump in my throat since our early days and now we're over, I'm drawn to it even more. SteveK.
- Steve, brisbane, Australia
I think this is one of the greatest songs ever written - every line is meaningful. To me, this song is an extension and finalization of images Springsteen used in earlier songs, such as Rosalita, Thunder Road, and Born to Run. In those songs, the singer and his girl were going to use their car to get away from whatever was holding them back, be it parents, school, a crummy job, etc. In The River, they took that car down to the river, where they could be free.

However, in this song, reality sets in - Mary gets pregnant, they have a shotgun wedding, and he takes construction job. Whatever dreams they had for their young lives are gone, and years later those memories haunt him like a curse. I see the imagery of the river as a combination of the singer's youthful dreams and perhaps the American Dream. This may be a repetition of a cycle going on for generations, since down in the valley, "they bring you up to do like your daddy done."
- Ed, Chesapeake, VA
I agree with Rhianne that the River is a metaphor for their spontaneous relationship. He makes a similar reference in "Hungry Heart." "Got a wife and kids in Baltimore Jack. I went out for a ride and I never went back. Like a river that don't know where it's flowin, I took a wrong turn and I just kept going." I think that song is about him having an affair that sweeps him away only to leave him high and dry.
- Brian, Chicago, IL
There is only one thing worse than a dream not coming true: losing your capacity to dream. That's the reason the river is dry.
- Tim, Raleigh, NC
I know what you mean, Bruce, for I too have often wondered about it. The song, to me, could almost pass as a lesson to not have affairs before marriage. I think that something as intimate as that should stay in marriage when you are properly bonded. If you want me to expand, please reply. But overall, this song is really great. It made number 25 of the most exquisitely sad songs ever, according to http://www.spinner.com/2007/05/03/the-25-most-exquisitely-sad-songs-in-the-whole-world-no-25/
- Blake, London, United Kingdom
Great song. I have always wondered about the something worse line. It has a forboding feel to it like something very dark had just happened.
The line about me and my baby, is he talking about his wife or the kid? Very cryptic.
- Bruce, Columbia, SC
What else could anyone say about such brilliant song and lyrics??? As a lyricist, Bruce is only surpassed by Mr. Dylan. By far this is one of the greatest songs by Bruce! I use to sing it on the streets, taking a shower, on the beach...I love this song! Alexandre Albertoni, Bairro da Aparecida, City of "Santos", Brazil. June 3, 2008.
- ALEXANDRE, SANTOS, Brazil
Just one of a lot of great songs from Springsteen.This one may have the best lyrics though.
- Jim, Warner Robins, GA
Love the metaphor of the river as his life. Great song. Probably one of his best.
- Gene, San Diego, CA
Why would someone want to even try and do a cover of this. It's not possible - it's perfect as it is. Leave it alone!
- Colin, Coventry, England
One of the Boss's greatest, if not, the greatest song he wrote. Certainly greatest story song just love the emotion he pours into it
- alec, sydney, Australia
This song got me hooked on Bruce Springsteen. Its very poetic and very romantic, and very sad. every time i hear it it makes me cry. I have the cd The Essential 3 disc one with this song on it.
- Jessica, Blmtn, IN
this song brought tears to my eyes. but what i think (thanks to being a hopeless romantic) is that the reference to 'the river' means the spontaneity of the relationship. the relationship started, they'd 'dive' into it, then the wedding, they had the spark, still young lovers, referring to 'into the river we did ride', then i turn to the last few lines in the song, there lives having been mapped out for them the spontaneity was taken out of the relationship, 'though i know that the river is dry', but the last two lines give me, and the hopeless romantics like me, hope, for the song finishes 'down to the river we dive.' i think the spontaneity of the relationship was taken, but the love remained, although it was hard, thats life and when he says 'my baby and i', well, thats when i cry for the hope that everything will be alright for the lovers and others like them.
- rhianne, Sunshine Coast, Australia
the lovely lyrics, i act like i dont remember mary acts like she dont care, so true in all of us
- neil.t, blackburn, England
Yeah. if you ever get a chance to hear The Clarks' version, it's pretty good. I believe it was on the Springsteen tribute CD. I also suggest hearing some other Clarks stuff as well.
- Andrew, New Bethlehem, PA
I always thought the river was a metaphor for escape (drugs,drinking whatever). When you realize the escape is empty and meaningless ( "I know the river is dry")its probably the lonliest moment in your life.
- John, Mullica Hill, NJ
This song is very haunting in a very realistic way. It could happen to anyone. The best lyrics IMO in this song are:

"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 right there makes it very haunting and very sad.
- Chad, Eagan, MN
Hmm. For some reason it reminds me of the book How Green was my Valley, by Richard Llewellyn, about a boy growing up in a small town in a valley. It's a tough read, but it's a classic.
- Robert, New York, NY
Yeah. The lyrics are great. "Is a dream a lie if it dont come true or is something worse" makes you really go over all the things you wanted to happen in your life that didnt and question your own personal ambitions and dreams in your life. Thats amazing one line can evoke that in you. Plus it reminds me of someone.
- Ty, Indianapolis, IN
or is it something worse that sends me down to the river even though the river is dry"

This is a metaphor. The River was meaning his life and his dreams, alive and flowing. Now, since the marriage, child, and economy, all of his hopes and dreams are gone. The river drying up reflects this....
- roxanne, southwest, FL
I grew up listening to Bruce Springsteen songs like "Lucky Town" and "Local Hero" which to me, seem like happy and light hearted songs. When I first heard this song, I was awed by the depth of sad and angry emotion Springsteen was able to convey, and then moved by the amazing lyrics, as Carlos said.
- Scott, NYC, NY
My uncle is convinced that the guy in the song kills himself at the end, because of the line "or is it something worse that sends me down to the river even though the river is dry" I don't think that's what's going on, but it's an interesting take on it.
- John, Cambridge, Canada
on the live box the begining of the song it really relates to me and my father and our realationship when i was a kid.
- Bob, Norwood, PA
This song was covered recently (and very well, I might add) by a local band called the Clarks. They've had a following in Pittsburgh for some time, and now they're getting some national recognition - they even went on Letterman this fall. If you find it, check it out.
- Billy, Pittsburgh, PA
In the Box Set Bruce Springsteen Live from 1975 to 1985 Before Bruce Plays the River The Band in the background a playing a melady with bruce telling the story of the relationship between himself and his father. I would lie to know if anyone knows what that melady was and what its called and if there is anyway I can get a hold of just the melady.
- Fabio, Melbourne, Australia
the lyrics from this song are impressive."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"
- Carlos, Albacete, Spain
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