This song was inspired by a trip to Alaska, where Taylor went river rafting. The "boatman" is the guide - the person you trust with your life on such adventures.
In a Songfacts interview with Taylor, he explained: "I had a guitar and it would have been morning, about 9 o'clock, a couple of cups of coffee in me. That's when I tend to do a lot of writing because that intersection of freshly rested neuron transmitters and caffeine tends to make it possible to write. And I just had a flow of lyrics.
This often happens with me, where the lyrics will just swirl around and I have:
Boatman, I am a river I am a mountain, to the sea Boatman, taker, and giver Can you deliver for me? And can I forever run free?
These are rhetorical questions, but it makes for a good, singable chorus."
Alaska is a place where many feel the presence of a higher power, and while there is a spiritual element to the song, there was also a practical one. "I didn't write it sort of verklempt, looking up at the mountains," Taylor told Songfacts. "I was there and I was looking up at the mountains, but it was just what came out at the time. And if I'm gonna make a record, I'm gonna need to write a record. So, there's a combination of pragmatic and skillful that goes into this."
Livingston's famous brother, James, covered this song on his 1997 album, Hourglass. The two have shared the stage on many occasions, and sometimes they share songs as well.
Taylor wrote this with him wife at the time, Maggie.