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."