River Man

Album: Five Leaves Left (1969)
Charted: 48


  • The song is backed by a 12-strong string section heavy on violas. It's likely that Drake desired to evoke the English composer Frederick Delius with this piece.
  • This song is primarily in a 5/4 timing with occasional shifts to 4/4. Drake's Cambridge friend Robert Kirby, who did the string arranging for Five Leaves, was unable to work on this track and Scottish composer Harry Robinson had to fill in. Kirby explained to Mojo June 2009: "Dave Brubeck's 'Take Five' aside, that was the only time in my life I'd heard a piece of music consistently in 5/4. I could not for the life of me work out how to write a piece of music that didn't stagger along like a spider missing a leg, how you crossed over and missed the bar lines. But Harry's string arrangement is scarcely in 5/4- it goes along like a limpid river all the way, moving regularly and crossing over all the beats and the 5/4 with it."
  • Back in 1958 Robinson had a UK #1 hit as the leader of Lord Rockingham's XI with "Hoots Mon."
  • The album title referred to the warning found towards the end of a packet of Rizla cigarette papers, that there were only five leaves left.
  • Nick Drake lived to just 26 and released only three albums, but decades later, musicians were still discovering his work and citing him as an influence. "River Man" is a song that comes up a lot in Drake discussions: when we spoke with Duncan Skeik, he talked about how the song gave him musical direction. "That song blew me away," said Sheik. "This is the sound I was looking for: this golden gem that's been hiding under a rock for two decades. It kind of crystallized a lot of things I wanted to do in terms of using string arrangement and acoustic guitars, and the possibility of that sonic palette."

Comments: 4

  • Whydoit from San ClementeRiver man is god
    Betty is Nick contemplating suicide

    Betty came by on her way
    Said she had a word to say
    About things today
    And fallen leaves.

    My take: nick has something to say about the world today and about the past

    Said she hadn't heard the news
    Hadn't had the time to choose
    A way to lose
    But she believes.

    My take: he is agnostic has not taking time to listen to the word of god or choose one religion but believes in god

    Going to see the river man
    Going to tell him all I can
    About the plan
    For lilac time.

    My take: he is going to talk to god about his plan to kill himself which would end in a funeral of flowers lilacs

    If he tells me all he knows
    About the way his river flows
    And all night shows

    My take: if god would tell him the meaning of life or how the world "river" works and all the night that show is a reference to the stars and the universe

    In summertime.
    Betty said she prayed today
    For the sky to blow away
    Or maybe stay
    She wasn't sure.
    For when she thought of summer rain
    Calling for her mind again
    She lost the pain
    And stayed for more.

    My take: Again he is trying to decide whether the pain of life is worth it but remembers the good times and choose to live a bit longer

    Going to see the river man
    Going to tell him all I can
    About the ban
    On feeling free.

    My take: going to talk to god about the ban to commit suicide and being set free of this world

    If he tells me all he knows
    About the way his river flows
    I don't suppose
    It's meant for me.
    Oh, how they come and go
    Oh, how they come and go.

    If god tells him the meaning of life maybe life is not meant for him just like others before him also come and go
  • Craig from Lafayette Hill, PaAnother possible meaning for the album title is this short story by O. Henry, The Last Leaf:

    It's quite astonishing that, Five Leaves Left, came out approximately five years before his death, and of course contained the song, Fruit Tree, whichof course, fortells his own destiny.
  • Roman from Barrie, Onis it a coincidence that like this song many other songs by other artists about a "river" are about sorrow, pain, death and other forms of tragedy; is this perhaps the common stream in mankind.
  • Musicmama from New York, NyThis song is not just about the seductiveness of quite desperation and despair; it's a kind of metaphor in music for the seductiveness of quiet desperation and despair. The music moves along--I was going to say languidly, but that word sounds to leisurely, and there is nothing in this song that hints and leisure--like the drifting of a seemingly slow and melancholy, yet inescapable, river current. The narrator of the song has no choice but to go to the river man even if the answers and anything else the river man has are not meant for him--or for "Betty," who waits "for the sky to blow away" or "perhaps to stay." She isn't sure of which.

    In some odd way, this song reminds me of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Check it out--and, of course "River Man." I love this song and, in fact, every other song that accompanies it on the "Five Leaves Left" album.
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