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Songs About Places: Water, Rain, and Rivers

A playlist for those who seek inspiration from water—whether it's falling from the sky or running downhill.

James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell | March 7, 2018, 2pm PST
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Big Flat, California
The Trinity River in Big Flat, California.
David Fulmer

The Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California recently created a "Water Playlist," and I was inspired to create a playlist to follow up and build on the work they've done.

After getting wrapped up in the fun of digging through old favorites and discovering new jams, I realized I had a bounty on my hands and had to share. I am grateful for the inspiration the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California provided me and anyone else with an interest (or obsession) with water. I haven't duplicated any of the songs on their list here, so make sure to go to their source for the H2O you seek as well.

As I've mentioned in previous posts "Songs about Places" posts, rivers are a common and powerful trope in some truly powerful and memorable songs. The themes evoked by water speak to the inspiration and imperative of planning and design practice—there are few elements of life that balance joy and risk like music, water, design, and place.

There might be no pop music at all without the impulse to build metaphors of catharsis and challenge—and water, rain, and rivers are old, trusted standbys in the craft of songwriting. You'll find Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and the Beatles on this list. In many of these old pop songs, you'll hear of rain as a manifestation of misery and sorrow, but also as an obstacle to be overcome. The Beatles and the Doobie Brothers embrace the rain to celebrate life. Sister Rosetta Tharpe and, later, Leon Bridges seek redemption from sin in the water. Willie Nelson turns water into a river of whiskey, in a different brand of transformation.

Over and over again, we hear of the threat of rising water, in older songs like "Trinity River Blues" and "Five Feet High and Rising" as well as newer songs like "Flood Plains" and "New Folksongs for New Buildings." Water can and will erase the signifiers of material life—though those signifiers might change across the decades. Living in the shadow of a levee, or on a floodplain, water can become a constant, terrifying pressure, and symbol for all of our anxieties. For the Doobie Brothers, Joni Mitchell, and Frank Ocean, rivers provide relief from that pressure as a path to escape. In "River of Babylon" and "Ol' Man River," rivers symbolize freedom—an escape from slavery. Sometimes we need to cross rivers to overcome challenges and achieve dreams—as explored in "Moon River" by Frank Ocean, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," by Simon and Garfunkel, and "The Drummer" by Niki and the Dove.

Water and music also reveal a rare and evocative resemblance. Rivers and music exist in the same four dimensions, but they are each utterly unique in every moment. As Heraclitus famously said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." The same can be said for any song performed live, as any musician knows. Rivers and rain produce rhythm and noise, in another evocative similarity with music. In the novel Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse, the novel's namesake finds enlightenment when he hears the sound Om emerge from a river. It's no surprise that music is so frequently described as meditative. "The Drummer" uses river imagery to explore the elemental role of rhythm in human life. The similarities between song and river are most cleverly illustrated by "Five Feet High and Rising," when Johnny Cash changes to a higher key with every verse to mimic the rising water of the song.

Finally, rivers provide a geographic cornerstone for the formation of history and personality, with the most famous examples found in songs by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. Anyone who has ever lived and loved in a wild and free watershed knows the constant pull of rivers, in life and memory. Our life in the watershed changes with every season, and the watershed provides new kinds of sustenance in every season.

Because I'm writing from California, where we are certain to plunge into drought only a year after record rainfall threatened to overwhelm the state, I will play these songs and dance for the rain to fall. May the rain fall in abundance, but never rise high enough to destroy the people and places you can't live without.

Here comes the rain again.

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