Our Favorite Songs about Rivers

by | Nantahala River, Ocoee River

The Nantahala River in western North Carolina and the Ocoee River in Ducktown, Tennessee, much like songs, can be an inspiring way to spend time in the Great Smoky Mountains and the Nantahala National Forest. Music is a big part of most of our life and invokes memories of long ago, favorite places, and favorite moments. Visiting and rafting a river is a wonderful way to make those memories to look back on fondly when the twilight years creep upon you. White water rafting is one of the most enjoyable and peaceful ways to get away from it all, and you can make memories of a lifetime down at the river. Maybe one day you or your children will write songs about the Nantahala River or the Ocoee River–places they visited in their youth that bring about nostalgia and a longing to return to the river. Below are a few of our favorite songs about rivers for your enjoyment and inspiration.

Proud Mary – Creedence Clearwater Revival

“Proud Mary” was written by John Fogerty about a man who leaves a stressful life for a mythical Mississippi Riverboat called Proud Mary, searching for a peaceful life. Despite what people think, this song is not about smoking weed as the words “rollin’ on the river” might suggest. Instead, it’s about a man who is rolling with life and taking it easy. If the Nantahala River in the Great Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina had a theme song, “Proud Mary” would probably be it.

If you come down to the river
Bet you gonna find some people who live

You don’t have to worry cause you have no money
People on the river are happy to give

Following the River – The Rolling Stones

“Following the River” was pulled from The Rolling Stones archives for their 2010 updated 1972 album, “Exile on Mainstreet.” It started out as just a Nicky Hopkin’s piano piece, but Mick Jagger worked with the melody to create words for the song and came up with this soulful ballad about a guy, with a drifter’s heart (who is in a doomed relationship), giving up a woman he’ll never forget to follow the river.

I’ve been following that river, to join hands with the sea
I’ve been thinking of you all the time

‘Cause you always saw the good in me
I’ll be following the river – oh my!
‘Til it spills out in the sea 

River of Dreams – Billy Joel

Billy Joel woke from a dream where he was on a spiritual journey, but resisted writing the song because he identifies as an atheist. The song sounded too much like gospel to him. However, the song stuck in his head, and he knew he had to write it and sing it. The song includes biblical and religious imagery, and the river of dreams is a stream of consciousness as he goes “walking in his sleep” looking for something he doesn’t understand.

Even though I know the river is wide
I walk down every evening and I stand on the shore
I try to cross to the opposite side
So I can finally find out what I’ve been looking for 

Black Water – Doobie Brothers

“Black Water” was likely inspired by Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tommy Sawyer, both books about rafting down the Mississippi River. This song wasn’t meant to be a single and was the B side of “Another Park, Another Sunday.” It started receiving a lot of airplay and, before they knew it, the song became their first number one single on March 15, 1975.

Well, I built me a raft and she’s ready for floatin’
Ol’ Mississippi, she’s callin’ my name
Catfish are jumpin’, that paddle wheel thumpin’
Black water keeps rollin’ on past just the same

Down to the River to Pray – Alison Krauss & Union Station

As with some old gospel songs, it’s hard to pinpoint their exact origin.  “Down to the River to Pray” has been attributed to George H. Allan in the Slave Songbook of 1867. The song gained popularity when Alison Krauss sang it for the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Though there are various titles for the song–“Down in the Valley to Pray,” “Come, Let Us All Go Down” and “The Good Old Way”– it’s a song about keeping your faith when life has become dark and you turn to prayer to get you through.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way! 


Moon River – Audrey Hepburn

“Moon River” was written by Johnny Mercer and composed by Harry Mancini for the 1961 movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” starring Audrey Hepburn (great movie!). Mercer wrote the song about a river in Savannah, Georgia called Back River, which was later renamed Moon River in honor of the song. The river represents heartbreak, dreams, and hope.

Moon river, wider than a mile
I’m crossing you in style someday
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker
Wherever you’re going, I’m going your way

River Bank – Brad Paisley

“River Bank” is a fun song written about having fun on the river. Anyone who goes white water rafting can relate. Brad Paisley, who calls himself a river rat (terminology for someone who spends a lot of time at a river), grew up near a river in Ohio where he spent most of his childhood and teens and made a lot of memories. “River Bank” is a good-time, upbeat summer jam guaranteed to get you on the river for some awesome white water rafting on the Nantahala River or Ocoee River.

“We got an inner tube
We got a trailer hitch
We’re near the river and far from rich
But we have got each other and gas in the tank
We’re laughing all the way to the river bank.”

Chattahoochee – Alan Jackson

“Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee, it gets hotter than a hoochie coochie.” Admit it; It takes you back to playing in the river on a hot summer day, of growing up in a small town, living and loving, and all the fun memories made. “Chattahoochee” was written by Jim McBride and Alan Jackson. McBride had read a book about the Chattahoochee River in Alabama which inspired the song. With its upbeat tempo, it became one of Alan Jackson’s biggest hits.

Down by the river on a Friday night
A pyramid of cans in the pale moonlight
Talking ’bout cars and dreaming ’bout women
Never had a plan just a livin’ for the minute
Yeah, way down yonder on the Chattahoochee
Never knew how much that muddy water meant to me
But I learned how to swim and I learned who I was
A lot about livin’ and a little ’bout love 

Fishin’ in the Dark – Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

“Fishin’ in the Dark” was written by Jim Photoglo to go along with a melody he was working on. When Wendy Waldman suggested he write a song about fishing, he wasn’t too keen on the idea. Finally, he decided to go along with it, and the hugely popular song “Fishin’ in the Dark” was created. It’s a song about going fishing at a river with your sweetheart. So, grab the one you love and head to your nearest riverbank for some fishin’ in the dark!

Lazy yellow moon comin’ up tonight
Shinin’ through the trees
Crickets are singin’ and lightnin’ bugs
Are floatin’ on the breeze
Baby get ready

Just Around the Riverbend – Pocahontas

“Just Around the Riverbend” was written by Stephen Schwartz and composed by Alan Menken for the animated movie, Pocahontas. Performed by Judy Kuhn, the song is about a Native American woman who must decide what to do with her life. As she comes to a riverbend, she has two choices–take the safer calmer route, or the coursing and unpredictable route–she chooses the unpredictable route. Both routes are a metaphor for life. Play it safe or go for adventure and do the unconventional thing.

What I love most about rivers is
You can’t step in the same river twice
The water’s always changing, always flowing
But people, I guess, can’t live like that
We all must pay a price
To be safe, we lose our chance of ever knowing
What’s around the riverbend
Waiting just around the riverbend

Green River – Creedence Clearwater Revival (Woodstock 1969)

John Fogerty got the title for “Green River” from his favorite soda fountain flavor called green river. The song is about him taking trips with his parents to a place called Putah Creek, near Winters, California. His fond memories of the place made it into the lyrics of “Green River.” They often stayed in a cabin owned by one of Buffalo Bill’s descendents, which he references in the song with “up at Cody’s camp I spent my days…”

Well, take me back down where cool water flows, y’all
Oh, let me remember things I love
Stoppin’ at the log where catfish bite
Walkin’ along the river road at night
Barefoot girls dancin’ in the moonlight

The River – Garth Brooks

What list of songs about rivers would be complete without Garth Brooks’ “The River”? This song inspires many to chase their dreams no matter how turbulent life gets. Released in April of 1992 off the Album “Ropin’ the Wind”, it became another number one hit for this iconic country singer. Written in collaboration with Victoria Shaw, they created a song from the heart.

I will sail my vessel
‘Til the river runs dry
Like a bird upon the wind
These waters are my sky
I’ll never reach my destination
If I never try
So I will sail my vessel
‘Til the river runs dry 

Now that music has gotten you in the mood for some river time, book a trip with Carolina Outfitters and Carolina Ocoee and start making memories that will never fade!


Margaret Marr, is a local author of paranormal, mystery, and suspense laced with romance. She has written over 15 books available on Amazon. 


From the Blog

Our Posts

The Hellbender

The Hellbender

What is a Hellbender? If you walked up on a Hellbender while wading or fishing in the Nantahala River or Little Tennessee River, you might yelp and...

Return of Cicadas to East Tennessee

Return of Cicadas to East Tennessee

Remember those hot summer days swimming in the lake, or fishing from the banks of the Ocoee River, with the sound of cicadas singing from the trees?...

Is Nantahala a Temperate Rain Forest?

Is Nantahala a Temperate Rain Forest?

If you’ve visited the Great Smoky Mountains and the Nantahala Gorge for hiking, and white water rafting with Carolina Outfitters, you’ve probably...

Creeks that Feed the Nantahala

Creeks that Feed the Nantahala

If you’ve never chased lizards or crawdads along a creek bed on a warm spring afternoon, or waded in a creek on a hot summer day, or fished from a...