So Long, The River

FEBRUARY 10, 2020

The songs on the Matamoros CD tell the stories of the characters in the book. Sometimes backstories of those characters, sometimes tales of what happens to them after the book ends, sometimes pieces of the narrative arc of the novel, but from the character’s subjective point of view, influenced by his dreams or self-image.

This song is a spiritual; an elegy for all the folks who didn’t make it out of the book alive. And, I suppose, for all the rest of us who won’t, either.

The title, So Long, The River, is a play on words – I confess to being a compulsive word player – referring to the river being so very long. That would be both the river of life and the river of death (a theme that’s explored further in the song, Rio Allie, about the life of the novel’s main female character). But the song title is also a farewell, as in “So long, old friend.”

The specific inspiration is a moment I can’t quite grasp. There was a scene in the old Western movie, Shane, where one of the farmers has been murdered by the man in black, Jack Palance, and a cluster of the dead man’s friends and neighbors bury him and stand around the grave on a bleak, open prairie where it’s hard to imagine any crops struggling to live, let alone flourishing; and yet they are farmers.



They say a few words. In my mind, they sing a few lines of a traditional hymn – I think it was “Shall We Gather at the River” – but their words trickle away in the wind. This is the first “river” association that comes to me.

But I also think I’m conflating this scene with a scene from another old movie, possibly another Western, but certainly mid-19th Century, with a similar heartbroken gathering of mourners standing around the newly dug grave – this time beside a gently flowing river – the women in gingham dresses, the men in overalls, floppy hats in their hands.

Anyway, those are the images that stirred me to write this song. Here’s the chorus:

Ohh, the river,
I know will deliver, deliver you home.
It’s the taker and the giver,
River, carry my words, be a song for this poem.

The river carrying you home has a long history of well-known symbology – home to God, home to the place this journey started, across the River Jordan or the River Styxx, to the Afterlife.

The river is the taker, the taker of our souls to the Great Beyond – but it’s also the giver, the giver of life, the sustainer.

And since all the rivers I’ve ever known make lovely sounds, I always found them to be like songs. So I’m asking this river to be the song for the poem I’m writing here.

In the writing of it I considered a more common syntax, using the line, “River, carry my words, make a song of this poem.” I think that would have been an easier line to “hear” as this song is sung; it maybe makes more intuitive, or colloquial, sense. But “make a song of this poem?” I don’t think rivers “make” anything; rivers just “be.” So that’s why I constructed the last line the way I did. It felt more poetic.

The verses (below) are pretty self-explanatory. Saying good-bye to the departed – I’ll try to hold you near, I can’t say good-bye yet, wish I’d said the things I wanted to say before you were gone forever, now the death bell tolls farewell.

I reprised the song at the end of the CD with different instrumentation, and a different singer – the beautiful, gifted Lois Mahalia – to turn it into more of a black gospel hymn. I wasn’t sure about the wisdom of this decision. It’s unusual to have just a single song on an album performed by a different artist, but I felt the fact that it was a reprise of a song I’d done earlier myself mitigated the discontinuity.

And I wanted this specifically different musical idiom, to honor and remember the African-American characters in the book who die – and those who actually did die, in that terrible time of slavery and civil war. Nothing civil about it.

But the exchange and interplay of musical genres, mingling across cultures, has always been one of the great promoters of peace and harmony, a gift that transcends language and conflict. So in the end, including black and white versions of the same song felt apt.

I also made a music video of the song, which you can see below. It’s a pretty simple video, mostly just me and the other musicians – Shawn Thies singing beautiful harmonies; and David West, who produced the CD, playing dobro and hammer dulcimer. Unseen are Brian Mann on accordion, and David playing standup bass.

Other than that, the images just relate to the theme of the song, including a brief visual vignette of me metaphorically aging until I end up in the grave, become a shadow, and then the memory of a shadow.

But now – can anybody help me remember what movie I saw that had the mourners standing at the river, beside the freshly dug grave, with the women in gingham dresses, and the men in overalls, holding floppy hats in their hands?

Here’s the whole song, with the music video at the bottom.

Ohh, the river,
I know will deliver, deliver you home.
It’s the taker and the giver,
River, carry my words, be a song for this poem.

I’ll hold you near, at least I’ll try,
Some other time, maybe, I’ll say good-bye,
By and by.

River taken some good friends from here,
Wish I’d made amends, but that was never so clear
‘Til you got gone, moved on.

So long to you, now gone away,
So long, the river, so long, the day,
So tolls the bell, I bid you farewell.


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