Map of Big River gold workings, 1887

When I was little, my cousin told me that "time is a river" was the first metaphor. There's no way of knowing for certain. What we do know is that Mary Alice Monroe's book, entitled "Time is a River" concerns a woman with breast cancer who takes up fly fishing. Fly fishing, huh? Sounds an awful lot like A River Runs Through It.

Mary Alice Monroe: Phony, boring.

Some say Charlie Patton's "Green River Blues" is one of the earliest blues as evidenced by the line, "I'm going where the Southern cross the Dog."

Charlie Patton - Green River Blues

In 1903, W.C. Handy described waiting for a late train when a "lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept."

As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who use steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly."Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog"

The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard. The tune stayed in my mind. When the singer paused, I leaned over and asked him what the words meant. He rolled his eyes, showing a trace of mild amusement.

Perhaps I should have known, but he didn't mind explaining. At Moorhead, the east and west bound met and crossed the north and south bound trains four times a day. This fellow was going where the Southern railroad crossed the Yazoo Delta railroad, (nicknamed the "Yellow Dog"), and he didn't care who knew it. [source]

So, the river. No one knows how to breathe life into a tired metaphor quite like Bob Seger. Life is a big river; the late summer thunder is my discontent; life on the road, it's a book, turn the page.

Bob Seger - Big River

Frankly, the river is so rich with metaphor that Seger could have just as credibly sung "love is like a big river" or "dancing is like a big river" or, you know, whatever. But I guess "life" is a little more comprehensive.

There is, of course, another "Big River," by Johnny Cash. One of his finest songs, lyrics wise. And I think Bob Dylan agrees, having covered the song several times over the years. Here's a stellar version from the (unreleased) Basement Tapes.

Bob Dylan & The Band - Big River (Take 2)

And as a man uniquely sensitive to both the elemental and the myths of man, Dylan knew that it was only to his advantage to summon the river's majesty in song, as he did on this instrumental from the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack.

Bob Dylan - River Theme

Sexy Spice, Baby Spice, Crazy Spice.

For further proof of the river's metaphorical potency, look no further than the most talented Wilson, Dennis. This song is about walking through the river, and about escaping the rigors of the city, and how he wishes he was like the river.

Dennis Wilson - River Song

1 comment:

uptownavondale said...

I think the claim that time is a river is the oldest metaphor/simile maybe comes from its use in Psalm 90: "Time like an ever rolling stream bears all its sons away. They fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening of the day." This Psalm was attributed to Moses.