The River Knows Your Name (1995)

John Hiatt

Written by John Hiatt
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River Knows HiattTwenty-first-century pop music is so infected with superficiality that when we are confronted with an artist who deals with the core of the human condition – joy, defeat, suffering, the small accomplishments of living – it is like a bracing tonic – a good slap in the face.

John Hiatt creates songs dealing with the stripped down meanings of life.

Musically, he has been in every corner of America. His working parts are pulled from the enormous junkyard of influences piled up around the real art of the country. You hear old time C&W, Dylan, and the Dead in him. Another time you will hear near-Punk, New Wave, the Band, Neil Young and Outlaw Country. And very often you feel the highest highs that screaming electric guitars bring to the dance.

“The River Knows Your Name”

“The Unfaithful Servant” – The Band

Neil Young’s “Journey Through The Past”

His bluesy dignifying voice turns almost any subject into one of great gravity, unsettling as that may be. Although it sounds diametrically opposed to gravitas, his voice also brings a reassurance. It seems – separately from the brilliant, moving lyrics he writes – to say, “Yes, you will endure an enormous amount, but you will not just survive but prosper in spirit.”

“The River Knows Your Name” embodies all of those various qualities. It is a universal statement made to, and on behalf of, all humanity. The song is a major accomplishment in late 20th century American Rock, filtering and sending forth afresh dozens of musical currents while the words speak with a forthright poetry.

Oh the river knows your name
And your tears falling like the rain
All around you suffering and pain
Oh the river knows your name

River Knows Your NameAnd the river hears you cry
As the lightning cracks the open sky
As your Momma sings a lullaby
Oh the river she knows why

Let the river wash you down
Beneath the surface with a rushing sound
Like a freight train passing through a town
Let the river wash you down

From the slow opening riff, we know we are in the presence of a traditionalist, one who has listened and blotted up thousands of songs and styles.

The first dozen or so notes are eerily reminiscent of 1960’s “Angel Baby,” by Rosie & The Originals, a song which, as happens in “The River Knows Your Name,” the vocals and backing music are disembodied from one another. Curiously, too, the tempos of the pair of songs are remarkably similar.

john-hiattHiatt evokes many other songs, many other times as if historical snapshots were being tossed on a table in front of us. We feel the slow churning of river paddle-wheelers. A charming mandolin pokes its head in and out to make the point.

“Brokedown Palace” – The Grateful Dead

“Rockin’ Chair” by The Band

Neil Young’s “Peace Of Mind”

The Dead’s “Brokedown Palace” shuffles in and out of our consciousness. A number of The Band’s works filter through: “River Hymn” from Cahoots, and “Rockin’ Chair” from The Band (Brown Album). “Cripple Creek Ferry” from After The Goldrush; “Peace Of Mind” off Comes A Time; and “Natural Beauty” from Harvest Moon are Neil Young’s interlocking blocks with “The River Knows Your Name.”

Hiatt’s guitar playing, along with that of former Counting Crow’s ace axman, David A. Immerglück, is stellar, leisurely, stately, cinematic in reach. Decades-long seasoning has put super session drummer Jim Keltner smack in the middle of the perfect song for his abilities. (Keltner has played for dozens and dozens of top-tier recording artists. See MANGOIDS below.)

River knows huck jimThe listener pictures Huck and Jim meandering down the Big Muddy. The first Dutch sailors nosing up the Hudson. The slow, languid rivers of the ante-bellum South. The barge-congested Ohio, Tennessee, Delaware and Susquehanna. They all appear like ghosts.

But the river in Hiatt’s song is a metaphysical river as much as one brimming with rolling water. And it is a river rife with the dangerous currents of love and loss.

Let the river take away
All the words you and I could never say
In the silence, darling, let us pray
Let the river take it all away

Oh the river she knows your name
From the Brazos to the Wabash to the Seine
No two journeys are ever quite the same
But the river knows your name
Oh the river knows your name
River Knows The Brazos below Possum Kingdom Lake

The full name of the Brazos in Texas (left), translated from Spanish, is the “River of the Arms of God.” The reference to the Wabash River, near enough to where Hiatt lived as a boy, and the subject of many a mythical treatment in song , story and poem, is particularly fitting in the context of “The River Knows Your Name,” and its mention of “Mom.”


The 19th century “On The Banks Of The Wabash (Far Away)” contains these lines:

But one thing there is
missing from the picture
Without her face
it seems so incomplete
I long to see my mother
in the doorway

Cannily, songwriter Hiatt drops in the River Seine, immediately universalizing the song’s outlook, making it one that goes beyond parochial expectations and experiences. Everyone feel the movement of their river, understands the human race’s deep connection to river symbolism, the passage of time and the layering of experience in the course of a life.

Not quite country, not a hard rocker, not folk, but a true mosaic of American thought, musical art and literary convention, “The River Knows Your Name” is a strong masterpiece that manages to wrench the maximum meaning out of the conflict between despair and contented longing, regret and hope.

  • Hiatt said in a 1997 interview shortly after Walk On was released: “I guess music can heal, but I’ve more often had the sense that it’s rescued me. I’ve had this sense that it’s pulled me out whenever I’m in a rut. I’ve struggled with depression. I’ve always felt that everybody walks around on level ground, and I’m in a rut about two feet lower. It’s like the reverse of the old short actor syndrome, when they used to raise the old short actor in the movies a little bit so they didn’t seem so danged low.”
  • Drummer Jim Keltner has played with John Lennon, Jerry Garcia, Neil Young, Leon Russell, Bob Dylan Elvis Costello, to name but a handful.