What is it about this river that’s so inspiring?
Well, the natural world overall has had a profound effect on American art, from seminal works like Thoreau’s Walden to popular favorites like John Denver’s Country Roads.
The Mississippi River has many of its own examples. Some of the best songs and novels have come from those living near the Mississippi. It’s had such an effect on artists that an entire genre of music was invented (Mississippi Delta Blues), just to properly express the soul and feelings of those who lived there. On one hand the river has prompted songs of homecoming and love, while on the other it’s been the backdrop for some of America’s darkest days, like slavery and later the Civil Rights Era.
Either way, we found the music so compelling that we wanted to highlight some of the best works inspired by the Mississippi. These songs also make for a fitting soundtrack to a long and peaceful float down the mighty river.
Ol’ Man River – Paul Robeson
‘Ol’ man river, that ol’ man river
He must know somethin’,
but he don’t say nothin’.”
Ol’ Man River is essentially about black slaves busting their butts along the Mississippi River, while it rolls along mindlessly yet serenely. One interpretation calls it a metaphor for the white man’s indifference to slavery (“What does he care if the world’s got troubles/What does he care if the land ain’t free?”), but we think the song’s message goes deeper.
We think Robeson’s lamenting on the quiet, rolling wisdom of nature. Humans work, they toil in the fields, they live and they die, but the grand ol’ river just minds its own business, nothing being good nor bad.
The song’s had several iterations, but Robeson’s version is the one listed at #24 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs.
Big River – Johnny Cash
‘She loves you, Big River, more than me’
Johnny Cash falls in love with a woman in St. Paul. He then follows her all the way down the Mississippi River, mentioning all the main ports along the journey. The song’s meaning has been up for debate, though the line, “She loves you, Big River, more than me” indicates the woman loves traveling more than romance.
Cash grew up near the Mississippi River on a small family farm in Dyess, Arkansas. He sang several songs about living in the South, including “Five Feet High an’ Risin’”, which was about the Mississippi flood of 1937 (not as disastrous as the Great Flood of 1927, but it had a huge effect on his family’s farm).
Big River has been covered by many famous bands, including the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. It was as high as #4 on the Billboard Charts and stayed on the list for 14 weeks.
A Change is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
‘I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ev’r since’
Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin in the Wind’ moved Sam Cooke in such a way that he was surprised, and inspired, that a white man could write such a powerful song about racism. Thus, A Change is Gonna Come was created.
Admittedly, the Mississippi River is only mentioned in regards to where Cooke was born. The song is largely his yearning for equal rights amongst blacks in America, and the South (notably the areas near the Mississippi River) play a prominent role in the story.
The song was released two weeks before Cooke’s mysterious death (a fatal shooting outside a Los Angeles motel), and became an unofficial anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. Several publications have referred to it as one of the best songs ever composed.
Mississippi Delta Blues – Jimmie Rodgers
“Way down on the delta on that Mississippi shore
In that muddy water, I long to be once more”
You cannot have a list of Mississippi music—let alone the blues—without including the legendary Jimmie Rodgers. He’s been described as “The Father of Country Music”, being one of its earliest musicians, and had produced more than 100 songs over the course of his short six-year career.
Rodgers was one of the first country musicians who talked about his worldly experiences, as opposed to lamenting about the farms and mountains. That makes Mississippi Delta Blues all the more unique, as he’s describing how much he yearns for its “muddy waters in his shoes”.
Roll on Mississippi – Charley Pride
“There she goes, disappearing around the bend.
Roll on Mississippi – you make me feel like a child again”
Perhaps no other song greater romanticizes the Mississippi River than “Roll on Mississippi”. If you’re ever feeling homesick, this song may just put you over the edge. It’s a slow, peaceful ode to Charley Pride’s home of Sledge, Mississippi, the place that feels “like a long lost friend”.
Charley Pride is one of the few black country singers around, and had a tremendously successful music career (in 1970, he became the best-selling performer for RCA records since Elvis Presley). His music embodies the southern mindset as good as anybody.
But really, if you want to truly understand what’s so inspiring about this river, you need to see it for yourself.
Our Mississippi River cruises are amongst our most popular, and always fill up quickly. Check availability to see which itinerary suits you.
Also, if you have suggestions on Mississippi music, please let us know!