River Man

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"River Man"
Single by Nick Drake
from the album Five Leaves Left
Released 13 September 2004
Format CD single, 7" single
Recorded 1969
Genre Folk baroque, baroque pop
Length 4:21
Label Island (UK), Elektra (US)
Writer(s) Nick Drake
Producer(s) Robert Kirby and Joe Boyd
Nick Drake singles chronology
'River Man'

"River Man" (About this sound sample ) is the second listed song from Nick Drake's 1969 album Five Leaves Left. According to Drake's manager, Joe Boyd, Drake thought of the song as the centre piece of the album. In 2004 the song was remastered and released as a 7" vinyl and as enhanced CD single including a video to the song by Tim Pope.

Musical structure and lyrics[edit]

The song is in a 5/4 time signature and is one of the few songs Drake wrote to be played in standard tuning. The string arrangement was composed by Harry Robinson, after Drake's friend Robert Kirby felt he couldn't compose it alone, although he did most of the arrangements on Five Leaves Left.[1]

Drake did not reveal the identity of the 'Betty' character in the lyrics, although Trevor Dann speculated that she may have been drawn from Betty Foy, a character in Wordsworth's "The Idiot Boy", a poem Drake had studied while attending Cambridge.[2] However, the only similarity to the poem is the existence of a Betty.[3]


The song has been covered numerous times.

R. Stevie Moore recorded the song in 1987, which later appeared on the Nick Drake tribute album CD Brittle Days (Imaginary Records UK, 1992).

The American jazz singer Andy Bey included an arrangement of the song with a string section, guitar and bass on his 1998 album Shades of Bey (Evidence Music). Bey used what he called a 'soft palette' singing technique. Music producer Herb Jordan brought the song to Bey's attention, the success of which brought Bey and Nick Drake a new and wider audience.

The song was also part of jazz pianist Brad Mehldau's trio repertoire; it is featured on his 1998 album Songs: The Art of the Trio Volume Three, an over 11-minute-long improvisation on Progression: The Art of the Trio, Vol. 5 recorded live at the Village Vanguard in 2000, and in another concert slightly shorter solo interpretation recorded in 2003 Live in Tokyo. Other jazz versions of the song include a vocal version by Claire Martin from her 1999 album Take My Heart.

British folk musician Norma Waterson included a cover of "River Man" on her second solo album The Very Thought of You in 1999. The song was paired with a cover of John Martyn's "Solid Air", originally dedicated to Drake on Martyn's 1973 album Solid Air. Accompanying Norma Waterson were Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson who were both on the original Five Leaves Left album. Danny was also the double bass player on many John Martyn albums from that period.

Becky Unthank interpreted the song on Cruel Sister, the 2005 album by Rachel Unthank and the Winterset.

An oriental version of "River Man" was provided by singer Natacha Atlas in 2010 for her album Mounqaliba.

An interpretation by the Canadian singer Patricia O'Callaghan is featured on her 2011 album with the Gryphon Trio, Broken Hearts & Madmen.

Jazz singer Kurt Elling is featured on "River Man" on the album Rhythm Sessions by guitarist Lee Ritenour (Concord, 2012).

On Joe Boyd Presents Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake (Navigator, 2013), a compilation which features a new vocal interpretation by Teddy Thompson over Harry Robinson's original string arrangement.

Singer Lizz Wright recorded her version of the song on her 2015 album Freedon & Surrender featuring Till Brönner on trumpet.

Track listing[edit]

2004 CD
  1. "River Man"
  2. "Day Is Done" (by Norah Jones and the Charlie Hunter Band)
  3. "River Man" (video by Tim Pope)
2004 7"
  1. "River Man"
  2. "River Man" (demo version)


  1. ^ Raggett, Ned. "Five Leaves Left". Allmusic. Retrieved on 19 September 2006.
  2. ^ Dann, Trevor. Darker than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake (2006), (Hardback) Portrait. ISBN 0-7499-5095-1
  3. ^ A Tentative, Yet Serendipitous Discovery Upon Reading Wordsworth by Donnah Boyce

External links[edit]