Watching the River Flow

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"Watching the River Flow"
A 7-inch single cover showing Bob Dylan in front of a field. The words "Bob Dylan", "Watching The River Flow", and "Spanish Is The Loving Tongue" appear over the picture.
Single by Bob Dylan
B-side "Spanish Is the Loving Tongue"
Released June 3, 1971 (1971-06-03)
Format 7-inch single
Recorded March 16–19, 1971
Studio Blue Rock, New York City
Genre Blues rock
Length 3:34
Label Columbia
Songwriter(s) Bob Dylan
Producer(s) Leon Russell
Bob Dylan singles chronology
"If Not for You"
(1971)
"Watching the River Flow"
(1971)
"George Jackson"
(1971)

"Watching the River Flow" is a blues rock song by American singer and songwriter Bob Dylan. It was written and recorded during sessions in March 1971 at Blue Rock Studio in New York City, with Leon Russell credited as the producer. To arrange for the sessions, Dylan had made contact with Eddie Korvin, engineer and owner of the downtown recording studio. His wish to collaborate with Russell and his "Mad Dog" touring band was formed in part through Dylan's desire for a new sound—after a period of immersion in country rock music—and for a change from his previous producer. The song was praised by critics for its energy and distinctive vocals, guitar, and piano. It has been interpreted as Dylan's account of his writer's block in the early 1970s, and his wish to deliver less politically engaged material and find a new balance between public and private life.

A minor hit in some countries worldwide, the song was included on the 1971 Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. II, and other Dylan compilation albums. In 2011, five current and former Rolling Stones appeared on a recording of "Watching the River Flow" as part of a tribute project for pianist Ian Stewart. The song has been covered by the Earl Scruggs Revue, Steve Gibbons, Colin James, Russell, and many others.

Writing and recording[edit]

Musician Leon Russell is shown from the head up in front of a microphone.
Leon Russell (pictured in 2009) was credited as the producer of "Watching the River Flow".[1]

Between 1967 and 1970, Bob Dylan recorded and released a series of albums that incorporated country rock elements.[2][3][4][5] All were produced by Bob Johnston.[6][7] During the sessions for the final of these, New Morning, Dylan decided that he did not want to continue working with Johnston.[a] Al Kooper did uncredited production work to help Dylan finish the album.[9][10] For his next recording session at Blue Rock Studio, Dylan asked Leon Russell, who made his name with Joe Cocker,[11] to assist in finding a new sound.[12]

The recording sessions took place on March 16–19, 1971.[13] In addition to Russell on acoustic piano, his backing group included Carl Radle on bass, Jesse Ed Davis on electric guitar, and Jim Keltner on drums.[11][13] All four of the band members were early musical friends from Oklahoma who also became highly sought after session players based mostly in Los Angeles. On the first day in the studio, Dylan, on acoustic guitar and vocals, led the band through a rehearsal jam that included covers of Spanish Harlem, That Lucky Old Sun, I'm A Ladies Man (Hank Snow), Blood Red River (Josh White), and I'm Alabama Bound (performed Lead Belly). Engineer Eddie Korvin recorded a low-speed 1/4" mono tape of the first day's rehearsal. On the second day, after a brief rehearsal, "Watching the River Flow" was recorded with Dylan singing live with the band. "When I Paint My Masterpiece" was recorded in similar fashion on the third day and a mix of both songs took place on the last day.

"Watching the River Flow" was based on studio jams done at Blue Rock,[14] and uses a chord progression in the key of F major.[15][16] Russell recalled that when developing the song, the basic track was formed, and that Dylan then wrote the lyrics in several minutes.[11] Jim Keltner has also reported that Dylan wrote the songs at the Blue Rock session quickly: "I remember Bob ... had a pencil and a notepad, and he was writing a lot. He was writing these songs on the spot in the studio, or finishing them up at least."[14]

The music of "Watching the River Flow"—whose feel the journalist Bob Spitz has likened to Dylan's "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" (1966)[18]—has been described by different critics as a "[b]lues-powered sound [that cascades] like clumps of flotsam and jetsam",[19] as "featur[ing] some blistering guitar work ... and rollicking piano work from Russell",[17] and as "an energetic, funky-gospel rocker".[20] The recording has been praised for the dynamic way in which Dylan's vocal mannerisms bounce off Russell's characteristic stride piano playing.[18] Biographer Clinton Heylin has pointed out that Dylan borrowed the line "If I had wings and I could fly" from the song "The Water is Wide" and words from "Old Man River" for his composition.[14]

Four and a half months after the recording session, on August 1, Russell backed Dylan on bass at the Concert for Bangladesh, organized by George Harrison.[21] In November 1971, Russell accompanied Dylan into a studio again to record Dylan's next single, "George Jackson". At this session, held at CBS Manhattan Studios, Russell once more played bass.[22][23] Joe Schick, the manager of Blue Rock in 1971, has commented that although Dylan and Russell had a reasonably friendly relationship, their rapport was not strong enough to record an album together.[18] Indeed, Heylin noted in 2009 that Russell had not recorded with Dylan again;[14] however, they did tour together in 2011.[24] Russell died in 2016.[25]

The b-side of "Watching the River Flow" was "Spanish is the Loving Tongue" (written by Charles Badger Clark–Billy Simon). Dylan used the second of two takes of the song recorded during the New Morning sessions on June 2, 1970, in Columbia Studios in New York City. Musicians at these sessions included Bob Dylan, vocal, guitar, harmonica, and piano; Al Kooper, organ; Charlie Daniels, bass; David Bromberg, guitar, dobro; Russ Kunkel, drums; Ron Cornelius, guitar.[26][b]

Release and charts[edit]

The song was released as a single on June 3, 1971.[13] In the US, Columbia Records' promotion included a full-page Billboard advertisement, declaring the track as "A unique new single by Bob Dylan." The advert contained a photograph of Dylan holding a camera to his eye.[30]

It was a Top 40 hit in Canada,[31] the Netherlands,[32][33] and the United Kingdom,[34] and reached No. 41 on the US Billboard charts.[35] Billboard writer Paul Grein has noted that it was the second consecutive American Dylan single, after 1970's "Wigwam", to miss the Top 40 by one spot.[36][c] On November 17, 1971, "Watching the River Flow" appeared on Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. II.[40] It was later included on the compilations Greatest Hits, Vol. 1–3 (2003),[41] Playlist: The Very Best of Bob Dylan '70s (2009),[42] and Beyond Here Lies Nothin': The Collection (2011).[43]

Chart (1971) Peak
position
Canadian RPM Singles Chart[31] 19
Dutch Single Top 100[32] 18
Dutch Top 40[33] 24
UK Singles Chart[34] 24
US Billboard Hot 100[35] 41

Critical comments[edit]

Biographer Robert Shelton wrote that in the early 1970s, Dylan was frequently criticized for "selling out" and that people were pressuring him to go back to his earlier trend of composing protest songs.[20][d] For Shelton, who noted the promotional photo for "Watching the River Flow" depicting Dylan looking through a camera, the track expressed Dylan's wish just to be an observer, and not a political activist.[20] Author Seth Rogovoy similarly interpreted the song as Dylan's desire to ignore politics and avoid getting involved in people's disputes.[46] The line "[This ol' river] keeps on rollin', though/No matter ... which way the wind does blow" has been heard by writers Peter Vernezze and Carl J. Porter as evidence of Dylan's conviction that "the river of time, the flow of facts, in reality remains unaffected by winds of beliefs, the flow of changing opinions."[47]

Greil Marcus highlighted the importance of disregarding one's initial reading of the song. "The first impression is that Bob Dylan is setting up the usual private scene: 'I'll sit here and watch the river flow.' Well, that's certainly a boring idea. It's the implicit message of just about everything James Taylor has ever written".[48] He went on to describe how Dylan explores the difficulty of retaining privacy while making public art; the singer is coming to terms with unwanted attention inherent in stardom, without giving up his connection to his fans.[48] Marcus argued that the reason the single was not a hit in the US was because "the time has passed when people are interested in hearing Bob Dylan say he'll just sit there and watch the river flow ... even though that's not quite what he's saying". For Marcus, "Watching the River Flow" is a compelling work, but the subtlety of the song may have prevented it from reaching a wide audience.[48]

Clinton Heylin and writer Christopher Ricks discussed Dylan's restlessness in the song. Heylin said that in "Ballad of Easy Rider", co-written by Dylan and Roger McGuinn two years earlier, Dylan claimed he was content to watch while "The river flows, flows to the sea/Wherever it flows, that's where I want to be"; by contrast, in "Watching the River Flow", Dylan writes that he wants to be moving, wishing he was "back in the city/Instead of this old bank of sand".[14] Ricks found Dylan's unsettledness at odds with the implied bucolic notion of watching the river flow. For Ricks, the vocal phrasing and the musical arrangements clash with the lyrics; the "choppy" rhythms and "stroppy stomping" of the backing track, disrupt the theme of contentedly watching the river.[49] He noted that two of the verses begin with "People disagreeing", introducing conflict into the song, and concluded that "Watching the River Flow" is "tarred with a realism that qualifies and complicates the lure of the lazy".[49]

Heylin heard in the composition Dylan's admission that in 1971 he felt uninspired about writing lyrics and had no specific ideas he wanted to voice. The biographer placed this avowal in the context of changing, polarized critical estimates of Dylan's work in the late 1960s and early 1970s.[14] In June 1970, Dylan had released Self Portrait, an album that received very negative reviews;[8] Dylan's next album that year, New Morning, was viewed much more favorably by critics,[50] and Ralph Gleason declared "We've got Dylan back again!"[9][14] For Heylin, Dylan's assertion in the song that he does not have any particular message to express, is an attempt to subvert critics like Gleason.[14][e] Heylin wrote that both "Watching the River Flow" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece" discuss Dylan's professed lack of inspiration at the time in an honest and satisfying way.[52] Pointing to the fact that Dylan made no attempt to record either a single or an album in the following year of 1972, he commented that "Dylan had now concluded that he must simply sit by that bank of sand and await [his muse's] return."[53]

Ian Bell, in his critical biography of Dylan, wrote that it was "no accident" that both "Watching The River Flow" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece" made much the same statement. Bell argued that "When I Paint My Masterpiece" is the better song as it is the funnier of the two. Bell heard Dylan mocking both his admirers and his own reputation in this composition, while he detected in "Watching The River Flow" an admission that "If creativity is a habit, Dylan was all but cured."[54]

Personnel[edit]

The musicians who recorded "Watching the River Flow" are:[13]

Live performances and covers[edit]

Bob Dylan together with four members of his band onstage.
Dylan playing at the Spektrum in Oslo, Norway, on March 30, 2007, one of hundreds of concerts where he has performed "Watching the River Flow".[55]

Dylan first performed the song live on November 21, 1978, in El Paso, Texas, and again, two days later, in Norman, Oklahoma.[55] He did not play it in concert again until July 19, 1987, in Eugene, Oregon; from that point on, he has often included the song in his sets.[55] According to his official website, as of May 2018 Dylan has performed the song exactly 500 times.[55]

On April 18, 2011, musician Ben Waters released the album Boogie 4 Stu, a tribute to the late Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart,[56][57] including a version of "Watching the River Flow" featuring the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood, as well as former member Bill Wyman.[56] The five Rolling Stones recorded their contributions separately, in different studios at different times,[56][58] but the track constituted the first time since 1992 that Wyman had recorded on the same song as his former bandmates.[56] The choice of the song was based on Ian Stewart's judgment that "Watching the River Flow" was "the only decent thing Bob Dylan ever did".[58]

The song has been covered by numerous artists, including Seatrain (1973),[59] the Earl Scruggs Revue (1976),[60] Steve Gibbons (1977),[61] Joe Cocker (1978),[62] Steve Forbert in the I-10 Chronicles (2001),[63] Ken Saydak (2001),[64] Colin James (2005),[65] Asylum Street Spankers (2006),[66] and Steve Gadd (2010).[67] Leon Russell released his own version in 1999 on the compilation Tangled Up in Blues.[68]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ According to biographer Howard Sounes, Dylan became annoyed when Johnston left to take part in a European tour with Leonard Cohen. Johnston told Sounes: "I took off and figured he would call. I don't really know what happened ... I think it was just I wasn't around, or he wanted a change."[8]
  2. ^ The "Watching the River Flow" b-side version was later also included on the compilation albums Mr. D's Collection Number 1 (1974), Masterpieces (1978), and Pure Dylan – An Intimate Look at Bob Dylan (2011).[26] Dylan has released three other recordings of "Spanish is the Loving Tongue": the first take from the June 2, 1970 session, on The Bootleg Series Vol. 10: Another Self Portrait (2013);[26] an April 24, 1969 version from the Self Portrait sessions, on Dylan (1973);[27] and a 1967 recording with the Band on The Bootleg Series Vol. 11: The Basement Tapes Complete (2014).[28] Dylan has performed the song in concert once in his career, on May 11, 1976, in San Antonio, Texas.[29]
  3. ^ Between these two American releases—in spring 1971—the single "If Not for You" was released in European countries.[37] In the Netherlands, it reached number 5 on the Dutch Top 40 chart and number 30 on the Dutch Single Top 100 chart.[38][39]
  4. ^ Dylan wrote most of his protest songs in the early 1960s.[44] Even in 1966,[45] and still in the early 1970s,[20] some of his fans were unhappy that he had abandoned protest music.
  5. ^ In his autobiography, Chronicles, Dylan expressed his disgust at the term "Spokesman" which he felt the press had foisted on him: "The press never let up. Once in a while I would have to rise up and offer myself for an interview so they wouldn't beat the door down. Later an article would hit the streets with the headline "Spokesman Denies That He's A Spokesman". I felt like a piece of meat that someone had thrown to the dogs."[51]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Heylin 1995, p. 90
  2. ^ Erlewine: John Wesley Harding: Review
  3. ^ Erlewine: Nashville Skyline: Review
  4. ^ Erlewine: Self Portrait: Review
  5. ^ Erlewine: New Morning: Review
  6. ^ Heylin 1995, pp. 69–79
  7. ^ New Morning: Credits
  8. ^ a b Sounes 2001, p. 260
  9. ^ a b Sounes 2001, p. 261
  10. ^ Heylin 2011, p. 320
  11. ^ a b c Gill 2005, pp. 30–31
  12. ^ Heylin 2009, p. 507
  13. ^ a b c d Björner 1971 – Blue Rock Studios
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h Heylin 2009, pp. 512–514
  15. ^ Bob Dylan: Bootleg Songbook
  16. ^ Bob Dylan: Watching the River Flow – Lyrics & Chords
  17. ^ a b Varesi 2002, p. 106
  18. ^ a b c Spitz 1991, pp. 405–406
  19. ^ Dean 2003, p. 218
  20. ^ a b c d Shelton 1986, pp. 476–478
  21. ^ Sounes 2001, pp. 266–267
  22. ^ Gray 2006, p. 595
  23. ^ Björner 1971 – Studio B
  24. ^ Bob Dylan Summer 2011 U.S. Tour
  25. ^ Kreps 2016
  26. ^ a b c Björner 1970 – Studio E
  27. ^ Björner 1969 – Studio A
  28. ^ Björner 1967 – Red Room
  29. ^ Spanish Is The Loving Tongue (Bobdylan.com)
  30. ^ Watching the River Flow (advertisement)
  31. ^ a b Top Singles – Volume 16, No. 1, August 21, 1971
  32. ^ a b Bob Dylan – Watching the River Flow (Single Top 100)
  33. ^ a b Top 40 – week 31, 1971
  34. ^ a b Bob Dylan: Top 75 Releases
  35. ^ a b Bob Dylan: Chart History (Billboard), p. 2
  36. ^ Grein 1985, p. 6
  37. ^ Bob Dylan – If Not For You (Syndicat National de l'Édition Phonographique)
  38. ^ Top 40 – week 15, 1971
  39. ^ Bob Dylan – If Not For You (Single Top 100)
  40. ^ Erlewine: Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2: Review
  41. ^ Jurek
  42. ^ Leggett: Playlist: Review
  43. ^ Beyond Here Lies Nothin': The Collection: Overview
  44. ^ Dreier 2011
  45. ^ Fleming 2016
  46. ^ Rogovoy 2009, p. 144
  47. ^ Vernezze 2006, p. 113
  48. ^ a b c Marcus 2010, pp. 31–35
  49. ^ a b Ricks 2003, pp. 116–117
  50. ^ Erlewine: Bob Dylan: Biography
  51. ^ Dylan 2004, pp. 119–120
  52. ^ Heylin 2011, p. 327
  53. ^ Heylin 2011, p. 328
  54. ^ Bell 2012, pp. 531-532
  55. ^ a b c d Watching the River Flow (Bobdylan.com)
  56. ^ a b c d Pianist Ben Waters Discusses Rolling Stones Involvement
  57. ^ Ruhlmann: Boogie 4 Stu: Review
  58. ^ a b MacNeil 2011
  59. ^ Chrispell
  60. ^ Renner
  61. ^ Thompson
  62. ^ Leggett: Luxury You Can Afford: Review
  63. ^ Rulhmann: The I-10 Chronicles, Vol. 2: One More for the Road: Review
  64. ^ Bays
  65. ^ O'Brien
  66. ^ Derning
  67. ^ Ruhlmann: Live at Voce: Review
  68. ^ Huey

References[edit]