In March 1971, Bob Dylan entered the studio searching for a new sound after the pastoral feel of his previous album New Morning. The song “Watching the River Flow” was the single that emerged from those sessions:
This recording session was produced by Leon Russell, a former studio musician who had achieved renown for leading all aspects of the 1970 Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour for Joe Cocker. Russell had assembled the band for Dylan for this session. According to Zelig-like drummer Jim Keltner, the song was composed in the studio:
“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.”
The song starts off with Russell’s signature gospel piano in a duet with electric guitar player Jesse Ed Davis. The song is in the key of F major, not normally a key associated with a song composed on a guitar, so perhaps Russell had a hand in putting together the framework for the song’s structure to back up Dylan’s in-studio lyrical composition. The opening lyrics of the song are:
What’s the matter with me
I don’t have much to say.
These first two lines by Dylan are not elevated language, poetic and full of symbolism, but rather commonplace expressions. They act as a thesis statement for the lyrical content of the song as Dylan admits that he’s not sure what’s wrong with him since the words don’t come as easily as they did before. This song has been thrown together in the studio and Dylan is already diminishing expectations, yet the song continues with compelling ideas during the first bridge:
People disagreeing on all just about everything, yeah
Makes you stop and all wonder why
Why only yesterday I saw somebody on the street
Who just couldn’t help but cry
Oh, this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow
And as long as it does I’ll just sit here
And watch the river flow.
As analyzed earlier on Recliner Notes, the early 1970s was a hard time for Dylan as he sought to withdraw from the hubbub of the music industry and most of life in general after being dubbed the “voice of a generation.” In “Watching the River Flow,” Dylan presents the idea of a river that signifies the clamor of daily life: “People disagreeing on all just about everything.” The discourse and harshness of contemporary society is such that it causes people to break down in tears on the street. The narrator in the song wants nothing of it as he says all of this “makes you stop and all wonder why.” He can’t understand why anyone would participate in this kind of lifestyle. It is relentless as he says that the “river keeps on rollin.” It never stops. The narrator says that as long as this continues, he’ll “just sit here / And watch the river flow.” He rejects it all and removes himself from participating in this tear-inducing life that is happening all around him. In his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan writes about the clamor of American society during the time of the composition of “Watching the River Flow”:
“There were a hundred thousand demonstrators in Washington and the police have surrounded the White House with transport buses bumper to bumper to protect the executive mansion…People I’ve never heard of were calling for me to be there and take command. It was all making me want to throw up. In my dreams crowds were chanting, challenging me, shouting, ‘Follow us and fit in’…I needed to escape the blaze of bullshit.”
Getting away from the “blaze of bullshit” sounds a lot like sitting on a bank of sand and watching the river flow.
After a rousing electric guitar solo, Dylan returns to sing the bridge again, though he alters the words slightly. He sings:
People disagreeing everywhere you look
Makes you wanna stop and read a book.
Dylan seems to be offering a solution to the persistent conflicts within society to simply “stop and read a book.” Quit talking and start reading! It’s a compelling argument. Later in the second bridge, he sings:
But this ol’ river keeps on rollin’, though
No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow.
This reference could be a nod to a line from Dylan’s song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” off of his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home in which he sings, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” In the same section of Chronicles, Dylan writes:
“Lately the public perception of me had begun to shift and move around like a yo-yo…Even the Weathermen, a notorious group who made homemade bombs in basements to blow up public buildings, who had taken their name from a line in one of my songs, had recently changed their name from the Weathermen to the Weather Underground.”
Recognizing this shift in attitude could be the inspiration of the line from “Watching the River Flow.” The Weathermen no longer want to be associated with Bob Dylan. He shrugs in response and says it doesn’t matter “which way the wind does blow.” It must be a curious thing for Dylan to have a line from a nonsense song he wrote inspire the name for domestic terrorists. Then, these radicals feel that Dylan isn’t revolutionary enough anymore and disassociate themselves from him. No wonder he writes a song about rejecting being a public figure. Dylan being Dylan, he of course plays off of that same line from earlier in his career.
Dylan chose a river as the central image to “Watching the River Flow.” Dylan knew his T.S. Eliot since he is name-checked in 1965’s “Desolation Row.” The opening lines of The Dry Salvages poem from The Four Quartets could be a source of inspiration for “Watching the River Flow”:
I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.
His rhythm was present in the nursery bedroom,
In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard,
In the smell of grapes on the autumn table,
And the evening circle in the winter gaslight.
In Eliot’s personification, it is the river that watches at a remove from humanity, but it is persistent, “patient,” and “intractable.” Eliot marks that the river’s rhythm is “present” when one is a small child in the “nursery bedroom” and constantly in proximity as one matures. This “strong brown god” is an enduring force. Eliot goes on to say that “The river is within us.” There’s a suggestion in Eliot’s lines that the rhythm of the river is the stimulus for a life of poetry, his vocation to live within that rhythm. So the “strong brown god” that is within Eliot could be the movement and flow of poetry.
As noted above, Dylan has removed himself from the life of being a public figure, but “Watching the River Flow” could also be a rejection of the poetic life. Dylan sings, “But right now I’ll just sit here so contentedly / And watch the river flow.” The flow or the rhythm of poetry still exists but Dylan is satisfied extracting it from his life. The “strong brown god” of Eliot is no longer within Dylan. He no longer seeks a life of poetry.
Despite the yearning for escape from this life, Dylan seems to love singing with the band that Leon Russell has assembled for the session. His vocals are warm and engaged throughout the song. [Note: Be sure to see the comment below which provides additional and fascinating context about these sessions courtesy of master Dylanologist Jochen Markhorst.] Dylan continued his connection with Russell as he would play bass during Dylan’s performance at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh later in 1971. Fast forward 40 years, Dylan embarked on a joint tour with Russell in 2011.
The only other song that Dylan recorded with this particular band in 1971 is “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” It begs the question: why didn’t Dylan record an entire album with this ensemble? Perhaps Dylan didn’t have the material for a proper length album as his next full album of original material would not be for another two and half years. “Watching the River Flow” was released as a single and didn’t do much as it only reached No. 41 on the US Billboard charts; the second consecutive Dylan single to miss the top 40. Dylan’s attempt at removal worked.
While Dylan played the song in concert over the years, he revisited the song more than 50 years after the original recording for his 2021 pandemic concert film called Shadow Kingdom: The Early Songs of Bob Dylan. At the age of 80, Dylan doesn’t feel concern about removing himself from the cultural conversation. What is he focused on instead? The answer may lie with the adjusted lyrics to “Watching the River Flow”:
Wish I was back in the city
In my true love’s arms
She likes older men
They can’t resist her charms.
Oh Bob, what a dirty old man you are!
Image: Matt Jones, Reflection #1, pastel on paper. Many thanks to Matt for the use of this beautiful image on Recliner Notes. Check out his Instagram account for more information on this piece and other examples of his work.