Watching the River Flow — Dylan Wrestles With His Complicated Inner Self
“All rivers run into the sea, and yet the sea is not full.” ~Eccles. 1:7
Many of the great books that I’ve enjoyed feature rivers. Examples include Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Nobel Prize-winning author V.S.Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. This past year I began an interesting book called River Of Doubt about Teddy Roosevelt’s journey up the Amazon. Hollywood films featuring rivers include Deliverance, The African Queen, Apocalypse Now and The Man from Snowy River, among a host of others.
At one time rivers were the primary means of transportation. Before the infrastructure of highways and byways, of rails and roads, rivers were our transportation routes, hence all the major cities that we find along bodies of water. In Herman Hesse’s novella Siddhartha, the river is a symbol. As he encountered the river in various stages of his life, its wisdom was revealed to him as it reflected his soul.
By this river I want to stay, thought Siddhartha… Tenderly, he looked into the rushing water, into the transparent green, into the crystal lines of its drawing, so rich in secrets. Bright pearls he saw rising from the deep, quiet bubbles of air floating on the reflecting surface, the blue of the sky being depicted in it. With a thousand eyes, the river looked at him, with green ones, with white ones, with crystal ones, with sky-blue ones.
I think I associate “Watching the River Flow” with Siddhartha because I was reading Herman Hesse around that time of my life when this song, and then the album, came out. But Bob Dylan’s river involves a different kind of contemplation.
Recorded in March 1971 it was released as a single after which it appeared on his Greatest Hits, Volume II. It’s a more energized song than the one he wrote with Roger McGuinn for Easy Rider. “The river flows, flows to the sea, wherever that river goes I want to be.” (I used to play a harmonica lick with that when I was in college. It was very relaxing.)