Water is a crucial ingredient for life and prevalent in songwriting too. As we’ll see, songs about water (oceans, seas, rivers, creeks, rain, etc.) crop up a lot in modern music.
Of course, most of the time, the term is used figuratively (to mean something else). There’s usually a hidden meaning.
So, here are the best songs about water. Enjoy.
Table of Contents
- ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ by Otis Redding
- ‘Drink The Water’ by Jack Johnson
- ‘I Am a River’ by The Foo Fighters
- ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ by The Band
- ‘Splish Splash’ by Bobby Darin
- ‘Down By the River’ by Neil Young
- ‘Octopus’ Garden’ by The Beatles
- ‘The River’ by Bruce Springsteen
- ‘Ocean’ by Lou Reed
- ‘When the Levee Breaks’ by Led Zeppelin
- ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ by Simon & Garfunkel
- ‘Smoke On The Water’ by Deep Purple
- “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” Bob Dylan
- ‘The Water Song’ by The Incredible String Band
- ‘Water No Get Enemy’ by Fela Kuti
- ‘Purple Rain’ by Prince
- ‘The River of Dreams’ by Billy Joel
- ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain?’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival
- ‘Ripple’ by The Grateful Dead
- ‘Rain’ by The Beatles
- ‘Down to the Waterline’ by Dire Straits
- ‘Black Water’ by The Doobie Brothers
- ‘Grown Ocean’ by Fleet Foxes
- ‘Ocean Eyes’ by Billie Eilish
- ‘Rain on Me’ by Lady Gaga featuring Ariana Grande
- ‘Moon River’ by Andy Williams
- ‘Don’t Fight the Sea’ by The Beach Boys
- ‘Hold Back the River’ by James Bay
‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’ by Otis Redding
Three days after he recorded this song, he died in a plane crash. Tragically, it was the biggest hit of his career and the first posthumous #1 single in the US.
He came up with the idea of a ship coming in when he stayed at a boathouse across the bay from San Francisco, where he was playing The Fillmore.
The song contains perhaps the most famous whistling in music history at the end of this song.
‘Drink The Water’ by Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson’s song “Drink the Water” is on the album Brushfire Fairytales, released in 2001.
Before his music career, Jack Johnson was a pro-surfer (the youngest to be invited to the Pipe Masters). The song is about when he nearly drowned when he was wiped out during a big surf.
But the song is about more than just an accident; it’s about not letting fear take over. When you surf (or do anything difficult, for that matter), if you don’t believe in yourself, then you won’t succeed.
You are doomed to make a mistake if you don’t commit with heart and soul.
‘I Am a River’ by The Foo Fighters
The Sonic Highways album was recorded in 8 different US cities by the Foo Fighters. Writer Dave Grohl incorporated things that happened in the cities into each song.
The seven-minute rock ballad ‘I Am A River’ is based in New York City, recorded at The Magic Shop recording studio in New York City (“I found a secret behind a Soho door,” is an homage to it).
While writing the song, Grohl discovered an underground river running under New York (“Minetta Creek”) and was fascinated by the idea.
In an interview on The Jimmy Fallon show, he said, “I thought that it’s a beautiful idea that something natural and pre-historic runs underneath NYC. So maybe we are all connected by something like that.”
He concludes, “I am the river.”
‘Up on Cripple Creek’ by The Band
‘Up On Cripple Creek’ was recorded at the Hit Factory studios in New York, written by guitarist Robbie Robertson (though other members of the Band claimed they helped to write it).
Drummer Levon Helm gave the track a very folksy vibe with his vocals and even sings it with a southern drawl (there are many deep south references in this song)
It’s open for interpretation, like many songs by The Band, and there are tons of subtle references to drugs and sex. It’s possible that “When I get off this mountain” refers to fame, touring, and the rock and roll lifestyle they all pursued.
The superb keyboardist Garth Hudson plays a Hohner Clavinet D6 through a Vox Wah-Wah pedal to give it that funky sound.
‘Splish Splash’ by Bobby Darin
Bobby Darin co-wrote the novelty rock song Splish Splash. The other half of the writing team was DJ Murray the K (Murray Kaufman).
“Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Lollipop,” and “Peggy Sue” are some of the songs of the period mentioned in the lyrics.
Darin lifted the “Movin’ and a groovin'” lyrics from a 1959 song called “Moovin’ N’ Groovin’ with the permission of Duane Eddy.
‘Down By the River’ by Neil Young
“Down by the River” is a song composed by Neil Young while delirious in bed in Topanga Canyon with a 103 °F (39 °C) fever. It featured on his 1969 album with Crazy Horse Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
Interpretation is wide open here. On the face of it, it’s about a guy who kills his unfaithful lover. Although, In a 1970 interview with Fusion, Young admits, “there’s no real murder in it. It’s about blowing your thing with a chick. It’s a plea, a desperate cry.”
Young would have been listening to a lot of traditional folk music at the time, so songs like ‘Knoxville Girl’ and ‘Banks of the Ohio’ (also about shooting and killing his girlfriend by the side of a river) could have crept into Young’s subconscious.
The other popular interpretation is that the song is about a drug habit. He goes to the river ‘to shoot up’ (shoot heroin), which ‘takes me over the rainbow and sends me away.’ It certainly sounds like a drug-induced high.
The same note is repeated 38 times in one solo. Although, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio is a fan, “it’s one-note, but it’s so melodic, and it just snarls with attitude and anger.”
‘Octopus’ Garden’ by The Beatles
This was one of the two songs written and sung by Richard Starkey (aka Ringo Starr) – the other was ‘Don’t Pass Me By.’
Starr got the idea from a boat trip in Sardinia. The boat’s captain told him that octopuses pick up stones and shiny objects from the sea bed to build gardens. How factually correct that is debatable, but it created a catchy song.
George Harrison made the sound of bubbles by blowing a straw into a glass of milk. Oh, those modern production techniques!
‘The River’ by Bruce Springsteen
Back before Springsteen found superstardom in the ’80s, he worked a regular blue-collar job. This was one of the reasons for his popularity – he was a champion of the working class because he lived and breathed that life.
The song tells the story of a guy losing his construction job in a small town and its effect on his marriage with his wife, Mary. It was one of his first ‘story songs’.
Throughout the song, the river is viewed as a symbol of the dreams of the future. But he has to face life as it is, not the world of his imagination.
‘Ocean’ by Lou Reed
At first glance, this song from Reed’s first (underrated, has to be said) solo album is about reminiscing while sitting upon the beach, watching the waves.
When you delve into Lou Reed’s back story, you realize there’s always more to the lyrics than you first thought.
It turns out that Lou Reed was subjected to electroconvulsive shock therapy (ECT) at the tender age of 14 to “cure” his bisexuality. The treatment had a lasting impression on him. Some fans think that this song is about that this dreadful experience and its aftermath had on him.
The reference to “Malcolm’s curse” could be to the suicide of Herman Melville’s (author of the classic novel ‘Moby Dick’) son, Malcolm.
‘When the Levee Breaks’ by Led Zeppelin
The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 is the inspiration for this song by Memphis Minnie, a Blues artist.
During the flood, plantation workers were forced to work at gunpoint to try and stop the levee from breaking, with a total disregard for their safety and welfare: “I works on the levee, mama both night and day, I works so hard, to keep the water away.”
Generally considered one of the best drum songs ever recorded, thanks to John Bonham’s thundering drums sound. They recorded the drums in a stairwell in Headley Grange with microphones three stories up in the stairwell to capture that echo.
‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ by Simon & Garfunkel
The title track from their album of the same name, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ turned into a major hit for the incredible duo. It’s also one of the best songs about hope ever written.
Despite writing it, Paul Simon often comments that he regrets never singing it (he gave singing duties to Art Garfunkel, who, truth be told, does a pretty good job!).
At the last concert of his 2018 farewell tour, Simon introduced the song and said, “I’m going to reclaim my lost child.”
‘Smoke On The Water’ by Deep Purple
The inspiration for this song came from a fire at a Frank Zappa concert on December 4, 1971. Someone fired a flare gun (as you do) at the ceiling during the show while Deep Purple was in the audience.
When the fire was over, an eerie layer of smoke covered Lake Geneva. This image gave bass player Roger Glover the idea for a song title ‘Smoke On The Water,’ and Gillan wrote the lyrics. The rest is history, as they say.
Musically, the song is pretty unusual, using fourths and fifths for that dark and foreboding tone, which sounds more medieval than modern rock.
“A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” Bob Dylan
From Dylan’s landmark 1963 release The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, it’s one of three anti-war protest songs on the album (alongside the classics ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Masters of War’)
Written during the Cuban missile crisis in the early ’60s when the world was on the brink, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ is a seven-minute anti (nuclear) war anthem that is prophetic, powerful, and at times deeply unnerving.
The young Dylan was immersed in American folk music, thanks partly to his relationship with Woody Guthrie. ‘Hard Rain’ is based (in structure at least) on an old folk ballad called ‘Lord Randall’ or sometimes ‘Lord Ronald’)
Dylan said each line of the song was potentially a new song, but he feared he wouldn’t have time to write them.
‘The Water Song’ by The Incredible String Band
The Incredible String Band were a British psychedelic folk who were the epitome of ’60s hippy counterculture.
This is one of the few songs in existence that is literally about water. It’s totally off the chain too!
Water is the ‘silvery mother of life’ that glances and dances as it flows. It’s the ‘holy mystery heavens daughter.’
‘Water No Get Enemy’ by Fela Kuti
Water is essential to life; without it, you wouldn’t be here reading this, and I wouldn’t be sat here writing. So it deserves a lot of respect.
In this Fela Kuti number, he reminds us what we need water for: to wash, cook soup, cool you down if your head is hot, to help your children grow. There is nothing without water.
Water has no enemy, that’s for sure.
‘Purple Rain’ by Prince
As one of the ’80s best power ballads, ‘Purple Rain’ is a potent mix of rock, R&B, and gospel.was written for the movie of the same name.
The movie is pretty forgetful; the song, on the other hand, is one helluva tune! It was ranked at position 144 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (many would put it much higher).
It’s a classic ‘end of the world’ song, a popular theme in the ’80s with the cold war brewing between Russia and the US.
A fan favorite at his concerts; it was the last song Prince ever played live on April 14, 2016, at Fox Theatre in Atlanta. A week later, he was sadly dead.
‘The River of Dreams’ by Billy Joel
At first glance, this gospel-tinged Billy Joel song is about sleepwalking.
Of course, it’s much deeper than that.
It’s really about his spiritual journey where we see him seeking that most allusive of things…the meaning of life (and no, I’m not referring to the Monty Python movie).
‘Even though I know the river is wide, I walk down every evening and I stand on the shore, and try to cross to the opposite side.’ But ‘God knows I’ve never been a spiritual man.’
Rather fittingly, the song supposedly came to him in a dream (some of the best songs about dreams came about that way).
‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain?’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Creedence Clearwater Revival were on a roll at the time of writing this song.
However, a storm was brewing. Songwriter John Fogerty was dismayed at his brother Tom’s plans to leave the band at the height of their fame: “Someone told me long ago, there’s a calm before the storm.”
The line “I want to know – have you ever seen the rain comin’ down on a sunny day?” makes a lot of sense in this context.
The event produced this fantastic song, though, so Tom probably did him a favor in hindsight.
‘Ripple’ by The Grateful Dead
This country-folk classic written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter is a gorgeous song that talks in poetic terms about how we must all find a path.
The lyrics are said to have a spiritual meaning and share much of the imagery we find in Psalm 23 of the Old Testament (the still water, the cup, the road at night).
The ‘ripple’ in all likelihood refers to faith. There is a “ripple in still water, when there is no pebble tossed, nor wind to blow.”
‘Rain’ by The Beatles
Despite only appearing as a B side, the Beatles’ majestic ‘Rain’ is a fan favorite and still stands as fresh today as it did back in ’66.
It was notable for several reasons:
First, culturally. It’s said to be the song that announced the arrival of psychedelic rock in ’66, a pivotal moment in music history.
Second, they became a lot of experimental in the studio (and outside the studio, experimenting with LSD, which greatly affected their work). ‘Rain’ used a technique that entailed playing parts of it backward to get that peculiar sound.
The rhythm section’s sound changed too, introducing a loud, booming bass from McCartney and some exquisite drumming from Ringo (who said it’s his favorite bit of drumming).
Thirdly, the lyrics were much deeper, exploring themes of reality and illusion (a sign of things to come).
Finally, it was one (if not the) first music videos ever made.
‘Down to the Waterline’ by Dire Straits
Another B-side that deserved better, ‘Down to the Waterline’ is a nostalgic trip to the River Tyne docks (in Mark Knopfler’s hometown of Newcastle).
Knopfler reminisces being out with a girl ‘in the shadow of the cargoes I take you one time.’ Not the most romantic of places, but the juxtaposition works.
‘No money in our jackets and our jeans are torn, your hands are cold but your lips are warm.’
There are some nice cultural references, such as the ‘dog leap stairway,’ an alleyway with a particularly steep set of steps.
We also get a taste of what’s to come with Knopfler’s distinctive guitar style – fast, melodic, and totally his own.
‘Black Water’ by The Doobie Brothers
‘Black Water’ is a delightful little song about rafting down the Mississippi River.
The lyrics are reminscent of (and probably inspired by) Mark Twain’s books Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer (which tell stories about rafting down the river).
The references to honky-tonks, Dixieland jazz, and the streetcar are all about New Orleans – specifically, the French Quarter – which back in the day was the place to ‘hear some funky Dixieland and dance a honky-tonk’. Sound like a fun place!
It features some exquisite vocals, guitar picking, and fiddle playing. Great song.
‘Grown Ocean’ by Fleet Foxes
From their second album, Helplessness Blues, ‘Grown Ocean’ is a superb song.
The origins of the song are pretty funny. Writer and frontman Robin Pecknold was using nicotine patches to quit smoking which, as Pecknold revealed in an interview for the NME, gave him vivid dreams. This song was one of the results.
One of the less talked about upsides to quitting smoking! I have no idea why the track is called ‘grown ocean,’ and I doubt he does either.
‘Ocean Eyes’ by Billie Eilish
Billie Eilish posted this to SoundCloud when she was just 13, and to her and her brother’s surprise – it was written and produced by Eilish’s brother, Finneas O’Connell – the song went viral overnight.
The song was made using stock sounds from music software Logic.
‘Rain on Me’ by Lady Gaga featuring Ariana Grande
Here we have a Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande collaboration. It’s a song about perseverance and resilience in defiance of the tough things in life.
She was acknowledging the rain and dancing through it. Gaga called it a “celebration of tears.”
The message is it could be better (I’d rather ‘be dry’), but at least I’m alive. The lyrics are particularly relevant in light of the global pandemic.
Musically, it’s got a ton going on. It’s a menagerie of 1990s-influenced house, electro-pop, French house bass with a synth-disco beat.
‘Moon River’ by Andy Williams
The song ‘Moon River’ was written by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, who wrote the song specifically for Audrey Hepburn to sing in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Andy Williams made the song his own though and first recorded it in 1962, performing it at the Academy Awards that year. He also started every episode of his show with the first eight bars of the song.
It’s also one of the most covered songs in history. Everyone from Frank Sinatra to Morrissey has covered it.
‘Don’t Fight the Sea’ by The Beach Boys
The surviving Beach Boys – led by guitarist Al Jardine – recorded a charity single to raise money for those affected by the March 2011 earthquake in Japan. It was an abandoned song from their ’70s album 15 Big Ones.
The song finally appeared on Jardine’s 2010 solo album A Postcard From California.
‘Hold Back the River’ by James Bay
James Bay is a young British bluesy singer-songwriter schooled in the music of Dylan (thankfully) with a superb, growly voice. He’s a decent guitarist, to boot. He shot to fame when the Rolling Stones invited him to open their 2013 Hyde Park shows – quite a thing to happen!
According to Bay, ‘hold back the river’ was a reference to the sudden fame he was experiencing. He felt like he was quickly losing touch with people around him (fame will do that do you).
He wanted to say with the song: “I know I’m not around very often at the moment, but I’m never gone. We can always give each other a call.”