My Dream Was Back Downstream

The song ‘Big River’ was written and originally recorded by Johnny Cash. It was released as a single by Sun Records in 1958, it went as high as #4 on the Billboard country music charts and stayed on the charts for 14 weeks.  It was on the album Johnny Cash Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous.  The catalyst for Johnny Cash writing of the song came when he was on a touring break and he picked up a magazine which had an article about him in it titled Johnny Cash Has the Big River Blues in His Voice.  Soon after, he wrote a lovelorn country tune about a man who is so smitten by a woman and her irresistible Southern drawl, that he pursues her down the Mississippi River and misses her at every turn.

The Mississippi River was a central part of the young Johnny Cash’s life, and when he was a small child in 1936, his family was one of the six hundred selected to participate in the New Deal program known as the Dyess Colony Scheme to give land in northeastern Arkansas bordering the Mississippi to struggling farm families.  They moved to Dyess County and worked together to clear twenty acres of fertile land for cotton.  His family farmed the area’s soil, and their livelihood was subject to the whims of the river.  In 1937, the Cash family had to endure a flood of the big river.

Cash said that he wrote Big River in the back seat of a car in White Plains, New York, as a slow twelve-bar blues, but when he played it for Sam Phillips, the producer immediately told him that he needed to put a beat to this song.  Phillips had Jack Clement pick up his J200 Gibson guitar and play a bottleneck power chord all the way through the number.  Cash thought it was fabulous, and Peter Guralnick an American music critic said, “Big River incorporated all the elements that had distinguished his songwriting from the start—wit, conviction, and striking lyrical originality” rooted in the folk tradition.  It “possessed as well the kind of illimitable impact that few other artists could suggest.”

The song was unfortunately paired with the corny Clement-penned number ‘Ballad of a Teenage Queen’, which became a Top Twenty pop hit, giving ‘Big River’ all of its action on country radio.  ‘Big River’ had a verse missing which was cut out during the original recording due to the fact that it made the song too long.  For his 1985 collaboration with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson, The Highwaymen an American country music supergroup, the verse that was left off the original recording was reintroduced, and the newly revised song became a # 1 country hit.

Jack Clement played guitar and bass drum at the same time on this song, with the Tennessee Two of Luther Perkins on guitar, delivering an electrifying solo, and Marshall Grant playing bass.  By the end of the day, there was no question in anyone’s mind that they had created another great Johnny Cash record.  The single peaked at #4 on the country chart.  ‘Big River’ is a great example of Cash’s rockabilly sound that allowed him favor with both country and rock audiences which is something that lasted throughout his career.

Weeping willow trees get their common name because rain looks like tears when it’s dripping off the curved branches. Within the bark and the milky sap of willows is a substance called salicylic acid.  Edward Stone, a British minister, did experiments in 1763 on willow bark and leaves and identified and isolated salicylic acid.  The acid caused too much stomach upset to be widely used until 1897 when a chemist named Felix Hoffman created a synthetic version which was gentle on the stomach.  Hoffman called his invention “aspirin” and he produced it for his company, Bayer.

Like lots of other magical things, not many humans will be able to hear the Weeping Willow’s cry, but the Weeping Willow tree can actually get quite sad sometimes and it is said that children can sometimes hear if they listen very carefully.  There is a story about Zeus who one day fell in love with a dryad (nymph inhabiting a forest or a tree).  Her name was Xylia which means from the woods in Greek, and she was the spirit of the Willow tree.  Zeus took on a human form and tried to woo her, but she was not interested in him.  The jealous Hera found out about her lascivious husband, so she sent her messenger Hermes to Xylia with a message that was supposed to be from Zeus.  Xylia received the message, and she became distraught upon reading it.  The message explained how Zeus never really loved her.  Zeus still wanted Xylia, so he revealed his true godly glory, and this transformed Xylia permanently into her tree form.  Zeus went away in sadness and Xylia wept after he departed.  Her salty tears penetrated the ground, corrupted the soil, and caused her branches to droop.  Her leaves stretched towards the ground, falling like her tears to the earth.  She became the Weeping Willow.  Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, decided to leave a memory of Xylia behind by allowing weeping willow trees to grow all around the world, as a careful reminder that love cannot exist without tears.

Johnny Cash suffered multiple serious health problems in the years leading up to his demise.  His beloved wife, June Carter went into hospital for a heart operation in May 2003 and died suddenly never came out again.  June insisted that Johnny should keep working in the event of her death, so that is what he did.  The week after June died, he went into the studio and recorded 5 new songs.  Johnny Cash died from complications resulting from his diabetes on September 12, 2003, less than four months after June died.  When Johnny Cash was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1992, he played ‘Big River’.

Now I taught the weeping willow how to cry,
And I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky.
And the tears that I cried for that woman are gonna flood you Big River.
Then I’m gonna sit right here until I die.

I met her accidentally in St. Paul (Minnesota).
And it tore me up every time I heard her drawl, Southern drawl.
Then I heard my dream was back Downstream cavortin’ in Davenport,
And I followed you, Big River, when you called.

Then you took me to St. Louis later on (down the river).
A freighter said she’s been here but she’s gone, boy, she’s gone.
I found her trail in Memphis, but she just walked up the block.
She raised a few eyebrows and then she went on down alone.

Now, won’t you batter down by Baton Rouge, River Queen, roll it on.
Take that woman on down to New Orleans, New Orleans.
Go on, I’ve had enough, dump my blues down in the gulf.
She loves you, Big River, more than me.

Now I taught the weeping willow how to cry, cry, cry
And I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky.
And the tears that I cried for that woman are gonna flood you Big River.
Then I’m gonna sit right here until I die.

Written for 2/10/19 Helen Vahdati’s This Thing Called Life One Word at a Time Song Lyric Sunday Theme where the prompt is “River/Stream/Creek/Brook”.

25 thoughts on “My Dream Was Back Downstream

  1. I think both versions are great. Perhaps if Johnny had others performing with him, it would give the song a fuller sound similar to that which the Dead are giving to the song. I also dig the fancy piano playing in the Dead video.

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    1. Sam Phillips brought rock ‘n’ roll to the world with Sun Records and they became known as a place that nurtured talent and also encouraged it to expand and once they took advantage of this range of talent, there was no limit to how far they could go.

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  2. Very good song. I’ve probably heard it before, as we do have some CDs of Johnny Cash. The one I’m more familiar with is called How High’s the Water, Mama or Five Feet High and Rising.

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