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Top 10 Water Songs

Ethan Miller, Getty Images

The acts responsible for the Top 10 Water Songs might have earned more street cred if they had written tunes about Jack Daniel’s – or another more “rock ’n’ roll” liquid. But it’s tough to avoid singing about a substance that’s just about everywhere; H2O covers more than 70% of the planet, after all. In the songs below, water stands for life, love and levee-smashing disaster. Water can become a force that refuses to be tamed, and yet we wouldn’t do very well without it. In honor of Earth Day, raise a bottle to the Top 10 Water Songs.



‘Up on Cripple Creek’


From ‘The Band’ (1969)

There’s plenty of healing going on in this funky Band classic, but you can’t really say it’s because of the water. Cripple Creek’s fountain of youth appears to be little miss Bessie, who provides a laid-back paradise that’s a “drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one.” And all you have to do is yodel your way on down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. If you spring a leak on the way, don’t fret – Bessie’s got you covered.




‘May This Be Love’


From ‘Are You Experienced’ (1967)

On this gem from the Experience’s debut, Jimi envisions love as a waterfall – as beautiful as it is powerful. It’s fitting that the break-out star of the Summer of Love would paint romance as an unyielding force of nature. Hendrix’s glistening guitar work only adds to the love-drunk aesthetic of this psychedelic ode.




‘Once in a Lifetime’


From ‘Remain in Light’ (1980)

‘Once in a Lifetime’ is often associated with midlife crises (well, that and David Byrne‘s hurky-jurky dance moves in the famous music video). And water appears to signify the constant movement of time. It can hold you down. It can be an unseen force (“water flowing underground“). And there’s not much you can do to stop it – much less remove it from the bottom of the ocean.


Led_Zeppelin IV


‘When the Levee Breaks’


From ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ (1971)

This Zep classic was originally a blues tune written by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. With John Bonham’s thundering drums, Robert Plant‘s backwards echoing harmonica and Jimmy Page‘s sludgy guitar, the recording sometimes makes you feel as if you’re going down in the floodwaters. Cryin’ won’t help you, because the last thing you need in this case is more water.




‘Dirty Water’

The Standells


Single (1965)

We didn’t say that the Top 10 Water Songs had to be about clean water, did we? There might be no greater tribute to polluted bodies of water than this garage rock nugget. In 1965, the Standells, who were actually from Los Angeles, not Boston, recorded this backhanded compliment to their hometown, complete with muggers, thieves and frustrated women. In spite of all that, the song has become a beloved Beantown anthem, blasted regularly at Red Sox, Patriots and Bruins games. I guess they really do love that dirty water.




‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain?’


From ‘Pendulum’ (1970)

Although many have characterized this Creedence classic as a eulogy for the idealistic ’60s, songwriter John Fogerty actually was looking inward. Perceiving the accelerating tensions in CCR, which would lead to the departure of his brother (and guitarist) Tom, John was preparing for his sunny days of success to be washed out by a rain storm. According to song, the breakup was as inevitable as an eventual downpour.




‘The River’


From ‘The River’ (1980)

In this haunting centerpiece of ‘The River’ album, the namesake body of water serves as a much-needed escape – something to cling to when real life encroaches on your fantasies. As Springsteen’s main character is forced to grow up and deal with some cold, hard truths, he’s always able to ride down to the river. His faded memories of high school romance have washed up on those banks. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a little bit of hope downstream.






B-side (1966)

Another rain song that has been misinterpreted as having a hidden meaning, ‘Rain’ came about because John Lennon was tired of people who complained about the weather. Hence, come rain or come shine, “the world looks fine” according to the tune, which was released as the B-side of ‘Paperback Writer.’ It’s a wonderful example of the Beatles’ sonic experimentation (slowed-down instrumental tracks, backwards vocals) and Ringo Starr’s torrential talents on the drum kit.




‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay’

Otis Redding


Single (1968)

While staying at a houseboat in Sausalito, Calif., Redding was inspired by the hypnotic pull of the ’Frisco Bay and brought this idea for a song to writing partner Steve Cropper. The Stax house guitarist finished the peaceful, but melancholy, tune, which suggests Otis contemplating his life and art while under the water’s spell. The result was restrained perfection and, sadly, a eulogy for the King of Soul. Redding died two days after the song was completed, when his plane crashed into Lake Monona near Madison, Wisc.






B-side (1973)

You can’t have The Top 10 Water Songs without ‘Water.’ This often overlooked Who tune gives you insight to the two things Pete Townshend thought were essential in the early ’70s: “water and maybe somebody’s daughter.” Actually, the angry song was conceived as part of the aborted ‘Lifehouse’ rock opera (which became a mere collection of great songs for 1971’s ‘Who’s Next’). In Townshend’s original storyline, pollution has run rampant under a totalitarian regime and drinking water is a luxury. ‘Water’ eventually saw release as the B-side to ‘5:15’ in 1973, and it has been included on subsequent editions of ‘Who’s Next’ and ‘Odds & Sods.’


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