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The Lyrics of “The River”, by John Andrew Hull (Manchester Orchestra)

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Paul offers his personal interpretation of a few of the words to John Andrew Hull’s intimate, spiritual song, “The River”.


THE CRITICS EXPLODE: “Quite obvious to this astute blog critic, Paul Sunstone’s allegedly ‘personal interpretations’ of ‘The River’ are anything but genuinely personal. Sunstone channels the Devil himself to offer his readers purely demonic views that he then shamelessly fobs off as his own. To his claim ‘The River’ is grounded in a ‘Timeless Truth of Human Nature’, I am forced to retort: Timeless Sunstone!” —  Merriweather Sterling, Blogs of the Day, “The Daily Burtie”, Berwick-Upon-Tweed, England, UK.

(About a 6 minute read)

“He not busy being born is busy dying.” — Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”

Humans are the animal whose flesh can turn to stone.  That, so far as I can see, is an inescapable fact of our nature.

Unless we are able to now and then renew our flesh, our flesh turns to stone.

Bob Dylan addresses that fact in his song, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).  So too does John Andrew Hull in his much lesser known, but quite more intimate, song, “The River”.  I believe the two singer/songwriters look at the same fact, but in different lights.

Dylan might be summarized — somewhat superficially — as looking at the need of humans to renew themselves largely in terms of the social and political consequences of that truth.  The way societies and cultures turn phony without rebirths.  At least, that’s my take on Dylan.

Hull, on the other hand, looks at the same truth, but in a much more traditional way — a way that dates back well before Jesus spoke of the absolute necessity of being born again.

The ancient Egyptians, for instance, had their myth of the phoenix, the animal that lived forever, but only by periodically destroying itself.  Destroying itself in order to make possible its rebirth.

Tellingly, the world’s oldest known epic — the Sumerian “Tale of Gilgamesh” — can easily be seen as a story of rebirth and renewal.

John Andrew Hull’s “The River” is timeless truth wrapped in the power of music to drive it home.

Yet, I do not find the lyrics easily accessible.  I believe there is a reason for that.  It is as if Hull has left them more or less as they came to him, without making much of an effort to polish them into some easy to understand words.  Thus, they are in every way more intimate — and perhaps even more alive and living — than they might have turned out had Hull decided his first priority was to communicate his apparent yearning for rebirth, rather than to “merely” express it.

Strictly in comparison to the intense intimacy of Hull’s lyrics, Dylan’s lyrics are stand-back and distantly objective.

What follows are a few guesses about the meaning of the lyrics to Hull.  But I can only guess at their meaning.  We would need to ask Hull himself to be certain of anything here.

But first – something of perhaps key importance to at least some readers.  I have noticed how some people’s appreciation for art — or even for life itself — seems to be diminished by their becoming too consciously aware of significances, meanings, etc.  Those good folks find greater appreciation in mysteries than in explanations.  That’s alright, of course, but if you yourself are one of those people, please be forewarned, and proceed only at your own risk.

“The River”.  Wherever you look in this world, there is a mystic talking about being reborn, or perhaps at last enlightened, by sacred “water”.  The water that quenches spiritual thirst.  Quenches it through rebirth and/or through moksha, satori, kenshō, kevala jnana, ushta, enlightenment, etc.  I suspect Hull is here referring to a spiritual transformation brought about by “drinking from the waters of the river of rebirth”.

“I will fight the spirit / With a sword in my side”.  I hear these words as an inflamed description of a life currently being lived in need of a rebirth.  The passion for living is gone, and only defiance remains to make one carry on. Hull feels life as aching sorrow in his side.  These feelings, by the way, are just as universally expressed in the context of spiritual rebirths as is the image of water.

“Fetter pride to your feet”.  Here, Hull seems to be hinting of what — for lack of better words — might be called his “path”or “technique” for bringing about his rebirth. If so, the world “pride” is the merest hint of all and everything that must be “fettered” in order for a human to have any chance of being reborn.

As Jiddu Krishnamurti put it, “You must destroy everything.  You must purge everything” to become enlightened.  But “pride” strikes me as a fair name in this context for Krishnamurti’s “everything”.

“I’m going to leave you the first chance that I get.”  Hull sings those words in a movingly intimate voice.  He repeats them four times.  They strike me as most likely layered with meanings.  I suspect one of those meanings is Hull speaking of leaving behind his current life — putting it behind him in order to be reborn.

Those are the only four lyrics I wish to go into tonight.  The song is rich with others — many of which remain near total mysteries to me.  I’ve offered here merely my own takes, of course, and I would not presume to offer my takes as definitive. Only Hull himself knows — if anyone knows — what the lyrics of “The River” fully mean.

The River, by John Andrew Hull

I will fight the spirit
With a sword in my side
She found a way out
Crack my rib
Wait to die
I think I know you best when I sleep
I think I know everything

Me and my brothers
We have tongues sharp as knives
I found a way out
Make a noise, close your eyes
I think I talk to you best when I sing
I sing about almost everything

Oh god I need it
So let me see again
Take me to the river
And let me see again
Oh my god
Let me see again
Oh my god
Let me see again
Let me see again
Grace taught a debtor
Daily I’m strained to be
God how I feel it
Fetter pride to your feet
I’m gonna leave you the first chance I get
I’m gonna leave you the first chance I get
I’m gonna leave you the first chance I get
I’m gonna leave you the first chance I get

Oh god I need it
I was wrong again
Take me to the river
And make me clean again
Oh my god
Make me clean again
And oh my god
Let me see again

3 thoughts on “The Lyrics of “The River”, by John Andrew Hull (Manchester Orchestra)”

  1. Very interesting insights, Paul.
    I’ve long regarded ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m only bleeding)’ as Dylan’s manifesto of how he
    viewed society, with renewed vision after
    dropping LSD … famously with the Beatles
    about that time. Mr. Tambourine was the
    poetic expression, and It’s Alright Ma was
    the consequential outworking. Applying a revolutionary blowtorch to the status quo.

    Liked by 1 person

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