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Listening to Bruce Springsteen’s music, you can tell that he gets a lot of inspiration from the things closest to his heart. He might have had a hungry heart to escape once, but Springsteen has always written songs that have paid homage to his hometown, Freehold, New Jersey (and its surrounding areas including Asbury Park), and his family. His song “The River,” the titular track from his fifth studio album, is a perfect example.

Bruce Springsteen performing in Detroit, Michigan, during 'The River Tour' in 1981.
Bruce Springsteen | Ross Marino/Getty Images

Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’ is about his sister

According to the New York Times, Springsteen’s “The River,” a tune about how “a teenage couple who give up on their dreams because she gets pregnant,” is about his sister, Virginia, who is still married to the boyfriend in the song.

“The River” is one of Springsteen’s most somber tracks. In the lyrics, Springsteen speaks from the point of view of Virginia’s (Mary, in the song) then-boyfriend. He sings that he comes from the valley where he was taught to be just like his father.

After meeting Mary in high school, they’d take long drives to the river. Then, he got Mary pregnant. “And for my nineteenth birthday. I got a union card and a wedding coat. We went down to the courthouse. And the judge put it all to rest. No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle. No flowers, no wedding dress.”

Later, that same night they returned to the river. Then, his job in construction isn’t working out because of the economy. “Now all them things that seemed so important. Well, mister, they vanished right into the air. Now I just act like I don’t remember. And Mary acts like she don’t care.”

Thinking back to better times only “come back to haunt me. They haunt me like a curse. Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true? Or is it something worse?” When he goes back to the river, it’s all dried up.

Springsteen once told a story about his father before playing the titular track in concert

During a concert, Springsteen told an interesting story about his father. “When I was growing up, me and my dad used to go at it all the time, over almost anything,” Springsteen explained. “But I used to have really long hair, way down past my shoulders. I was seventeen or eighteen. Oh, man, he used to hate it. And we got to where we’d fight so much that I spent a lot of time outside of the house.

“And finally I’d get my nerve up to go home, and I’d stand there in the driveway, and he’d be waiting for me in the kitchen, and I’d tuck my hair down in my collar, and I’d walk in, and he’d call me back to sit down with him, and the first thing he’d always ask me was what did I think I was doing with myself, and the worst part about it was I could never explain it to him.

“I remember I got into a motorcycle accident once, and I was laid up in bed, and he had a barber come in and cut my hair, and I can remember telling him that I hated him and that I would never ever forget. And he used to tell me, ‘Man, I can’t wait until the army gets you. When the army gets you, they’re gonna make a man outta you. They’re gonna cut all that hair off, and they’ll make a man outta you.’

“And this was, I guess in ’68, and there was a lot of guys from the neighborhood going to Vietnam… I remember that day I got my draft notice, I hid it from my folks, and three days before my physical me and my friends went out, and we stayed up all night.

“We got on the bus to go that morning; we were all so scared. Then I went, and I failed. But I remember coming home after I’d been gone for three days and walking in the kitchen, and my mother and father were sitting there. My dad said, ‘We’re you been?’ I said I went to take my physical. He said, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘They didn’t take me.’ And he said, ‘That’s good.’

For years, Springsteen and his father never got along. His father thought he was wasting his life trying to become a musician. Maybe, Douglas Springsteen, a hard worker, was jealous that his son was chasing his dreams, something he’d always wanted to do but couldn’t because he had to support a family. He wanted Springsteen to man up. But he wasn’t prepared to lose his son over it in a war. Eventually, Springsteen and his father resolved their relationship.

In “The River,” Springsteen wasn’t just talking about his sister and his brother-in-law. In the lyrics, he spoke of all people who have to give up their dreams to support a family, including people like his father.

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‘The River’ represents a place that never lets you down

Something that Springsteen did very well was speaking to the working class. “The River” is one of those songs that speaks to anyone who had to give up their dreams to support a family or themselves.

There’s always someplace like the river in the song for those people. When times were tough, there’d always be a place that never lets you down even when you’ve let yourself down, a place that doesn’t change even when you do. There’s always a place that makes you remember better times, someplace where you can dream.