City of Water

In honor of The Metropolitan Waterfront Association’s New York City of Water Day, here’s the best anthem to the North River that I know of: Dar Williams’ The Hudson.

It’s not the only one.  There was a song that I can vaguely remember my old, deeply beloved theater teacher Robin Bady getting us to sing, called something like “I’ve Been Wandering on the Hudson,” and then of course there’s “The River that Flows Both Ways.” But Williams’ Hudson focuses on the river’s role in the life of the city, and every time I hear it I can feel that tugging of nostalgia and recognition…

Where and when does the memory take hold,
mountain range in the Autumn cold
and I thought West Point was Camelot in the spring…

It’s the Hudson, and its links to the St. Lawrence and the Erie Canal, that made New York Harbor something different from other excellent East Coast harbors.  The Harbor by itself linked us to England and to Europe, but the Hudson linked us to the rest of America.

People love this river differently than they love the Mississippi: the Mississippi is a nineteenth century river, but the Hudson belongs to the eighteenth century and earlier, to fur trappers and whalers, to the Mohawks and the Mohicans, to the Age of Exploration and the funny, beamy caravels of the first men who became Americans in our sense.

I thought I had no sense of place or past
time was too slow, but then too fast
the river takes us home at last.

It’s an incredible song, and you– or at least I– can’t listen to it without thinking about why it is that the archetype of the great city that is fed by, dependent on, a great river at its heart is so powerful for us.  The reason is, of course, that this is the image we are given of the New Jerusalem:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Rev. 22 1-2

And, oh, all right, you Joseph Campbell people out there are not going to buy that this is the source of the archetype; rather you will argue that it is only one expression of it; the real source, you’ll say, if you are historical materialists as so many of you secretly are, is the anthropological fact that in the Ancient Near East human societies did indeed first grow up on the banks of rivers, and these rivers became the river that in Psalm 22 “makes glad the City of God.”  That’s the direction that the metaphor flows, in standard historical materialist interpretation.

But…nope.  It’s the Tigris and the Euphrates that are the metaphors, and the Hudson that is a metaphor.  Not the other way around.

Darn good metaphors, though.  Especially in the lyrics of a songwriter like Dar Williams. An embodied metaphor that we love so much that it almost makes us cry.

And the Hudson, it holds the life
we thought we did it on our own…


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