The worst songs ever: 5. Old Rivers

That’s it for me; my ears can’t take any more of these. I’m sure you’re glad, too, but there’s one more to go.

Like yesterday’s selection, “Old Rivers” is a talking song, featuring Walter Brennan expatiating on a mule farmer he knew. I know this song because one of my dorm-mates during freshman year in college actually had a Walter Brennan album, and played this song endlessly, driving me bonkers.

Do you remember Walter Brennan? If you do, it’s probably as Grandpappy Amos on the t.v. show “The Real McCoys” (1957-1963)—the crusty old paterfamilias in overalls. But I bet you didn’t know that he’s only one of three men to win three Oscars, the others being Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson. Brennan won them for Best Supporting actor in 1936, 1938, and 1943, the movies being “Come and Get It,” “Kentucky,” and “The Westerner,” respectively. And he was a prolific actor, appearing in over 230 movies, many of them Westerns.

Wikipedia tells the story straight, which always makes me laugh with a song like this:

The title character of “Old Rivers” is an elderly farmer, a childhood friend of the song’s main protagonist. The protagonist, whose family is very poor, recalls how Old Rivers used a mule-driven plow to cultivate the fields in the hot sun. The mule’s name was “Midnight,” and he would plow straight rows for the crops. During a break, Old Rivers would take the boy aside and tell of a place he one day was going to go, by “climb(ing) that mountain.” The place is not specifically named, but it can be inferred through the lyrics — “Walk up there among them clouds/Where the cotton’s high and the corn’s a-growin’/And there ain’t no fields to plow” —  that Old Rivers was speaking of Heaven.

Years later, the young boy is now an adult and, having moved away from his dirt-poor farming community, is now a success in his chosen field. He talks about a letter he received from his hometown, where he learns that Old Rivers has died. The protagonist is stunned and deeply saddened by this news, and needs to find shade to gather his thoughts and grief. However, he is able to take comfort in what Old Rivers one day told him about Heaven.

I love the way Brennan’s voice appears to break in sorrow at the last phrase, “That mule, Old Rivers. . . and me.”

Below is Brennan as Amos McCoy. I can still see him limping across the t.v. screen crying, “Little Luke. . . Little Luke!”



  1. Posted October 21, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    You are making this up!

  2. E.A. Blair
    Posted October 21, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    My favorite Walter Brennan role was as Pa Danby in Support Your Local Sheriff!

    • lamacher
      Posted October 22, 2013 at 6:52 am | Permalink

      That, and as the office-watcher in Rio Bravo. It is said that he stole more scenes in his career than most of the old-time popular actors had movies.

  3. Steven Obrebski
    Posted October 21, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me of some of the awful stuff one would hear on the radio in the 50’s in diners and restaurants like Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenellenbogen By The Sea.
    Take that, Jerry, we have suffered enough!!

  4. Dermot C
    Posted October 21, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t he John Wayne’s drunken Irish sidekick in a million John Ford movies? That nose in the black and white photo looks like it’s sniffed the bouquet of more than a few pints of the black stuff.

    In Paddy solidarity, raise a glass to my imaginary future self.

    Great idea for a series of posts, Jerry.


  5. Posted October 21, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    Any movement on the Walter Brennan thing?

    iirc Brennan could play a mean mean mofo

  6. Posted October 21, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    The Shat’s cover of LSD is fingers on a chalkboard

    • James Rednour
      Posted October 21, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      Haha! I was just about to post that. 🙂

  7. Ken Phelps
    Posted October 21, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    What? No “Giddyup Go” by Red Sovine?

  8. Posted October 21, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    I first heard that on Rhino’s “Golden Throats” compilation. The bad in it was so exquisite, I had to track down the entire album “The Transformed Man”, to get all the spoken word atrocities in the right order. Like this one.

    • Filippo
      Posted October 21, 2013 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      How is it that this spoken rendering of “It Was a Very Good Year” is an “atrocity”? Certainly not because Shatner is singing, because he is not singing, he is giving a dramatic reading, with instrumental background music, much of it quite creative and of high quality. (I have the CD.)

      (Of course, if some enlightened souls consider Rap to be music/singing, then I’m not surprised if some of them perceive a dramatic reading set to instrumental music to be “singing.”)

      There’s no end to the critique of Shatner’s interpretation of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” It may be that those song lyrics don’t lend themselves to dramatic interpretation by anyone. That doesn’t mean that it’s forbidden to give due credit to Shatner’s rendering of “Cyrano,” the Shakespeare selections, “Spleen” and the last selection on the album, “The Transformed Man.”

      BTW, I highly recommend the version of “It Was a Very Good Year” by The Kingston Trio, Bob Shane on the solo.

      • Posted October 21, 2013 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

        How is it an atrocity? HOW is it an atrocity?

        Well, I guess such pronouncements are subjective to some extent.

        • Larry Cook
          Posted October 22, 2013 at 7:28 am | Permalink

          I think it’s an atrocity because my immediate reaction is that it’s atrocious. If a lot of people feel the pain I feel when I hear this song, it’s certainly an atrocity. It could probably be used against our enemies in wartime, but it’s borderline detention/torture. I know for sure forcing a prisoner to listen to these songs is torture. That some like the songs means the torture may not be premeditated. In fact, it may be inadvertent.

          • Posted October 22, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

            Thank goodness. A voice of reason.

          • Filippo
            Posted October 23, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

            ” . . . the pain I feel when I hear this song”

            Just for the record, are you saying that Shatner is singing, as opposed to giving a dramatic reading?

  9. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 21, 2013 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    ….one of my dorm-mates during freshman year in college actually had a Walter Brennan album, and played this song endlessly, driving me bonkers.

    And somehow you managed not to murder him in his sleep or at least have the record mysteriously vanish? I’m impressed!

    • Posted October 21, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

      You know those $0.69 trial-size bottles of shampoo?

      One of my roommates in the dorm one semester had one of those. The same one. For the entire semester. It sat next to his bar of soap.

      I spent damned little time in the room that semester, and very little any other. Sleep, shower, laundry on the weekends — that was pretty much it.

      Once I escaped the dorms, I vowed to never have another roommate unless I was (essentially) married to her, or they were the result of such a marriage. And that’s one decision I have no regrets about whatsoever.


  10. Diane G.
    Posted October 21, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    We had so much more in common back in the day when there were only 3 channels…


  11. Kevin
    Posted October 21, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    That was the worst one so far.

  12. AdamK
    Posted October 21, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    jeez louise

  13. Filippo
    Posted October 21, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    If you want to listen to a fairly entertaining parody of “Old Rivers,” type in “Son of Old Rivers” by The Lettermen, on Youtube. (“Jest keep playin’ that pianner, Floyd.” Presumably Floyd Cramer of “Last Date” fame, considering the playing style.)

  14. cornbread_r2
    Posted October 21, 2013 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Except for the smile and teeth, that pic of Brennan could have been my Grandpa.

    He retired from dairy farming in ’58 and never owned a tractor (and never had a vacation). Everything was done with horse/mule-drawn implements. As a 6-year old my most important job was bringing him a snack — carried in a metal lunch pail — out to the fields where he plowed. We’d sit eating our sandwiches as the mules would eye us, no doubt wondering who the little fella wearing the cowboy hat was. My next most important job was helping him dig up wild onions in the pastures in the Spring before the cows could eat them and spoil the milk. (I once cut my finger with the corn knife I was using and he tied some string in the cut to keep it open until we got back home where he poured salt in it. I didn’t cry. I still have the scar.)

    He ALWAYS wore bibs. On Sundays he wore his newest ones to church along with a spotless white dress shirt and a pin-striped, dark blue suit jacket. He kept his little bag of rolling tobacco in the top pocket along with a cigar that was always halfway smoked.

    Thanks for the memories.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 21, 2013 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

      That is positively storybook! Thanks for sharing.

  15. Posted October 22, 2013 at 2:44 am | Permalink

    That reminds me of a song I heard years ago but can find no mention of anywhere in the internet. Some may say I’m making this up, but maybe someone will corroborate it.

    Eval Knieval, the 1970s motorbike hero, wrote and performed at least one song. It was a talking song, and he claimed, while introducing it to the audience, that it “explains the meaning of life for every man woman and child on the planet.” All I remember is that I had the clear impression that it didn’t; and that it contained the lines

    It’s the same for you, and you, and you and your wife,
    We all seek a meaning for life…

    • Posted October 22, 2013 at 3:56 am | Permalink

      I bet you are thinking of “Evel Talks of the Future” from the 1974 album “Evel Knievel”, re-released posthumously in 2008.

      The clip on this site has the additional bonus of Evel framing death as a good thing – somewhere we’re all going, and merely the next step. Mash your brains out on your next jump? Why, that just gets you where you’re going more quickly. Spoken like the Jeebus freak death cultist he became by the end of his bizarre life.

      • Posted October 22, 2013 at 4:22 am | Permalink

        Thanks. Yep, that sounds like it. I didn’t realize they’ve got free beer in heaven. I bet old Evel is sitting there right now waiting for us to join him. Such a comforting thought…

        • Posted October 22, 2013 at 5:02 am | Permalink

          I wouldn’t bet on it, though. I think Evel was sorely mistaken about the beer thing. …something he would’ve known had he put away the country records and listened to polkas from time to time.

  16. michieux
    Posted October 22, 2013 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    I was wondering if this one had made it onto your list. Talk about regurgitating old songs and TV shows…

    I watched “The Real McCoys” as a kid in a small country town in Australia. I liked it. Being a fan of “westerns” ensured I saw Brennan often. He was a good character actor.

  17. Posted October 22, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    What a great series of posts. These songs are dire – and yet, somehow, I want more…

    If you ever do it again, Jerry, how about ‘Spirit in the Sky’? The bombastic tone of the music is totally at odds with the banality of the lyric. ‘Never been a sinner, I’ve never sinned – I’ve got a friend in Jesus’ – hard to think of a smugger, more drawbridge-pulling-up sentiment than that.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted October 31, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      Yeah, but it was obviously ironic – wasn’t it?

  18. harrylime
    Posted October 22, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Maybe I’m the only one (surely the only one under 30), but I like “Old Rivers.” Come on, it’s the world’s most endearing old timer, waxing sentimental on the values and hardships of his youth – the same combination of corny and comforting that won Brennan three Oscars, just put to music. “Old Rivers” is like a story you’ve heard your grandpa tell a thousand times. I’d be sorry if it ceased to exist.

  19. revelator60
    Posted October 22, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Walter Brennan’s crusty old coot schtick to was very annoying, except when he occasionally subverted his persona. His best film role was evil Old Man Clanton in John Ford’s classic “My Darling Clementine.” He was far more tolerable as a despicable villain than as a “lovable” sidekick.

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