WoW #8: JJ Grey & Mofro – “This River”

JJ Grey & Mofro – “This River”

The river. It’s an often used symbol in rock’n’roll, blues, music in general. For a songwriter, the river’s mutability might suggest the fleetingness of life itself. But the river bank can also be a place of renewal, of baptism, of cleansing.

JJ Grey wrote “This River” after wandering down to the St. John’s River in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. The song closes the 2013 album of the same name, the sixth by Grey’s enduring southern soul, funk and blues project JJ Grey & Mofro.

Setting off with a lonesome acoustic guitar intro, carried along by a spare accompaniment of bass, drums and piano, with horns helping the song crescendo to a close, it is, above all, a showcase for Grey’s stark and powerful voice, which manages to communicate sorrow, remorse, resolve and contrition over the course of a gripping five-plus minutes.  

During an interview that followed the making of This River, JJ shared the story behind the song.

“‘This River’ is sort of about the St. John’s River. But really, it’s more about the river of life. There’s this little park right on the St. John’s River in a part of Jacksonville called Ortega. It’s surrounded by mansions and big houses and rich people. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. I’m sure they don’t feel rich. Everybody thinks somebody else is rich.

“Anyway…there are a lot of really nice houses all around it. And in this little park, you got this bulkhead, and invariably, at any time of day, you’ll see people who live not too far away, but maybe in a little shotgun house, they go down there with cane poles and they fish. The chances of you seeing the people who live in that area fishing are next to none.

“One day I was there and I saw a guy who looked homeless. Only because he was drunk. He was sitting there fishing, but he wasn’t really paying attention to the fish or the pole or anything. He was just drunk, and looked like somebody who’d lost everything. He had that look that homeless people sometimes have. I didn’t talk to the guy, I just saw him. We didn’t have to talk. It just seemed like that was his story. For all I know, he was happy as a lark.

“At any rate, watching him hit home. And the song is just about reflection and what really is real. He’s kind of asking those questions. I’ve been that dude before, but to a lesser extent. I’ve never lost everything.

“I guess the idea is – and I didn’t intend this – how bad your life is depends on how bad you want it to be or how good you want it to be.”

In the striking images of the video for “This River,” the river becomes a shaded, woodsy creek visited by a young married fellow – played by Grey – seeking refuge from a domestic squabble, and an older, heavily inebriated man, played by actor Danny Aiello. His character, based on Grey’s account, may be homeless or merely drunk or even happy as a lark.

Maybe the two are one and the same.

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