"The River" was originally intended to be included on an earlier, one-record version of The River, tentatively called The Ties That Bind. The song itself was recorded at The Power Stationin New York in July or August 1979. In the very first live performance of the song in 1979, Springsteen cited the inspiration as "my brother in law and my sister". In fact, the newly released biography "Bruce" by Peter Ames Carlin includes an interview with Bruce's sister Ginny in which she plainly states that the song is a precise description of her early life with her husband Mickey, to whom she is still married today.
"The River" makes use of a haunting harmonica part, and in some ways is a precursor to the style of his next album, Nebraska. The imagery of the chorus and the end of the song were inspired by lines from Hank Williams' 1950 hit, "Long Gone Lonesome Blues". The song's depiction of how economic difficulties are interlaced with local culture also presaged the 1980s popularity of heartland rock:
- I come from down in the valley,
- Where mister when you're young —
- They bring you up to do, like your daddy done
- I got a job working construction, for the Johnstown Company
- But lately there ain't been much work, on account of the economy
- Now all them things that seemed so important —
- Well mister, they vanished right into the air
Throughout the song the river is viewed as a symbol for the dreams of the future. The narrator keeps his hopes alive even as they realistically begin to fail.
- That sends me down to the river,
- Though I know, the river is dry.
- It sends me down to the river, tonight
The song was debuted in public at the Musicians United for Safe Energy concerts at Madison Square Garden in September 1979, and was featured in the subsequent 1980 film No Nukes three months before The River's release.
"The River" was not released as a single in the U.S., but was released as a single in May 1981 in several countries in Western Europe. It placed number 35 on the UK Singles Chart. It also reached number 24 on the Irish Singles Chart, number 10 in Sweden's singles chart, number 6 in the Danish Top 20 and had its best showing with a number 5 placement on Norway's singles chart. In the U.S., it gained considerable album oriented rock airplay and became one of Springsteen's best-known songs. It was included on both his 1995 Greatest Hits and 2003 The Essential Bruce Springsteen compilations. The song was also incorporated in the European edition of the 2009 Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Greatest Hits.
"The River", and a few other songs on The River, such as "Wreck on the Highway" and "Stolen Car", mark a new direction in Bruce Springsteen's songwriting: these ballads imbued with a sense of hopelessness anticipate his next album, Nebraska. Bruce Springsteen himself has noted that "Wreck on the Highway" is one of the songs reflecting a shift in his songwriting style, linking The River to Nebraska.
"The River" became a centerpiece of shows on some Springsteen tours. On the Born in the U.S.A. Tour, it was often preceded by a long, intense story from Springsteen about his battles with his father growing up, that would sometimes conclude positively and sometimes not; the silence after the story would then be interrupted by the start of the harmonica part. One such story and performance, that also touched on the Vietnam War, was included on the 1986Live/1975–85 set.
In some concert footage, Springsteen mentions that "The River" was written for his sister and brother-in-law.
On later tours, especially in Europe, the song's outro was extended to great length, with audiences mass singing the wordless "oooh" parts at the end. On the 1999–2000 Reunion Tour, "The River" was cast in a different arrangement that featured a Clarence Clemons saxophone part; one such rendition was included on the subsequent Live in New York City album and DVD. The song has been performed about 582 times through 2013.