Diane Cluck’s “The River”

“The River” by Diane Cluck (feat. Jeffrey Lewis) unites folk and the gothic under the story of a wayward daughter in a religious society riddled with corruption. Unlike many other songs in both the gothic and folk genres, “The River” does not appear to follow a linear story; rather, it repeatedly examines a brief moment in time through a first-person point of view. The song describes a woman being dragged to the waterline by a “Baptist guy” and submerged underwater repeatedly, and it appears to be about religious punishment and the ramifications of a joint church and state, as  she is dragged to the river in a ritual that resembles a Christian baptism.

“Baptist guy keeps getting closer / tries to pull me down to the river / have I been such a wayward daughter? / hold my head under the water.”

Perhaps the most gothic convention in “The River” is that of the wayward daughter. The speaker is repeatedly referred to as a “wayward daughter” by the Baptist man who plunges her head under the water. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a wayward child is one who is documented as “habitually associating with vicious or immoral persons, or growing up in circumstances likely to lead to criminal activity or willful disobedience of parental or other lawful authority and therefore subject to custodial care and protection for his or her own welfare.” The concept of a “wayward daughter” in gothic literature is quite common and seen, for example, in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, many of Emily Dickinson’s poems, and Hulga in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” In the gothic, a wayward daughter is often feared and despised by the rest of the community, either forced to assimilate or completely rejected from society. In “The River,” the wayward daughter has—intentionally or not—subverted society’s standards, resulting in her forced reformation by a Baptist priest (presumably, as she refers to him as “Father”). The woman in “The River” suffers a dispossession of thought, being converted by the Baptist priest: “left my mind on the riverbank / left behind in the mud, it sank.” Lack of agency is a theme throughout the whole of the song that is exhibited especially through the loss of one’s personal thoughts and the mind.

The speaker in “The River” seems much like the character Hulga in O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” as they are both wayward daughters who are coaxed into reformation by religious “authorities.” Much like how Hulga, an atheist, is seduced by the young Bible salesman, the wayward daughter in “The River” comes to accept and perhaps even embrace her looming religious fate as she appears to experience something like Stockholm Syndrome with her captor, the priest: “Baptist guy, I gotta thank you / for the bath, though I didn’t want to.” This lack of resolution is also reflective of the gothic genre; it is common in gothic literature for the reader to feel unsatisfied after finishing the story, the ending having been unsettling or unresolved. This unsettling feeling of a lack of resolution is also experienced at the end of “Good Country People,” when the Bible salesman steals Hulga’s wooden leg and leaves her in the barn loft, stranded. Hulga loses, at this time, her bodily autonomy, as she is now unable to leave the loft. Similarly, the speaker in “The River” loses her bodily autonomy both physically and metaphorically, as she is forced under the water by the Baptist priest, although in her case it is unclear whether she possessed that bodily autonomy to begin with. In a metaphorical sense, the speaker has also lost her mind, as she had to leave it before she entered the water.

Aside from the trope of the wayward daughter, “The River” also exhibits common gothic imagery, usually violent or gruesome depictions of a scene. The song opens by describing, in the voice of Jeffrey Lewis, a dream in which he saw “a mountain in the sky above the flood” and a forest, a city, and a river made of blood. This violent imagery conjures thoughts of a post-apocalyptic world. Later in the song, the listener is confronted with the violent imagery of the female speaker being slapped across the chest and submerged underwater. The following lines also demonstrate a lack of agency that conveys the speaker’s suffering to the listener: “Baptist, he keeps on plunging / my hands, they keep on grabbing / his hair, a tangled nest / he smacks me across the chest.” Although this is a physical depiction of violence, it also shows the Baptist Church’s grasp over the speaker and her beliefs.

“The River” is a physical manifestation of the fear that extends from a world imbued with misogyny and intertwined with religious authority. Its disjointed chords strike the reader and add to the unsettling nature of the song. The wayward daughter is one who has been persecuted through the ages, taken advantage of by religious authority and a patriarchal society. Above all, it ends in defeat; the woman in the song gives in to the pressure exerted by the pastor and society, and the reader is left ruminating on the inescapable nature of the patriarchy.

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One Response to Diane Cluck’s “The River”

  1. lilly says:

    Hi Morgan! I had such an amazing time reading your analysis of “The River” and it has so many hidden gothic elements! I listened to the song first without reading your review, and from the immediate sound of it, the song sounds pretty cheery and light. I guess I never realized how dark the folk genre could get; the hidden aspect definitely contributes to the gothic of the song as well. The mix of airy sound and Jeffery Lewis’s deep monotone voice contrast each other so well. Similar to how you describe the chords of the song as ‘disjointed.’ I love how you connected the main character of the song to Hulga from “Good Country People” and I think you’re so right to say that both of these stories leave the reader/listener completely unsettled with the ending, wondering about the story for a long time after listening. I love your comparison of the lyrics to a post-apocalyptic world, which I totally didn’t get until you introduced that idea. The “wayward daughter” trope, as you put it, is so popular there’s even a Lifetime TV show titled “Preacher’s Daughter” that explores the real-life repercussions of this stereotype. You could write forever and ever about the way women are treated with violence once they don’t fit the mold of what they expect. As much as we hate violence against women, misogyny will always be tied in with religious authority, but when women explore this subject it makes a damn good song.

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