In 1962, “Old Rivers” was recorded as a recitation by actor and recording artist Walter Brennan, prominently featuring The Johnny Mann Singers as the backing choir over Brennan’s recitation on the refrain. And the song quickly became a top 5 hit, not only on the Billboard Hot 100 but also on Easy Listening and Hot C&W Sides charts two months after its release.
Brennan was already 68 by then, making him the oldest person to have a Top Ten single on the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard Country charts.
A Young Boy And A Man Named “Old Rivers”
Written by Cliff Crofford, “Old Rivers” tells the tale of a man looking back to a childhood friendship with an elderly farmer named Old Rivers.
The song’s narrator remembers how Old Rivers would use a mule-drawn plow to cultivate fields in the hot sun. The mule got a name, and it was “Midnight.” Together, Old Rivers and Midnight would plow straight, deep rows for the crops, which was considered as much an indicator of skill as a farmer as actual crop production.
During Old Rivers’ rest breaks, he would often take the boy with him and tell him of a place he would one day go.
“He’d say, one of these days I’m gonna climb that mountain. Walk up there among the clouds where the cotton’s high and the corn’s a-growin’ and there ain’t no fields to plow,” the song goes. Though the place was not specifically named, you can tell that Old Rivers was speaking of Heaven.
Years have passed by, and the young boy is now a man. Although he has moved away from his dirt-poor farming community, he is now a farmer himself and is plowing his own field. Until one day, he got a letter from his mother, letting him know that Old Rivers had died.
The man was deeply saddened by the news that he had to find a little shade to rest and gather his thoughts. He was able to take comfort in what Old Rivers one day told him about Heaven.
“Old Rivers” was Brennan’s most popular recording, after making a few recordings following his success in The Real McCoys, a sitcom about a poor West Virginia family that relocated to a farm in Southern California. The TV series was a hit and ran for five years.
You can enjoy Walter Brennan’s impressive performance of “Old Rivers” in the video below.