Cuyahoga (song)

"Cuyahoga" is a song by R.E.M. from their 1986 album Lifes Rich Pageant. It was written primarily by R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry.[1] It is one of R.E.M.'s earliest environmentally conscious songs, along with the album's lead single, "Fall on Me".[1][2]

"Cuyahoga"
Song by R.E.M.
from the album Lifes Rich Pageant
ReleasedJuly 28, 1986
GenreAlternative rock, indie rock, jangle pop
Length4:20
LabelI.R.S. Records
Songwriter(s)
Producer(s)Don Gehman

The themes of "Cuyahoga" include the pollution of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio and the treatment of American Indians earlier in American history.[1][3][4] Despite the grim themes, according to R.E.M. biographer David Buckley, the lyrics are "words of optimism, partnership and community, set against an age of individualism."[3] R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck said of the song that the song "is a metaphor for America and its lost promises. This is where the Indians were and now look at it. It's one of the ugliest fucking rivers in the world."[1] The song opens with the lines "Let's put our heads together and start a new country up," which R.E.M. biographer Tony Fletcher describes as sounding like a "call to arms."[5] On the other hand, music writer Craig Rosen feels that the line adds to the song's optimism.[1]

Another line in the song states that "we'll burn the river down."[1][6] This line comes from the fact that as early as the 1910s the river was so polluted that one method of cleaning the river was to throw a torch in it and thus burn the pollutants.[6][7] The river also actually caught fire on several occasions, including in 1969, an event which helped raise awareness of water pollution and other environmental issues,[8][9] although it was a photograph of an even larger 1952 fire that was used in an iconic Time magazine cover on the subject.[10] This was another inspiration for the song, and for other songs such as Randy Newman's "Burn On."[8][9] Newman biographer Kevin Courrier believes that "Burn On" was an influence on "Cuyahoga."[11]

Buckley describes the melody as "beautiful" and the refrain as "anthemic."[3] Musically, "Cuyahoga" is propelled by Mills' bassline.[3][6]

Musician Ken Stringfellow described "Cuyahoga" as being "an anthem, but it's not self-congratulatory. It's about what's gone wrong with our country. It was an anti-anthem in that way. It took on an issue, but it was still unifying and powerful. That's a hard thing to do well."[3] Slant critic Jonathan Keefe noted that even 25 years after the song's initial release its "optimism...is still inspiring and relevant."[12] He goes on to note that the song's message "reflects an intelligent and decidedly nonpartisan approach to political reconstruction without resorting to...didacticism."[12] Pitchfork Media critic Stephen M. Deusner states that "With its rousing chorus and pensive bass line, 'Cuyahoga' mails postcard dispatches from a museum where rivers and plains are artifacts, consigned to diorama and memory rather than reality."[13] According to music author Martin Charles Strong, "Cuyahoga" (and "Fall on Me") showed the band developing "an assured poise."[14] Fletcher described "Cuyahoga" as the "lyrical peak" of Lifes Rich Pageant.[5] It is one of Mills' favorite songs and one he particularly enjoys playing live.[1]

Although not released as a single, "Cuyahoga" has appeared on several R.E.M. compilation albums, including The Best of R.E.M. in 1991 and And I Feel Fine... The Best of the I.R.S. Years 1982–1987 in 2006.[15] It was also included on the live albums R.E.M. Live, Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions, Live at the Olympia and R.E.M. at the BBC.[15]