Category Archives: Flannery O’Connor

PJ Harvey Finds Inspiration In Flannery O’Connor’s “The River”

Apart from finding muse in J.D. Salinger’s short stories, PJ Harvey also turned to Flannery O’Connor for inspiration.

A first edition cover of A Good Man Is Hard to Find, by Flannery O'Connor. The short story the River appears in this book.

A first edition cover of A Good Man Is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor. The short story the River appears in this book.

In Harvey’s song “The River,” released in her fourth studio album Is This Desire?, the singer cribbed lyrics from O’Connor’s short story of the same name.

The short story focuses on a boy named Harry, but claims to be named Bavel, who is ignored by his parents. While he was babysat, the sitter takes him to a Christian meeting at a river where people are being baptized. The preacher is led to believe his mother is seriously sick and the boy agrees to be baptized hoping his parents would pay attention to him then.

“If I Baptize you,” the preacher said, “you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering, son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?”

“Yes,” the child said, and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.

“You won’t be the same again,” the preacher said. “You’ll count.” Then he turned his face to the people and began to preach and Bevel looked over his shoulder at the pieces of the white sun scattered in the river.

Even though Harvey doesn’t mention the story’s characters, she does paint the setting by lifting part of the phrase “the white sun scattered in the river.”

Harvey also uses the preacher’s message to pen her lyrics:

“All the rivers come from that one River and go back to it like it was the ocean sea and if you believe, you can lay your pain in that River and get rid of it because that’s the River that was made to carry sin. It’s a River full of pain itself, pain itself, moving toward the Kingdom of Christ, to be washed away, slow, you people, slow as this here old red water river round my feet.” 

This excerpt is what makes the song’s second verse:

Throw your pain in the river
Throw your pain in the river
Leave your pain in the river
To be washed away slow

As the book describes, “While he preached, Bevel’s eyes followed drowsily the slow circles of two silent birds revolving high in the air.”

Harvey too makes mention of this passage in the second verse as she sings, “And we walked without words/And we walked with our lives/Two silent birds circled by.”

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