Andy Williams's Moon River—Decoded and Vindicated at Last!


I spent an embarrassing amount of time last night on YouTube listening to Andy Williams--who died Tuesday night--sing his signature song "Moon River." I'm not entirely sure what accounts for the fascination. I had heard the song a lot, long ago; my parents sometimes watched the Andy Williams show, and I think he sang it on every episode. I guess I had always liked the tune fine, but I'd never really listened to the lyrics. Anyway, as I listened, I started thinking that it's a really beautiful song--not just musically but lyrically.

I'll elaborate below, but first: This morning, with "Moon River" still on my mind, I returned to YouTube and discovered what I consider vindication of my elevated opinion of the song: It was deemed worthy of covering by none other than Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton!

As for those lyrics: Call me dense, but it took me a few listens to get that, throughout the song, the object of affection is the river itself. So when he sings, "Two drifters," he's still talking about himself and the river. (Drifters--pun, get it?) This is a love sung to wanderlust. Or a romantic song in which the romantic partner is the idea of romance. Or whatever. I realize the interpretation is obvious, and I'm sure there are people who consider it too obvious to be interesting. But, maybe because I had heard the song so many times, going so far back, finally focusing on it long enough to decode it felt like a kind of epiphany--the dramatic recasting of an ancient memory. I guess it's kind of like when Tom Cruise, in Rain Man, realizes that the "Rain Man" of his early childhood is the Raymond of his adulthood. Or maybe it's not... Anyway, here's my childhood-memory version of the song, sung by Williams himself on his weekly show:

Finally, here's the reason the song exists--so that it could be sung by Audrey Hepburn (playing Holly Golightly) in this scene from Breakfast at Tiffany's:

Two footnotes: (1) Believe it or not, when Mancini/Mercer first tried to put lyrics to the music, they went not with "Moon River, wider than mile..." but rather with "I'm Holly, like I want to be..." I'm glad they changed their mind. (2) Re the apt Mark Twain reference--"my Huckleberry Friend": It's interesting that Williams's most concrete legacy is in Twainland; he built the "Moon River Theater," as well as a home, in Branson, Missouri.

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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