"The River" makes use of a haunting harmonica part, and in some ways is a precursor to the style of his next album, Nebraska. The imagery of the chorus and the end of the song were inspired by lines from Hank Williams' 1950 hit, "Long Gone Lonesome Blues". The song's depiction of how economic difficulties are interlaced with local culture also presaged the 1980s popularity of heartland rock:
Writer Robert Hilburn deemed the song "a classic outline of someone who has to re-adjust his dreams quickly [, facing] life as it is, not a world of his imagination."
Throughout the song the river is viewed as a symbol for the dreams of the future. The narrator keeps his hopes alive even as they realistically begin to fail.
The song was debuted in public at the Musicians United for Safe Energy concerts at Madison Square Garden in September 1979, and was featured in the subsequent 1980 film No Nukes three months before The River's release.
"The River" was not released as a single in the U.S., but was released as a single in May 1981 in several countries in Western Europe. It placed to number 35 on the UK Singles Chart. It also reached number 24 on the Irish Singles Chart, number 10 in Sweden's singles chart, and had its best showing with a number 5 placement on Norway's singles chart. In the U.S., it gained considerable album oriented rock airplay and became one of Springsteen's best-known songs to fans. It was included on both his 1995 Greatest Hits and 2003 The Essential Bruce Springsteen compilations.
"The River", and a few other songs on the album, such as "Wreck on the Highway" and "Stolen Car", mark a new direction in Bruce Springsteen's songwriting: these ballads imbued with a sense of hopelessness anticipate his next album, Nebraska. Bruce Springsteen himself has noted that "Wreck on the Highway" is one of the songs reflecting a shift in his songwriting style, linking The River to Nebraska.