"The River" was originally intended to be included on an earlier, one-record version of The River, tentatively called The Ties That Bind. The song itself was recorded at The Power Station in New York City in July or August 1979. In the first live performance of the song in 1979, Springsteen cited the inspiration as "my brother-in-law and my sister". The 2012 biography Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin includes an interview with Springsteen's sister Ginny, in which she plainly states that the song is a precise description of her early life with her husband Mickey, to whom she is still married today. In his 2016 autobiography Springsteen confirmed that he wrote the song as a tribute to his sister and his brother-in-law.