Joni Mitchell River: How a blue song became an unlikely Christmas classic


Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell and Richie Havens perform the finale of the Rolling Thunder Revue, a tour headed by Bob Dylan, in 1975. (AP file)

This article was originally published in 2006.

Michael Ball, a British stage actor and singer, What a Traditional Christmas Music at a London drama school many years ago when the students unwrapped Joni Mitchell's "River."

Ball was somewhat startled, given that the classic 1971 confessional is not really a Christmas song.

Never mind that its opening melody is "Jingle Bells" in a minor key and that the lyrics begin with a seasonal scene: "It's coming on Christmas, they're cutting down trees, they are singing songs of joy and peace. "

Ultimately, "River" is a song about a broken romance and a woman desperately wants to escape her heartbreak, saying once again: "I wish I had a river I could skate away on." The despairing drama just happens to be set around the holidays.

"There were all these 18- and 19-year-olds doing traditional Christmas songs, and then, bang – they start doing 'River," Ball recalled in a subsequent interview with The Washington Post. "I'm thinking: Where on earth did this come from? "

Of course, Ball had in the year 2000, he had recorded a version of "River" for his holiday album, "Christmas." At the time, he thought he was a maverick for placing the song alongside the likes of "Silent Night" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Over the past two decades, "River" – originally featured on Mitchell's 1971 melancholy masterwork, "Blue" – has become a seasonal favorite, despite being "thoroughly depressing, "the elbow frontman Guy Garvey once noted at a Christmas concert.

Or it's ascended to holiday-hit status precisely Because it's an antidote to all those "songs of joy and peace."

"We needed a sad Christmas song, did not we?" Mitchell said with a chuckle on NPR in 2014. "In the 'bah humbug' of it all."

"River" has long been a popular cover among musicians, hundreds of whom have been recorded for commercial release. Countless others have performed it in concert.

But since British jazz-fusion guitarist Peter White featured it on his 1997 album, "Songs of the Season," Mitchell's composition has been included in dozens of Christmas collections, from Barry Manilow's "A Christmas Gift of Love" to Tracey Thorn's "Tinsel and Lights "to Heart's" Home for Christmas "and Sarah McLachlan's Grammy-nominated" Winter Song. "

Even the electro-pop artist Hanne Leland got on the act this year, covering Mitchell's "Christmas-ish" classic.

"I love this song as it's an alternative to all the jolly, glittery Christmas songs out there," she wrote on Instagram. "Some people find Christmas in a year, for different reasons, and I feel like '

"White, who started the" River "-as-holiday-song trend almost two weeks ago, said at a holiday concert in 2011 ,

Sam Smith, the best-selling British singer-songwriter, covered "River" for Spotify's 2017 Christmas playlist and gushed: "Joni Mitchell is one of the reasons why I write music. It's a dream to be given the opportunity to cover this song. "

Smith did not, however, explain why he considers it a Christmas song.

Then again, in an explanation probably not necessary: ​​Smith specializes in songs sung blue, and there may not be a quasi-seasonal song sadder than Mitchell's.

"That season and that holiday brings a lot of pain," singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile told Variety, "and I think we're looking at those heartbreak songs during that time because it's really important to represent, or to be represented, if that brings back hard memories, or if you have anybody that thinks about it in a concentrated way during that time. So 'River' what the first time I gained perspective on how other people might look at that season. "

So, "British musician Beth Orton told the Wall Street Journal, when her" River "cover was included," It's a song I've got, "she says on Amazon's misleadingly named holiday playlist, "All Is Bright."

"I would dedicate this song to those who are grieving the loss of a sense of place, loved one, family," she said.

When Idina Menzel is promoting her "Holiday Wishes" album in 2014, the "Frozen" star said she recorded a version of "River" because "I need to make sure that I have some kind of loss or loneliness, because the holidays are not holly, jolly Christmas all the time, you know? "

Mitchell said in a 2006 interview with The Post that "I do not know why it's getting picked up as a Christmas song. But some things just become six songs, and this is now one of them. "

At the time, Taylor had just released "James Taylor at Christmas," which included "River" – a song he'd first heard decades earlier, when Mitchell played it at home in Los Angeles in 1970, shortly after it was written.

"Most Christmas songs are light and shallow, but 'River' is a sad song," Taylor told The Post. It starts with a description of a produced version of Christmas in Los Angeles. , , then juxtaposes it with this frozen river, which says, 'Christmas here is bringing me down.' Then it's, 'Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate on' – wanting to fall into this landscape that she remembers.

"It's such a beautiful thing, to turn away from the commercial mayhem that Christmas is becoming and just breathe into some pine needles. It's a really blue song. "

Which is exactly why Ball said he recorded it.

"I'm not a big fan of Christmas, and I think there's a lot of people who feel a bit melancholy at the holiday," he told The Post. "It's coming on Christmas, all that preparation is on, and you just want to escape. You do not want to buy it. It's a time of year that brings up a lot of memories for people, and if you're missing somebody, it's hardest at this time of year. "

In some ways, it's the perfect anti-Christmas song, running counter to the prevailing seasonal spirit.

Mitchell's tune is one of the rare "new" entries in the Christmas canon, alongside Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You. "

"It's the most beautiful, like, sad Christmastime song I've ever heard of it in my life," Ashley Monroe told A.V. Club. "Every time I sing it I am crying for a little on the inside."

If Mitchell never intended to write a Christmas hit, she would not be the first to write an accidental success story: According to Ace Collins, the author of "Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas," multiple songs now considered Christmas classics were not actually intended for the holiday.

The most famous: "Jingle Bells," which was written by James Pierpoint for a Thanksgiving program at his Unitarian church in the 1850s.

"River" has become popular in Hollywood, too, featuring in the seasonally set movie "Love Actually," in a Christmas scene in "You've Got Mail," and in shows from "Glee" and "Ally McBeal" to "ER McLachlan's ethereal version of the song in a dark, holiday-themed episode.

"Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow" – I'm sure artists go through the same thing when they're making holiday albums, " Ann Kline, who was co-music supervisor for "ER," once told The Post.

"There are only so many Christmas songs out there."

Linda Ronstadt said "River" was an obvious choice when she recorded her own holiday album, "A Merry Little Christmas," in 2000.

"I'd wanted to record it for years, and I just could not figure out where to put it," she told The Post in 2006. "I never heard of it in the context of other Christmas songs, but I always wondered why that was. "

Ronstadt said at the time that she never discussed the meaning of the song with her old friend, Mitchell.

Mitchell's daughter, who was born in the 1960s, when the singer was 21 and was about to move from Saskatoon to Toronto.

Mitchell gave the child up for adoption and did not have any contact with her until 1997.

"I think that's what it's all about, because it's very sad," Ronstadt speculated. "But who really knows if that's what 'river' is about? The answer is: I do not know, and I bet Joni does not, either. "

For her part, Mitchell told NPR in 2014 that the song is about "taking personal responsibility for the failure of a relationship."

"And my generation – you know, the 'Me Generation' – is Peter Pan, a narcissistic generation, right?" She said. "So it's really, you know – it's really that aspect of our inability – you know, 'I'm selfish and I'm sad.' Right?

"You know, people think that's confessional, but I say, you know, in my generation, you think that's a unique personal statement? You know what I mean? It's like no wonder there's so many covers of it! "

Taylor, who performs "The River" in the front of Mitchell at a tribute concert to celebrate her 75th birthday, said the song is most likely to be autobiographical, given that "it starts with a girl from Canada watching them try to make Christmas on La Brea in Los Angeles."

But he told The Post in 2006 that he never actually discussed the meaning with Mitchell, with whom he was romantically involved in the early 1970s.

"Do I want to know who she made cry, who she made say goodbye? Well, I've asked that question, "Taylor said. "That's the only mystery in it: Who was it who broke her heart?"

With a laugh, he added: "There were a lot of us."

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