As I mentioned in my last post to begin my series on Holiday/Christmas Songs I am starting with the more unconventional. Joni Mitchell’s “River” has been adopted as a Seasonal/Christmas song. Mitchell wrote the song with inspiration from her breakup with Graham Nash. Yes, it starts with a little “Jingle Bells” on the piano and references Christmas but not in a celebratory way. It’s essentially about missing someone and wanting to escape or “skate away” from the lonely feelings. There are many such songs that reflect the reality that not everyone is completely happy, just because the calendar shows it’s Christmastime. Those feeling lonely or missing a loved one, or anyone for that matter may find solace in this song. Typical of Joni Mitchell’s work it is deeply personal and at the same time relatable to millions of others in their own private struggles.
The song was not released as a single and is from her 1971 masterpiece Blue. As with many of her songs it went somewhat unnoticed and under appreciated for many years. It was first covered in 1974 by a friend and fellow Folk Singer Dave Van Ronk who was part of the Greenwich Village scene with Mitchell, Dylan, Phil Ochs and others. Mitchell has been quoted as saying his version of “Both Sides Now” is her favorite. It was then covered a few more times and never reached the charts but the first connection to a Christmas theme for the song was a version by Canadian Opera Singer Riki Turofsky where it appeared on her 1994 album A River So Long as it was paired with another non-Christmas song, this time written by Harry Nilsson titled “Remember (Christmas)” from his Son of Schmilsson released in 1972, it has been covered 20 times and it’s first Christmas theme appearance was on a Compilation album Cabaret Noël – A Broadway Cares Christmas in 1993. “Remember / Toyland” by K.T. Sullivan.
However, most of the credit for the connection seems to come from the appearance of “River” on Songs of the Season, a 1997 release by British Jazz guitarist Peter White. The album contained among other songs, “Jingle Bells”, “Silent Night” and “White Christmas”. Next it was on a Christmas Compilation assembled as a freebie insert by the renowned Dutch literary magazine De Gids in 1998. From there on it just grew from more ‘seasonal’ cover versions and appearances on more Christmas Albums, a bit of radio airplay and choirs including it in their Holliday repertoire. You will now hear it from your favorite streaming service when you request “Christmas Songs”.
Ellie Goulding covered this song and her 2019 Youtube release reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart. There are over 300 documented covers and according to secondhandsongs.com she is #14 on the list of of most covered singer songwriters with almost 2400 versions (of all her songs) being recorded. Needless to say that JoniMitchell.com is focused solely on her songs and they list 900 versions making it her second most covered song after “Both Sides Now” with 1573 covers.
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on …