“We needed a sad Christmas song, didn’t we?” So said Joni Mitchell to National Public Radio in 2014 when discussing “River,” her 1971 album track that, once it was rediscovered in the late 1990s, has become her second most frequently covered composition after “Both Sides Now.”
It’s not hard to see why. “River” is set during the holiday season, and it brings out some of the bleakness that can be associated with it, reminding us why our ancestors found reason to celebrate in late December when daylight hours began to get longer again. Its piano variations on “Jingle Bells,” both to start and end the song, give it a somber feel, and the lyrics do the rest.
Mitchell is mourning the end of a relationship. Lost in her thoughts about Christmas trees and carols and the desire for a frozen river on which she can escape, she realizes that she was the reason he left (“I made my baby say goodbye”) and not the other way around.
In the end, all of our attempts at long-term romantic relationships fail except for one, and that’s only if we’re lucky. Perhaps that’s why “River,” despite its deep personal meaning for Joni Mitchell, has been so frequently covered and has such resonance for so many people.
It took a long time for “River” to skate away from its status as an album cut from Blue, which is considered a classic in its own right. Fewer than a dozen scattered versions were recorded from 1973 to 1996, and never in the context of a Christmas album. But that changed more than a quarter century after Mitchell’s original was released, when jazz guitarist Peter White included a cover of “River,” with vocals by Kenny Lattimore, on his 1997 Christmas CD Songs of the Season. Many holiday music stations, not yet bound to tight playlists, picked it up, and though it didn’t make any chart (Christmas radio was still in its infancy in 1997), it opened up the floodgates. It has been recorded by roughly 500 artists in the years since, from Barry Manilow and Robert Downey Jr. to Sarah McLachlan and, in ultimate tribute to its pop-culture status, the cast of Glee. One of the many covers is by James Taylor, who was Joni Mitchell’s lover of the moment when she wrote “River”; she played the finished song for him before she recorded it.
With all those renditions, many of which are excellent in their own right, it can be hard to remember where it started. Indeed, many people might not even know its origin, because that first recording doesn’t get a lot of airplay. For my December 21 Christmas Song of the Day, here’s the original 1971 version of “River” by Joni Mitchell.