From Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” to Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” to the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” the most honest Christmas songs freely acknowledge the holiday’s dark underbelly. There are always those for whom the holidays are times of heartbreak, which, as we know, makes for better songwriting than tinsel, elves, and stockings. Near the top of any list of miserable Christmas songs sits Joni Mitchell’s holiday classic “River,” in which she laments losing “the best baby I ever had” over the season.
“River” is not really a Christmas song; it just happens to be set during the holidays: “It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees,” Joni sings, “They’re putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace.” This tranquil scene provides a tragic foil for the song’s true subject. “Ultimately,” writes J. Freedom du Lac at The Washington Post, “‘River’ is a bereft song about a broken romance and a woman who desperately wants to escape her heartbreak, saying repeatedly: ‘I wish I had a river I could skate away on.’”
Mitchell’s “despairing drama” has “long been a popular cover among musicians, hundreds of whom have recorded it for commercial release.” (According to her website, it has been recorded 763 times, second only to “Both Sides Now” at almost twice that number.) Last year Ellie Goulding’s cover rose to No. 1 in Europe. First released on Mitchell’s 1971 classic Blue, the song deliberately evokes the holidays with strains of “Jingle Bells” in its opening bars before descending into its deeply melancholy melody.
“River” did not enter modern Christmas singalongs until the 1990s. In the Polyphonic video at the top, “Joni Mitchell and the Melancholy of Christmas,” we begin all the way back in the 1880s, with the first recordings of “Jingle Bells.” The history frames Mitchell’s use of the melody, almost a form of sampling, as radical protest of a tune that has become “synonymous with Christmas joy.” It has been recorded by virtually everyone, and was even broadcast from space in 1965 “when astronauts aboard NASA’s Gemini 6 played it as part of a Christmas prank.”
No, says Mitchell, there are real people with real problems down here, and sometimes Christmas sucks. There’ll be no dashing through the snow: “It don’t snow here / Stays pretty green.” The story behind the song is well-known: Mitchell ended her two-year relationship with Graham Nash in 1970, then “skated away” to Europe to escape the “crazy scene.” While in Crete, “she sent Nash a telegram to tell him their relationship was over,” notes Tom Eames. No one should try to force a happy holiday in such times. If you’re craving a little realness with your cheer, consider adding “River” to your playlist.