How Joni Mitchell’s Song of Heartbreak, “River,” Became a Christmas Classic

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Joni Mitchell Wrote “Wood­stock,” the Song that Defined the Leg­endary Music Fes­ti­val, Even Though She Wasn’t There (1969)

Watch Joni Mitchell Sing an Immac­u­late Ver­sion of Her Song “Coy­ote,” with Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn & Gor­don Light­foot (1975)

The Expan­sive Vocal Range of Joni Mitchell: From the Ear­ly to Lat­er Years

The Sto­ry of The Pogues’ “Fairy­tale of New York,” the Boozy Bal­lad That Has Become One of the Most Beloved Christ­mas Songs of All Time

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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