Joni Mitchell River: like a blue song has become an unlikely Christmas classic


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

This story was adapted from an archived Washington Post article that was originally published in 2006.

Michael Ball, a British theater actor and singer, witnessed a traditional Christmas music performance at a London school of acting many years ago, when the students opened the "River" by Joni Mitchell.

Ball was a bit surprised, since the 1971 classic confessional is not really a Christmas song.

It does not matter that its initial melody is "Jingle Bells" in a minor key and that the lyrics start with a seasonal scene: "Christmas is coming, they cut the trees / They are putting the reindeer, they sing songs of joy and peace."

Ultimately, "River" is an empty song about a broken love story and a woman who desperately wants to escape her broken heart, repeating repeatedly: "I would like to have a river on which I can skate". The desperate drama has just set the holidays.

"There were all these 18 and 19-year-old boys 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 has done This Come? "

Obviously, Ball could have asked the same question: in 2000, he had recorded a version of "River" for his Christmas album, "Christmas". At the time he thought he was an anti-conformist for putting the song alongside "Silent Night" and "Have Yourself a Happy Little Christmas".

Apparently, many artists have dreamed of a very, very blue Christmas in the last two decades: "River" – originally present in Mitchell's melancholic 1971 masterpiece, "Blue" – has become a seasonal favorite, despite being "thoroughly" depressing, "noted an Elbow frontman Guy Garvey during a Christmas concert.

Or maybe it went up precisely to the state of holiday why it is an antidote to all those "songs of joy and peace".

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

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

But since British jazz fusion guitarist Peter White has included him in his 1997 album "Songs of the Season", Mitchell's composition has been included in dozens of Christmas collections, from "A Christmas Gift of Love" by Barry Manilow and "Tinsel and Tracey Thorn" Lights "at heart" Home for Christmas "and Sarah McLachlan nominated for Grammy" Wintersong ".

The electro-pop artist Hanne Leland also entered the scene this year, covering the classic "Christmas-ish" by Mitchell.

"I love this song because it's an alternative to all the jolly and sparkling Christmas songs out there," he wrote on Instagram. "Some people find Christmas in a difficult period of the year, for different reasons, and I feel that" River "is a song in which to find comfort."

"We turned it into a Christmas song, even if it was not written as a Christmas song," White, who started the "River" -as-holiday-song trend almost two decades ago, said in a Christmas concert in 2011.

Sam Smith, the best-selling British singer-songwriter, spoke of "River" for the Christmas playlist of Spotify 2017 e gushed: "Joni Mitchell is one of the reasons why I write music … It was a dream to have the opportunity to cover this song."

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

Then again, an explanation was probably not necessary: ​​Smith specializes in songs sung in blue, and there may not be any song that is almost as sad as Mitchell's.

"That season and that holiday bring a lot of pain to many people," singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile told Variety, "and I think we look at that kind of heart-rending songs during that period because it's really important to represent or be represented, if that vacation brings back memories, or if you've lost someone you think of in a concentrated way during that time.Therefore, "River" was the first time I had a perspective on how other people might look at that season. "

"It's a song that I've grieved, I cried along with singing even the loudest part of my voice because it's so good to do it," British musician Beth Orton told the Wall Street Journal, when the cover of his "River" "was included on Amazon's incorrect holiday playlist," All Is Bright ".

"I would dedicate this song to those who are suffering from the loss of a sense of place, of their loved ones, of the family," he said.

When Idina Menzel promoted her album "Holiday Wishes" in 2014, the star of "Frozen" said she had recorded a version of "River" because "I had to make sure I included those people who felt a sort of loss or loneliness, because the holidays are not holly, Merry Christmas all the time, do you know? "

James Taylor, who knows the song better than anyone else apart from Mitchell, stated in a 2006 interview with The Post that "I do not know why it's suddenly taken as a Christmas song, but some things only identify themselves as songs seasonal, and this is now one of them. "

At the time, Taylor had just released "James Taylor at Christmas," which included "River", a song he had first heard decades ago, when Mitchell played it at his home in Los Angeles in 1970, shortly after his draft.

"Most of the Christmas songs are light and superficial, but" River "is a sad song," Taylor told The Post. "It starts with a description of a commercially produced Christmas version in Los Angeles, and then juxtaposes it with this frozen river, which says," Christmas is breaking me down here. "In the first line we only talk about Christmas. , "Oh, I would like to have a river where I could skate", wanting to fall into this landscape that you remember.

"It's such a beautiful thing, to get away from the commercial chaos Christmas becomes and breathe only pine needles, it's a really blue song."

And that's exactly why Ball said he registered it.

"I'm not a big fan of Christmas, and I think there are a lot of people who feel a little melancholy on vacation," he told The Post. "We were all there: it's Christmas, all the preparation is going on and you just want to get away, you do not want to buy it, it's a time of the year that brings a lot of memories to people, and if you miss someone, it's harder in this period of the year. "

In a sense, it is the perfect anti-Christmas song, in contrast with the prevailing seasonal spirit.

Yet, various versions of "River" have become hits on radio stations playing Christmas music and nothing else around the holidays, making Mitchell one of the rare "new" items in the Christmas season, along with "All I Want "Mariah Carey is Christmas for Christmas. "

"It's the most beautiful and sad song by Christmastime I've ever heard in my life," country singer Ashley Monroe told A.V. Club. "Every time I sing, I cry a little inside."

If Mitchell has never intended to write a Christmas success, it would not be the first singer-songwriter to find an occasional seasonal success: according to Ace Collins, the author of "Stories behind the most beloved songs of Christmas", more songs now considered Christmas classics were not actually intended for the party.

The most famous: "Jingle Bells", which was written by a certain James Pierpoint for a Thanksgiving program in his unitary church in the fifties of the nineteenth century.

"River" also became popular in Hollywood, in the seasonal film "Love Actually", in a Christmas scene in "You & # 39; ve Got Mail", and in shows from "Glee" and "Ally McBeal" to "ER", Using the ethereal version of McLachlan's song in a dark, Christmas-themed episode.

"As much as we try to find different Christmas songs – things that are not" let it snow, let it snow, make it snow "- I'm sure the artists go through the same thing when they make holiday albums" Ann Kline, who was co -music supervisor for "ER", The Post once said.

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

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

"I would have liked to record it for years, and I could not figure out where to put it," he told The Post in 2006. "I had never heard it in the context of other Christmas songs, but I always wondered why it was so. "

Ronstadt said he had never discussed the meaning of the song with his old friend, Mitchell.

But he had some ideas about what might inspire him – perhaps including Mitchell's daughter, born in the 60s, when the singer was 21 and was about to move from Saskatoon to Toronto.

Mitchell gave the baby up for adoption and had no contact with her until 1997.

"I think that is what his singing speaks a lot about, because he has this very sad nuance," Ronstadt suggested. "But who really knows if this is what River speaks? The answer is: I do not know, and I bet that even Joni is not."

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

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

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

Taylor, who played "River" in front of Mitchell last month in a tribute concert to celebrate his 75th birthday, said the song is probably autobiographical, since "it starts with a girl from Canada watching them try to to have Christmas on La Brea in Los Angeles. "

But in 2006 he told The Post he had never really discussed the meaning with Mitchell, with whom he was romantically involved in the early years & # 39; 70.

"I want to know who made you cry, who did say goodbye? Well, I did not ask you this question," Taylor said. "This is the only mystery in it: who was the heart of which broke?"

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

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