“River” – Joni Mitchell – Reprise – 1971
“It’s comin’ 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.”
In 1970, while at work on what would be one of her greatest pieces of work, Blue, Joni Mitchell wrote lyrics to “River,” an achingly confessional song of longing and loss that just happened to be set during the holiday season. In the ensuing decades, it took on a life of its own, accidentally entering into and securing a spot in the Christmas music canon as a modern classic. An unconventional carol, its heartbreak has served as a touchstone for all those bereft during what is proclaimed to be the most wonderful time of the year, a deeply personal song that has become a universal reassurance that it’s okay to not be okay.
In this special holiday episode, we unpack Joni Mitchell’s iconic song and its history and meaning beyond its attachment to Christmas, discuss the pop culture circumstances that allowed for it to be adopted by the holiday, and why it has remained a source of comfort for a vast array of people this time of year.
Episode notes and postscript correction
- It’s pretty hard to write a new Christmas song that will make it into the Christmas canon — check out our master playlist for a few examples.
- See our further reading links below for some more deep reads about how “River” came to represent Christmas.
- Here’s one essential appearance in pop culture that helped cement its place in Christmas.
- Yes, if you feel like it, a 37 track long playlist that’s just “River” on repeat actually exists.
- Many thanks to all who have listened to our podcast this year, especially to those who have shared it or have reached out to us to talk about this music we love (and so much more). You all made this a small glimmer of goodness in an otherwise garbage fire of a year, and we hope we provided a little bit of the same relief to you, as well.
“River” live at the Royal Albert Hall (no visuals, just audio) | 1970
‘River,’ the ‘thoroughly depressing’ Joni Mitchell song that somehow became a Christmas classic | Washington Post (December 2016)
The Music Midnight Makes: In Conversation With Joni Mitchell | NPR (December 2014)
The Only Covers of Joni Mitchell’s “River” You Need | MTV (December 2012)