Joni Mitchell's Blue 'River' Flows Onto Holiday Playlists

"River," written by Mitchell in '71, was not intended as a holiday song. But neither was "Jingle Bells." (1972 Photo -- Associated Press)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006

Michael Ball, a British stage actor and singer, was watching a performance of traditional Christmas songs at a London drama school this month when the students unwrapped Joni Mitchell's 1971 song "River."

Ball says he was somewhat startled, given that "River" isn't really a Christmas song.

Never mind that its opening melody is "Jingle Bells" in a minor key and that Mitchell's lyrics begin, "It's coming on Christmas, they're cutting down trees /They're putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace." Ultimately, it's a bereft song about a woman whose romance has gone bad and who wants to escape. The drama just happens to be set around the holidays.

Calling from London, Ball says: "There were all these 18- and 19-year-olds doing traditional Christmas songs, and then, bang -- they start doing 'River.' I'm thinking: Where on Earth did this come from?"

Of course, Ball might ask himself that same question: Six years ago, he recorded a version of "River" for his own holiday album, "Christmas." At the time, he thought he was a maverick for placing "River" alongside the likes of "Silent Night" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

As it turns out, though, plenty of artists have been dreaming of a blue Christmas over the past decade, as Mitchell's song -- originally featured on the not-exactly-festive album "Blue" -- has somehow become a seasonal favorite.

"River" has long been a popular cover among musicians, more than 100 of whom have recorded it for commercial release. But since smooth-jazz guitarist Peter White featured "River" on his 1997 holiday set, "Songs of the Season," the tune has been included on more than two dozen Christmas albums. This year alone, it's appeared on at least seven new seasonal discs, from Sarah McLachlan's Grammy-nominated "Wintersong" to "James Taylor at Christmas."

"I don't know why it's suddenly getting picked up as a Christmas song," Taylor says. "But some things just become identified as seasonal songs, and this is now one of them."

Taylor knows "River" well, having first heard it when Mitchell played it at her home in Los Angeles.

"I've known it from the time it was written, and I've always loved it," he says.

When he finally decided to record a Christmas album, he decided to include "River" alongside various seasonal staples. "Most Christmas songs are light and shallow, but 'River' is a sad song," he says. "It starts with a description of a commercially produced version of Christmas in Los Angeles . . . then juxtaposes it with this frozen river, which says, 'Christmas here is bringing me down.' It only mentions Christmas in the first verse. Then it's, 'Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on' -- wanting to fall into this landscape that she remembers.

"It's such a beautiful thing, to turn away from the commercial mayhem that Christmas becomes and just breathe in some pine needles. It's a really blue song."

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