Rare, new and alternative Christmas songs, 2019: Joni Mitchell’s “River”

Joni Mitchell skating away on a river. Photo by Joel Bernstein.
Joni Mitchell skating away on a river. Photo by Joel Bernstein.

This song, one of my favorites, got me thinking about alternatives to the hoary old Christmas carols and songs we grew up with, and may be tired of. I collect some of these songs — not just specialty or humor, but songs that inspire, or put us to reverie.

Washington Post picked up on it: A lot of musicians make great performances of non-standard Christmas tunes.

Joni Mitchell’s “River” has picked up covers by quite a few artists as a Christmas tune.

Does it just mention Christmas, or is it really a song of the season?

For example, Sam Smith:

In a discussion of Joni Mitchell back in April, here on Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub (with Paul Sunstone), I noted how people appreciate Joni Mitchell as a songwriter more as time goes on, including the use of “River” in Christmas collections:

Joni Mitchell’s fans are superappreciative, including such people as Judy Collins, who covers Mitchell on several songs.

But generally, yes, I think she’s not considered a great composer by those who compile lists of great composers, and she’s not considered a great singer by those who compile lists of great singers.

Part of the issue is that Mitchell came out of Canada as folk-rock took off. When I first bought her albums they were in the folk section; later they moved to the “pop” section (go figure). Her later albums stayed in rock or pop, even as her love of Mingus and Jazz pushed her work solidly into jazz. I’ve never seen her work listed as jazz in any recording sales store.

So she’s tough to categorize. Is she as strong or influential in folk as Joan Baez or Bob Dylan? Is she as strong in Rock as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (at least half of whom she had affairs with)? Is she as good at jazz as Ella [Fitzgerald] or Tony Bennett? Is she as good a poet as Leonard Cohen?

I think one can make a solid case that Joni Mitchell’s work is as poetic as Paul Simon’s, deserving as much attention for that reason as his. Simon won the Gershwin Award from the Kennedy Center; has Mitchell ever been considered? Is she less deserving than Billy Joel?

One of my criteria: I think every party I attended as an undergraduate, someone put on the album “Blue.” In graduate school, in a hotter climate, Maria Muldaur made a run (time to get away when “Midnight at the Oasis” came on); but “Blue” has stayed a turntable hit for decades. When our oldest son was at the University of Dallas, on one visit I was struck that “Blue” played out of three different apartments in his complex, at least 40 years after its release. It’s not Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” but I think it lasts longer on the play list of people who play them both.

In the past three years I’ve been impressed at the appearance of her song “River” on Christmas song compilations. “I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” she and her covering artists sing. She captured a feeling of Christmas much as Irving Berlin did, with a more beautiful melody, if not quite as hummable. Has anyone ever compared her to Irving Berlin?

Long post required. I’m not musicologist enough to do it justice, I think.

See these:

“River” has become a movement!

This one is odd; I wonder if someone did a mashup of Charlie Brown and Joni Mitchell, or if the Schulz cartoon organization really did use Mitchell’s tune.

“River” is not ready for use in churches, I think. Still a good song for the time of year, if not the actual religious celebration.

Any other good versions of “River” you like? Any on Christmas albums? Tell about them.

Any other songs you like that aren’t the old chesnuts? Tell us about them, please.



4 Responses to Rare, new and alternative Christmas songs, 2019: Joni Mitchell’s “River”

  1. […] you think Joni Mitchell’s “River” represents a turn to blue for Christmas songs, what does “Fairytale of New York” […]


  2. […] Christmas music: Joni Mitchell’s “River” […]


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Good luck with the fires.

    Joni Mitchell is well known as an environmentalist here, just for her lyric in Big Yellow Taxi:

    “Hey, hey Farmer! Put away your DDT.
    Give me spots on my apples
    But let me keep the birds and the bees!”

    Surprised Mitchell isn’t more popular down there. But it’s like Australia is in a whole different hemisphere or two away from USA.

    And a newer cover:


  4. C. Nugent says:

    While most of my country scrambles to “do Christmas” there’s a million Australians affected, if not utterly devastated by firestorms and drought. In my ramshackle home of three, two of us are very ill…and what a mercy is this virus! We are housebound, unfit to join the great eating festival that December 25th represents; and we happily suffer this deprivation since to do otherwise would be bloody awful.
    How many million Aussies are living in air thick with the smoke of bushfires, how many have homes that are a pile of ashes, and how many have spent months battling these blazes…as UNPAID VOLUNTEERS!…I’m not sure. But were I tomorrow set at a table and lifted a forkful of festive fare to my gob, I would be ashamed.
    Thank you! for this piece. Thank you for the sublime YouTube version offered- the young woman’s name is hard to find, but she is unforgettable -and thanks for the reminder of what I yearned for, for a lifetime. Living Downunder, the notion of skating upon a river is an impossible dream but JM’s lyric delivers an edge of that dream. And the melody that rings out the remorse felt by reprobates like me…well, it is good to know I’m not the only one.
    Ha! Talk about a long post? Howzabout this for a long-winded reply?!
    Good on ya


Please play nice in the Bathtub -- splash no soap in anyone's eyes. While your e-mail will not show with comments, note that it is our policy not to allow false e-mail addresses. Comments with non-working e-mail addresses may be deleted.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: