Rare, new and alternative Christmas songs, 2022: 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.

More: Discussion of the song at Jeff Meshel’s World

10 Responses to Rare, new and alternative Christmas songs, 2022: Joni Mitchell’s “River”

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Good to see you back. Mr. Higginbotham.

    I see several comments got hung up in moderation — not sure why. If that happens again (you don’t see your comments right away), drop me an email.

    Like

  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Love that entire panorama of song. Guaraldi was an underappreciated genius.

    Like

  3. jahigginbotham says:

    Two versions of Skating are https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBrALhb8uiQ

    Like

  4. jahigginbotham says:

    Vince Guaraldi did much (at least) of the Peanuts music https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vince_Guaraldi

    Like

  5. jahigginbotham says:

    Vince Guaraldi did much (at least) of the Peanuts music [redacted] Two versions of Skating are [redacted] and [redacted]

    Like

  6. jahigginbotham says:

    Vince Guaraldi did much (at least) of the Peanuts music en wikipedia org/wiki/Vince_Guaraldi Two versions of Skating are www youtube com/watch?v=ZBrALhb8uiQ and www youtube com/watch?v=8mNwEqTlRoM

    Like

  7. jahigginbotham says:

    Vince Guaraldi did much (at least) of the Peanuts music en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vince_Guaraldi Two versions of Skating are http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBrALhb8uiQ and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mNwEqTlRoM

    Like

  8. jahigginbotham says:

    Vince Guaraldi did much (at least) of the Peanuts music https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vince_Guaraldi Two versions of Skating are https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBrALhb8uiQ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mNwEqTlRoM

    Like

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