Deep Dive: Joni Mitchell, RIVER

Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Photo by Joel Bernstein

It's Joni Mitchell's unofficial Christmas song: "River," the eighth song on her heralded fourth studio album, Blue (1971). Opening with a piano refrain from the holiday standard "Jingle Bells," the song chronicles Mitchell lamenting the end of a relationship; in this instance, with fellow artist Graham Nash. 

"It took me a while to listen to Blue again after the first time because there's two or three songs on there that I'm part of," Nash told Songfacts in 2021. "And 'River' is a beautiful, beautiful song: 'I wish I had a river I could skate away on.' When Joni and I were breaking up, we both knew it was going to be difficult. We both loved each other tremendously. We had spent a couple of years lighting up rooms when we walked in. It was painful. It took me a while before I could re-listen to Blue."

Over the years since its release, "River" has grown into something of a holiday standard in its own right, and is the second-most covered Mitchell composition behind only "Both Sides, Now." Among the artists who've recorded versions of "River": Linda Ronstadt, Tom Jones, Olivia Rodrigo, Sarah McLachlan, Ellie Goulding (whose version hit #1 in the UK in late December 2009, making it the country's last #1 of the decade) and Barry Manilow.

The song is also embedded into pop culture as a plot point in the 2003 Christmas movie Love Actually when the late Alan Rickman's character Harry asks his wife Karen (played by Emma Thompson) what music they're listening to while "River" plays.

As for her own feelings about the song, Joni Mitchell said “River expresses regret at the end of a relationship... but it's also about being lonely at Christmas time… A Christmas song for people who are lonely at Christmas! We need a song like that.”