Joni Mitchell: River
Herbie Hancock with Corinne Bailey Rae: River
"Society is like a large piece of frozen water; and skating well is the great art of social life." ~ Letitia Landon
Then there's the peculiar case of Joni Mitchell's "River." The song first appeared on her album Blue some 36 Christmases ago. It starts with Mitchell's piano playing "Jingle Bells" in doleful minor chords, which leads to a delicate and exquisitely disconsolate melody, and even more forlorn lyrics. References to Christmas, reindeer, and "songs of joy and peace" crop up in the first verse, then disappear. Damning herself as "selfish and ... sad," Mitchell confesses to disillusionment with "this crazy scene" (probably the drug-fueled Cali-rock crowd at the time) and driving away the guy who not only loved her but gave crazy-good sex (rumored to be James Taylor or Graham Nash, her boyfriends during this period). The refrain has her craving a river "I could skate away on"; she just wants to leave all of it, even the seasonal festivities, behind. The song returns to its initial chorus, but by then, it's too late for tidings of comfort or joy. Even the Christmas references--images of trees being cut down, fake reindeer being hauled out one more time--are more cynical than buoyant.
"River" is only peripherally about Christmas, and in lyrics and tone it's hardly the type of song one warbles around the piano with the family (assuming people still do such things). Yet over the last few years, it's become ubiquitous, included on a large number of yuletide albums in various genres. One can now hear "River" done up not only as adult contemporary (separate versions by Sarah McLachlan and James Taylor on their seasonal-themed albums) but as holiday adult lounge jazz (Dianne Reeves), new age guitar (Peter Mulvey), Celtic ballad (the Albion Christmas Band), alt rock (Sister Hazel), Brit pop (Travis), and jazz elevator music (Fourplay, Boney James). That's not to count non-holiday-record covers by everyone from Heart to the Indigo Girls to Herbie Hancock (the latter, sung by Corinne Bailey Rae, is the title track of Hancock's album of Mitchell covers, just nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy).
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