This week’s theme gives me the chance to deal with a pet peeve. River is not a Christmas song. It is a winter song. Specifically, it is a transplanted Canadian, living in southern California where winter is unknown, explaining what winter means to her. Christmas, in the song, belongs to this place where “it stays petty green”. It is a place where a romance has gone horribly wrong. Winter, on the other hand, equals childhood, a time in her life before she even thought of romance. That frozen river is a place of innocence for Joni Mitchell. She wants to skate away from that hurting adult she has become.
I live in New Jersey, where winter exists, but our rivers do not freeze over. We think of winter as a harsh season, and it is all to easy to misunderstand the emotions of this classic song. But Canadians are different. Their feelings about winter are perhaps best explained by noting that ice hockey is far more popular there than baseball or basketball. I would argue that River is one of Joni Mitchell’s most Canadian songs for this reason.
In searching for a video for this song, I had thought to find Joni performing it, and I might have found that if I had looked longer. But this fan-made slide show by sherrylynn70 perfectly embodies the combination of the emotions of the song and Americans‘ misunderstanding of them. Some of the Christmas scenes here are too bright, and the winter scenes sometimes have too many people in them. But there are also some starkly beautiful winter images here that fit perfectly.
And while I was at it, I couldn’t resist including this cover, by Herbie Hancock with Corinne Bailey Rae. Of course, this comes from Hancock’s album of Mitchell covers, called River. The album was made with Mitchell’s blessing; she even sings on one track, The Tea Leaf Prophecy. Rae’s performance of River is quite different from Joni’s. Mitchell makes the song a raw wound, while Rae places the turbulent emotions of the text under a sheet of ice. It would be easy to hear the sweetness in Rae’s voice, and say that she misses the emotion of the song altogether, and I believe some critics did say this. But listen to the way Rae turns the opening phrase. All the hurt of text is there, but she is trying to swallow it whole. It almost, but not quite, works, and the result has all of the emotional power the song deserves. This is clearly what Herbie Hancock was after, judging by the musical setting he and his band have created for the song.
I hope you will forgive me for not sharing a third video here. There is a performance of River on YouTube by Herbie Hancock with Joni Mitchell doing the vocals. It has its own beauty. The performance is from 2008, and Mitchell’s voice no longer does what it did when she was younger. The events in the song are now a hurtful memory instead of a fresh wound. The video is worth seeking out for completists, but I think the two versions I have presented here say what I wanted to say.