Joni Mitchell: River
First you hear a snippet of Jingle Bells on the piano, played in a minor key, as a dirge. Then Joni Mitchell sings:
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
Putting up reindeer
Singing songs of joy and peace...
The song ends with a repeat of this verse, followed by a repeat of the piano figure.
None of that matters. River still is not a Christmas song! Oh, I know that radio stations all over disagree. So you’ll be hearing the song a lot for the next six weeks. But that doesn’t settle the matter. A Christmas song should celebrate the season. The religious ones are full not only of joy, but also of a sense of wonder. Many are quite beautiful. The secular ones are often cute or cloyingly sweet, while a few have a sense of humor. And I am not a Scrooge. I will be featuring some of my favorites here as we move into December. But River does not fit either description.
Instead, River is a breakup song. Mitchell regrets her mistakes in a relationship now ended. Her sorrow and remorse are only amplified, because everyone around her seems to be exageratedly happy, on account of the season. This is one of Mitchell’s must powerful expressions of sorrow, and one of her most perfectly realized piano ballads.
Of course, there are other “something terrible happened around Christmas” songs. And many of them will be played and blogged this season. But none of them are Christmas songs. Some are good and some not, but none capture the spirit of the season. Even one of Joni Mitchell’s best can not change that for me.