River

Album: Blue (1971)
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Songfacts®:

  • At the start of 1970, Joni Mitchell's relationship with her boyfriend Graham Nash was crumbling. On top of this, she was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the mass adulation her recordings were receiving. The songstress needed to get away, so she took off on a trip to Europe, metaphorically skating away on a river to escape the crazy scene. While Mitchell was in Crete, she sent Nash a telegram to tell him their romance was over. On "River," the Canadian singer gives her perspective on the doomed relationship as she yearns to escape the emotional bonds. She admits to being "hard to handle" and blames herself for losing "the best baby I ever had."
  • The song, set in the holiday season, finds Mitchell feeling sad that she won't be sharing the Christmas period with Nash. The piano accompaniment to the vocal, which borrows heavily from "Jingle Bells," adds to its festive feel. Though "River" has become a modern holiday standard, it is actually a Christmas song that isn't about Christmas (as is "Jingle Bells").
  • Because of the song's link with Christmas, it has been covered by numerous artists on holiday albums. Indeed, "River" is the second-most-widely recorded song in Mitchell's oeuvre behind "Both Sides Now." Well known covers include those by Barry Manilow (in 2002), Sarah McLachlan (in 2006) and James Taylor (also in 2006). McLachlan's version peaked at #71 on the Hot 100.
  • Ellie Goulding released a cover of "River" exclusively on Amazon Music in 2019. Her version is accompanied by a David Soutar-directed video, which highlights the excessive use and disposal of single-use plastic. Filmed along the UK coastline near Dungeness, it sees Goulding and her friends gathering beach litter and recycled objects to make a zero-waste Christmas tree.

    Goulding's cover climbed to #1 on the last UK singles chart of 2019. It was the English singer's third visit to the summit, following "Burn" (2013) and "Love Me Like You Do" (2015).
  • "River" appears in a scene in the 2003 movie Love Actually when Alan Rickman's character Harry asks his wife Karen (Emma Thompson) what music they're listening to. Later in the film, she opens his Christmas gift to discover it's a Joni Mitchell CD and not the jewelry she found hidden, confirming her suspicions that he is keeping a mistress.
  • Ben Platt sings this in the pilot episode of the 2019 Netflix show The Politician. Other TV shows to use the song include:

    Billions ("Infinite Game" - 2019)
    New Girl ("Backslide" - 2012)
    Glee ("Extraordinary Merry Christmas" - 2011)
    Doctors ("O Christmas Tree" - 2009)
    Alias ("The Indicator" - 2002)
    Ally McBeal ("Tis the Season" - 2000)
    The Wonder Years ("Christmas" - 1988)
    Thirtysomething ("I'll Be Home for Christmas" - 1987)

    It has also appeared in these movies:

    Almost Famous (2000)
    You've Got Mail (1998)
  • When Graham Nash spoke with Songfacts in 2021, he offered his thoughts on this song. "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," he said. "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."
  • Director Matvey Rezanov and Skazka Studios filmed the song's first official video using animated watercolor painting to capture the song's lonesome mood while paying tribute to Mitchell's prolific creativity as a painter. The clip shows the cartoon singer looking out over a frozen mass of water. Later in the clip, we see Mitchell skating over the iced river before it cracks and turns to a branch growing in a dark sky. Mitchell released the visual on December 23, 2021.

Comments: 4

  • Robbin from Irvine, KyLove this woman. She helped me through difficult teenage years with her stories and wisdom through music
  • Earlsimmins from Bogota ColombiaDave Von Ronk's rendition makes me cry every time I hear it.
  • Sb from Central NyThis is played at the end of an 'ER' Christmas episode, 'City of Mercy' - very touching.
  • Gavin King from UkThis song apparently is about Leonard Cohen not Nash.
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