The Story of... 'River' by Joni Mitchell

18 December 2019, 17:03

Joni Mitchell
Picture: Asylum

By Tom Eames

It's one of the most beautiful Christmas ballads of all time, and a new version by Ellie Goulding has returned it to the charts.

But what is Joni Mitchell's song about, and is it actually meant to be a Christmas song?

Here's all the fascinating facts behind the understated and melancholic festive song:

  1. What is 'River' about and what inspired the song?

    Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash in 1969
    Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash in 1969. Picture: Getty

    The song is about the recent split of a romantic relationship, with Joni needing to escape her immediate surroundings and emotional connections as they are too painful.

    It is said to be inspired by her 1968 to 1970 relationship with fellow artist Graham Nash.

    At the beginning of 1970, Joni's relationship with Nash was falling apart. At the same time, she was feeling uncomfortable with the success and attention of her musical output.

    Needing to get away, she went on a trip to Europe (skating away on a river to escape the "crazy scene").

    While she was in Crete, she sent Nash a telegram to tell him their relationship was over.

    In 'River', she admits to being "hard to handle" and blames herself for losing "the best baby I ever had."

  2. Is it a Christmas song?

    The song is set during the holiday season, with the singer feeling sad that she won't be sharing the Christmas period with her former partner.

    The piano accompaniment borrows heavily from 'Jingle Bells', adding another festive touch.

    While 'River' has become a modern Christmas standard, it isn't actually about Christmas itself.

  3. Which album is it on?

    'River' was recorded in 1971, and was featured on Mitchell's iconic album Blue.

    It later featured on her 2005 compilation Songs of a Prairie Girl.

  4. Who has covered it?

    Many artists have covered the song, usually on Christmas albums.

    These include:

    - Barry Manilow

    - Sarah McLachlan

    - James Taylor

    - Sara Bareilles

    - Cee Lo Green

    - Madeleine Peyroux with kd Lang

    - Travis

    - Angus Stone

    - Ronan Keating

    - Gavin James

    - Lea Michele (in Glee)

    - Idina Menzel

    - Marti Pellow

    Ellie Goulding has scored the biggest UK hit with the song, reaching the top 10 in 2019 after it was recorded as Amazon Music exclusive.

  5. What are the lyrics?

    It's coming on Christmas,
    They're cutting down trees.
    Putting up reindeer
    Singing songs of joy and peace,
    Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

    But it don't snow here,
    Stays pretty green.
    I'm gonna make a lot of money
    Gonna quit this crazy scene.
    Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

    I wish I had a river so long,
    I would teach my feet to fly.
    Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

    I made my baby cry.
    She tried hard to help me,
    She put me at ease.
    She loved me so naughty,
    made me weak in the knees.
    Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

    I'm so hard to handle,
    I'm selfish and I'm sad.
    Now I've gone and lost the best baby
    That I've ever had.
    Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
    I wish I had a river so long,
    I would teach my feet to fly.
    Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

    I made my baby say goodbye.
    Say goodbye.
    It's coming on Christmas,
    They're cutting down trees.
    Putting up reindeer
    And singing songs of joy and peace,
    Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.