Why We Still Travel Down Joni Mitchell's "River"

Joni Mitchell in 1970
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Martin Mills/Getty Images

While Christmas is often a time of great joy and giving, every light has a shadow. During the winter, as friends and family gather to reflect on times past and look ahead to the future, it's inevitable that happy and sad mix together; such is the inevitable flow of time. A flow you might compare, say, to a river.

READ MORE: Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," Revisited

Whether you're hearing it on Christmas rotation or as part of one of the most acclaimed albums of all time, Joni Mitchell's "River" is a classic - balancing the spirit of the season with a somber reflection on the end of a love affair. As both holiday carol and folk perennial, it's been covered by hundreds of artists from Mitchell's old flame James Taylor to Linda Ronstadt, Herbie Hancock, pop singers like Sam Smith and Ellie Goulding - even Barry Manilow.

READ MORE: LISTEN: Joni Mitchell and James Taylor Duet on Newly-Unearthed Live Performance

The relationship that inspired Mitchell to pen "River" has never been confirmed by the singer; many have erroneously suggested Taylor, though most scholars believe it's a product of her time dating Graham Nash. (Nash confirmed this in a 2021 interview. "It was painful," he recalled. "It took me a while before I could re-listen to Blue.")

What's more important to Joni, anyway, is the sentiment - and the unique perspective through which she assesses the affair.

"We needed a sad Christmas song, didn't we? In the 'bah humbug' of it all?" she told NPR with a laugh in 2014. "It's taking personal responsibility for the failure of a relationship. And my generation—you know, the 'Me Generation'—is known to be a Peter Pan, narcissistic generation, right? So it's really that aspect of our inability—you know, 'I'm selfish and I'm sad.' Right? People think that's confessional, but I'd say...in my generation, you think that that's a unique personal statement? It's like, no wonder there's so many covers of it?"

It's a song that continues to resonate. Writer Annie Zaleski wrote about its impact in Salon:

In 2020, a year where social distancing from family isn't a choice but a necessity, and going anywhere feels like a thrill and a treat, "River" offers great solace. The song's longing and melancholy feel more acute, the equivalent of what it feels like to be outside on a bitterly cold day. 

At the same time, "River" is even more of an emotional balm — a poignant reminder that it's okay if the holidays are difficult this year (or any year), and all we can do is hold on to hope that a way forward to better days exists.

Since that article was written, some "better days" have come our way, and Joni's, too. In 2021, Mitchell's ongoing archival series released two box sets: one of her first four albums for Reprise (including Blue, ranked the third-greatest album of all time by Rolling Stone in 2020), and one highlighting unreleased demos, alternate takes and live tracks from the same period. And Mitchell, slowly but surely recovering after a 2015 aneurysm pushed her out of the public eye and learning to walk again, continues to earn due acclaim. she received the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2021 (set to air on CBS on Dec. 22) and will be named the MusiCares Person of the Year in 2022.

And the river flows ever on.

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