There aren’t too many versions of this song that I do not like. I didn’t even know it existed until a few years ago when a run of musicians started covering it — James Taylor, Sarah McLachlan, among others. Then, a good friend shared a Christmas playlist with me called Santa’s Boots, and it had Joni Mitchell performing her song live at the Royal Albert Hall in 1970.
Before she begins singing, she says this to the crowd: This is a song that I wrote a year ago just before last Christmas and, uh, it’s a very sad song. Gets yourself in a kind of melancholy before Christmas spirit. Here we go.
That’s not on the video that I am sharing above, but it should be. To hear Joni say these words, to share this sentiment….you can tell by the hush of the crowd that it was quite the intimate moment as she played for them, shared with them a bit of sorrow and reflection of things that no longer are.
James Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell….They’re all able to capture that emotion so well, though. It’s hard to hear that in today’s music. Sarah McLachlan and Norah Jones do a pretty good job, but I almost feel as if they are who they are because of James, Carole, and Joni… No one can truly touch the folk singers of the 60s and 70s. That’s why, at least in the last two songs, it’s so important to go to the song’s origins and understand who composed them, and why.
My memories of the Susquehanna River and our cabin in River Hills, Pennsylvania are what clinch this song as a top ten choice for me. We had a small pond at the end of our property, and as much as we would fish those waters in the summer months, we’d spend the weekends ice skating as a family (after Dad made sure the ice was thick enough to go on, of course). The cabin is where we would always have our “second Christmas.” Mom had a little plastic tree that we would decorate, and it seemed like our holiday was made complete by spending the weekend after Christmas there.
I have only fond memories of that cabin. Dad and Mom were their happiest, it always seemed, and my sister and I always had plenty to do. The weekends were, for the most part, unplugged (and in those days, that simply meant no television). There was enough to do outside and around the cabin to entertain us in the calmest of ways.
In every sense of the word, it was tranquility for each of us, as much as it was for all of us collectively.
After I graduated from college and landed my first teaching gig, I found a cabin to live in along the Chesapeake near Solomon’s Island. There as well, I made so many wonderful memories with friends, and I was glad that Mom was able to see it a few times after Dad passed away.
I miss the cabins, and Mom and Dad, greatly. The memories are so strong, especially this time of year.
And to hear Joni Mitchell sing such a song that brings back those same types of memories for her. . . .Well, there’s an affinity there that seems inexplicably strong. I can’t imagine this song being anywhere but in my Top Ten.
Enjoy, and take a moment to cherish the memories of your past that defined who you are today. May they bring you warm thoughts as we get closer to December 25.
One thought on “Christmas Countdown 2009: No. 8. River by Joni Mitchell”
I love the Sarah McLachlan version (ok im a SM groupie)… never heard the Joni M version until now– so that you for broadening my horizons with that one.
Depending on my mood when listening to this — can be a sad song, or a happy memory song– this time around it was a memory song, esp. after reading about the wonderful times you shared with your family at the cabin. 🙂