The Meaning Behind the 1971 Holiday Classic “River” by Joni Mitchell

If there’s one song synonymous with Joni Mitchell, it’s “River.” Though never released as a single, the song, off Mitchell’s fourth album Blue, is one of her most well-known and has become a standard during the holidays.

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“River” reveals one of Mitchell’s most vulnerable moments in songwriting, opening up about a breakup and the deep bond that’s difficult to shake. The lyrics of “River” are thought to have been inspired by the end of Mitchell’s relationship with musician Graham Nash; the two dated from 1968 through 1970.

By 1970, Mitchell was struggling with her own musical contributions and success and took a trip to Europe and ended their relationship by sending a telegram to Nash from Crete, Greece.

She then began piecing together Blue, and what has become her most memorable holiday song: “River.”

Christmas Time Meaning

Though the song wasn’t intentionally meant as a Christmas song, it is set around the holiday season.

“‘River’ expresses regret at the end of a relationship, but it’s also about being lonely at Christmastime,” said Mitchell about the meaning of the song, and the release of the official video for the “song “River” to commemorate its 50th anniversary in 2021. “A Christmas song for people who are lonely at Christmas,” added Mitchell. “We need a song like that.”

It’s coming on Christmas 
They’re cutting down trees 
They’re putting up reindeer 
And singing songs of joy and peace 
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on 

But it don’t snow here 
It stays pretty green 
I’m going to make a lot of money 
Then I’m going to 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 
I wish I had a river I could skate away on 
I made my baby cry

Mitchell’s Most Covered Song

Now a holiday standard,” “River” is the most covered composition by Mitchell with 888 cover versions recorded.

The piano-led song, which borrows heavily from the 19th-century holiday standard “Jingle Bells,” has become a popular cover by artists across genres, particularly around the holidays. Everyone from Mitchell’s former beau James Taylor to Barry Manilow, Sarah McLachlan, Judy Collins, Idina Menzel, Travis, Cee Lo Green, Ellie Goulding, and even Olivia Rodrigo and Harry Styles, have covered “River.”

He tried hard to help me
You know, he put me at ease
And he 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 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

Photo by Jack Robinson/Getty Images

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