Joni Mitchell’s “River” is one of the more sturdy and widely-covered contemporary holiday standards. What makes its seasonal holiday music prominance a bit usual is that other than its opening line, “It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees,” and the interpolation of “Jingle Bells” into the introduction of many version of the song (of course including the original), there is no explicit reference to the holidays, only the beautifully impressionistic winter imagery woven through Mitchell’s plaintive narrative. I suppose it is infused with seasonal imagery; somehow that feeling seems to emanate from the music as well.
“I wish I had a river I could skate away on”
The song was first introduced on Mitchell’s seminal 1971 album Blue and by the end of that decade was already beginning to be recorded by other artists. Over the years a light dusting of covers has snowballed into a major publishing blanket of white or, in this case, green. By a recent tally it has been recorded over 200 times. Additionally the song has been used in films like Almost Famous (2000) and Love, Actually (2003), and TV shows like Ally McBeal, ER, and New Girl.
What “River” does so remarkably well—and why it appeals to so many singers—is that it captures the mournful feeling of the holiday season which is such a fundamental aspect of so many people’s holiday experience; the feelings of loss and isolation that can be just as profound as feelings of joy and gratitude. After all, Joni Mitchell is no slouch in the “selfish and sad” department. Like all of the very best pop songs, the true copyrights that endure decade after decade, “River” is beautifully constructed and actually pretty hard to fuck up if you just stick to what’s written. For this reason—the song’s intrinsic excellence—there are really many first-rate versions of the song. Young singers seem to find their way to the Mitchell’s catalogue and to this song in particular, so I am certain that “River” will be continue to be recorded in years to come by people who have not even been born yet. That’s what makes a standard a standard.
Here then, in the spirit of both the joy and extreme sadness of the holiday season, is Joni Mitchell’s original version of “River,” followed by a curated list of cover versions that runs the gamut from insipid to the inspired. Please be patient with the music installer – it takes about five seconds to load, which I understand is like thirty-five minutes to young people.
- Lara Fabian, the French chanteuse, included the song on her 2009 CD Every Woman in Me.
- Folkie pop singer Shawn Colvin, best known for her 1996 hit “Sunny Came Home,” performed the song on a live Christmas radio special in 1998.
- Linda Ronstadt recorded a very straightforward version of the song for her Merry Little Christmas CD in 2000, with a lovely chamber music-style arrangement.
- Barry Manilow certainly had sincere intentions when he covered the song on his Christmas Gift of Love CD in 2002—his Christmas CDs are, overall, among my all-time favorites, but damned if he just can’t make this song work. In fact, it just sounds kinda bad.
- Roseanne Cash included the song on her Spirit of ’73 album in 1995.
- Tori Amos performed a rather strange live version of the song in 2001. In particular, her approach to the melisma on the word “fly” in the line—”teach my feet to fly”—should be singled out for its unfortunate failure to take anything resembling flight. Instead of something airborn and dreamy, Tori serves us what appears to be a very earthbound Yiddish robot, replete with an added refrain of “oy, oy, oy.” I’m not kidding here—watch for yourself and see if you don’t start thinking of latkas.
- Holly Cole’s 1997 version from her album Dear, Dark Heart is quite excellent. The jazz/pop vocalist has always been among my favorites.
- Robert Downey Jr.—yes, the actor—did a very credible version of the song on Ally McBeal: A Very Ally Christmas, back in 2000. The album also featured Jane Krakowski and Vonda Shepard (who sang the show’s theme song). Downey also sang “White Christmas” on the album.
- CeeLo Green, soul singer extraordinaire and co-host of The Voice, included the song on his 2012 Christmas album CeeLo’s Magic Moment. His vocal is really excellent and I would rate his version in the top-five, for sure. A great fit for him.
- Charlotte Church, the super annoying English singer, recorded the song for her Back to Scratch CD in 2010.
- Rock legends Heart sang the song live in the 1990s. Their version, with Ann Wilson’s typically peerless vocal, was included on their 1995 live album The Road Home. Highly recommended, but when it comes to Heart or Ann Wilson, I’m a total pushover.
- Jazz legend Herbie Hancock recorded the song with Corinne Bailey Rae on his Mitchell tribute album River: The Joni Letters. The 2007 Verve release won several Grammys, including Album of the Year. Here is a live version of Hancock, Rae, and Wayne Shorter on saxophone.
- Indigo Girls recorded the song on their 1995 release 1200 Curfews.
- Renée Fleming, the world-famous opera singer, recorded a surprisingly effective version of the song for her 2005 album Haunted Heart. The recording features noted jazz pianist Fred Hersch and guitarist Bill Frisell. Usually opera singers are just awful when they sing pop, but not Renée Fleming, who has a much better feel for how to relax into a pop song.
- Three time Tony nominee Rebecca Luker recorded a mid-tempo version of “River” for her 2004 album Leaving Home. Didn’t really work—it sounded stiff and mannered.
- The great Aimee Mann recorded the song for her 2006 holiday album One More Drifter in the Snow, but it was only included as a bonus track on the UK re-issue in 2008.
- Sarah McLachlan recorded the song for her 2005 album Wintersong. Her cover made it sound like a real Sarah McLachlan album, which to me shows how much of an influence Mitchell is to McLachlan.
- Beth Orton, the English singer/songwriter, sang a live version for a radio performance in the late-1990s. The guitar-based cover leaves me cold and she’s pitchy, as usual. I’m not a big Orton fan, so sue me. It’s available on YouTube if you want to check it out.
- In 2006 Madeleine Peyroux recorded the song as a duet with k.d. Lang on the former’s Rounder album Half the Perfect World. As always, Lang’s languid vocals are sublime, but Peyroux’s derivative neo-Billie Holiday thing always feels a bit like shtick. I wish this was just Lang.
- Actress Rita Wilson recorded a tepid version of the song on her debut album, 2012’s Am/Fm
- Jazz legend Dianne Reeves, who is consistently excellent and elegant, recorded the song on her 1999 Blue Note album Bridges.
- Sarah Bareilles performed an absolutely lovely version of the song live on Mix 106.5 in San Jose back in December, 2007. I think Sara’s version is as close to the purity of spirit of Mitchell’s original vocal as any I’ve heard. In my top-five.
- Broadway baby Betty Buckley included a cover of the song with an odd waltz feel on her With One Look album in 1992.
- Rock band Sister Hazel recorded the song on their 2007 album Santa’s Playlist.
- Brilliant Manhattan Transfer front woman Janis Siegel recorded the song for her 1990 Atlantic Records solo album Short Stories, a collaboration with pianist Fred Hersch.
- The Swingle Singers are a mostly accapella group that has existed in one incarnation or another since forming in the early 1960s in Paris. They recorded a muted, choral version of the song in 2004 on a holiday album called Unwrapped.
- Sax player Boney James recorded a simple, smooth jazz version on his 2007 album Christmas Present.
- Christian pop band Sixpence None the Richer (1999’s “Kiss Me”) included their version of the song on the 2010 holiday album The Dawn of Grace.
- Joni Mitchell herself performed the song live with then-lover James Taylor by her side at London’s Royal Albert Hall back in 1970. It gives you a sense of how great Joni was live back in the day. Incidentally, after this concert, she announced she would retire from live performance. It was a promise she recanted within a year.
- Given his long and intensely personal history with Mitchell, is it any surprise that James Taylor’s 2006 version from his holiday album James Taylor at Christmas sounds an awful lot like a period James Taylor song? Taylor also performed the song for an adoring Mitchell—his erstwhile paramour—at the lovely Joni Mitchell Tribute Concert in 2001. If this doesn’t tug at your heartstrings, you don’t have heartstrings.
Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorn covered the song on her 2012 holiday CD Tinsel and Lights and it is an absolute stunner. I love the arrangement and appreciate Thorn’s simple and direct approach—her trademark.
- Banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck recorded the song on his 2008 album with his band the Flecktones, Jingle All the Way.
- Irish singer Ronan Keating, best known for his version of “When You Say Nothing at All” from the Notting Hill soundtrack, included the song on his 2009 release Winter Songs.
- New Zealand classical crossover artist Hayley Westernra sang “River” on her 2009 Decca release Winter Magic.
- I adore the Lea Michele piano/vocal version of “River” from 2011’s Glee: The Music, The Christmas Album, Volume 2; it was a very close runner up for my favorite version.
- Speaking of Glee, Idina Menzel’s version was released as part of her 2014 Holiday Wishes collection.
- By this time you may be wishing someone would find a river to drown in instead of “skate away on,” but here’s one more. My favorite version of the song at the moment of this writing? First season winner of The Voice Javier Colon recorded the song for his 2011 EP A Very Acoustic Christmas. His voice is like spun silk and, for once, the vocal runs (or melisma) actually serves the lyrical and emotional point of the song; Colon’s voice evokes the feeling of skating as he glides effortlessly over Mitchell’s beautiful melody.