Song of the Day #4,612: ‘River’ – Joni Mitchell

When I wrote yesterday that Ladies of the Canyon was my favorite Joni Mitchell album so far, I didn’t realize she released Blue just a year later. So that was a short-lived stint at the top of that particular list.

Blue, released in 1971, is widely considered not just Mitchell’s best album but one of the best albums of all time. Rolling Stone recently placed it at #3 on their list of the 500 greatest albums. It redefined the singer-songwriter genre, inspiring countless artists to this day.

Arguably, this album and Carole King’s Tapestry are the most important records by women songwriters in the history of popular music. And they came out in the same year!

Mitchell was just 28 years old when she crafted this masterpiece. Just ten songs and 36 minutes long, it doesn’t have a weak moment. ‘All I Want,’ ‘Carey,’ ‘Blue,’ ‘California,’ ‘River’ and ‘A Case of You’ all number among Mitchell’s best-known and best-loved tracks.

But the deeper cuts are just as good.

‘Little Green’ is a touching acoustic tribute to the daughter Mitchell gave up for adoption years earlier. ‘My Old Man’ is a sweet love song in which she laments that, when her man is gone, “the bed’s too big, the frying pan’s too wide.” The jaunty ‘This Flight Tonight’ became an unlikely hit in the UK when it was covered by hard rock band Nazareth. And ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ closes out the album with a delicate confessional of romantic regret.

You know how I said Joni Mitchell’s vocals have always been the barrier to me enjoying her work? I have to confess that, through four albums, I can’t point to a single example. On the contrary, the vocals are among the highlights of this early work.

Maybe I’m hearing with different ears? Or maybe it was on later albums that she adopted the particular tic that has always bothered me? Either way, I’m kicking myself for not exploring this blind spot sooner.

[Verse 1]
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

[Verse 2]
But it don’t snow here
It stays pretty green
I’m gonna make a lot of money
Then I’m gonna quit this crazy scene
I wish I had a river I could skate away on

[Chorus]
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

[Verse 3]
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

[Verse 4]
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
I wish I had a river I could skate away on

[Chorus]
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

[Verse 5]
It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
I wish I had a river I could skate away on

5 thoughts on “Song of the Day #4,612: ‘River’ – Joni Mitchell

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    I love what I know of Blue, and clearly need to pay more attention to the lesser-known tracks.

    Howard Stern recently asked Miley Cyrus, after complimenting how well she does covers, which song she would really love to cover but hasn’t yet. Her response was “California,” but she has been intimidated to try because she doesn’t have the delicate falsetto of Mitchell and is concerned she would not do the song justice.

  2. Amy says:

    In recent years, I’ve named “River” as my favorite Christmas song. While I love her version best, there are many unexpected covers of this gem that make it a staple every Christmas season. Meanwhile, it was Cyndi Lauper’s performance of “Carey” several years ago that led me to a deeper exploration of Mitchell’s work. And “ A Case of You” is likely my favorite Mitchell song, though, I, too, have even further exploration to do.

    Glad you finally decided to give her a listen with open ears after all of these years.

  3. Peg says:

    I guess I was so involved with Carole King’s Tapestry I did not pay attention to anyone else. Beautiful lyrics and voice ❤️

  4. Andrea Katz says:

    My faith in you has been restored. Laura Nyro, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell are my eternal favorites (and Carol King is way up there too). I was so gratified that my daughter loves Joni Mitchell too and we have been on a couple of road trips singing all the songs on Blue. As my current memory falters, I still remember every lyric from that brilliant album!

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