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Singer Joni Mitchell in 2002.

'Blue' Xmas

Melancholy Joni Mitchell piano ballad has become a Christmas favorite

December 17, 2016

‘It’s coming on Christmas

They’re cutting down trees

They’re putting up reindeer

And singing songs of joy and peace’

Those are the opening lyrics that follow a modified version of the ‘Jingle Bells’ melody intro played on a piano in Joni Mitchell’s 1971 ballad “River.” The song is unmistakably melancholy, or ” thoroughly depressing” as at least one musician has remarked, and was never intended to be a Christmas song. And for about the first 26 years following its release, as a track on Mitchell’s famous Blue album, it wasn’t. There was no real reason it should be, given its forlorn subject matter. “I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” Mitchell sings, fretting over a relationship gone bad.

But, Michael Ball, a British stage actor and singer, told The Washington Post that, some years ago, he was watching a performance of traditional Christmas music at a London drama school and, to his surprise, the teen students, after a set full of classic Christmas songs, busted out “River.”

“I’m thinking: Where on Earth did this come from?” Ball recalled. The song has been covered by scores of artists in recent years. Listen to Mitchell’s original version of the song below.

In a 2014 interview with NPR, Mitchell explained the song’s perhaps unexpected seasonal success like so: “We needed a sad Christmas song, didn’t we?” amid all of the cheerful ditties.

As it turns out, though, Ball really shouldn’t have been so taken aback when the music students trotted out their version of “River.” In fact, he’d done something similar, following in the footsteps of a musician in 1997 that set the whole craze in motion.

Read the full story at The Washington Post.


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