50 years on, Joni Mitchell releases music video for classic Christmas track 'River'

The track has been covered by generations of artists from James Taylor to Ellie Goulding

LONDON - SEPTEMBER 14: Joni Mitchell performs live on stage at Wembley Stadium, London on 14th September 1974. (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)
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After 50 years, one of Joni Mitchell's quintessential songs received an official music video.

Premiering on YouTube on December 23, the visual treatment for the evocative 1971 track captures the delicate beauty of the composition.

Directed by Matvey Rezanov, the video comprises of a series of animated black and white, water-colour scenes of a brooding forest landscape and Mitchell skating on a desolate lake.

By the end, that starkness makes way for colour with the forests turning verdant green and the lake a crystal blue.

In an accompanying statement on the YouTube page, the revered Canadian singer-songwriter said the song captures some of the anguish of today’s holiday season.

River expresses regret at the end of a relationship, but it’s also about being lonely at Christmas time,” she said. “A Christmas song for people who are lonely at Christmas! We need a song like that.”

A breakup song

Released in the summer of 1971, the break-up piano ballad is reportedly inspired by the breakup of Mitchell's two-year relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Graham Nash.

Set during the Christmas period, Mitchell's lyrics details her isolation during the holiday season and the longing to escape engulfing loneliness.

The track begins with an image of Mitchell forlornly surveying her environment.: “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.”

River then gains emotional steam with Mitchell blaming herself for the breakup: 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.”

Covered by generations of artists

In a 2014 interview with US radio broadcaster NPR, Mitchell says the song is about confronting and coming to terms with our faults.

"Well, it's taking personal responsibility for the failure of a relationship," she said. "In my generation, (people) think that it’s a unique personal statement, you know what I mean? It's like, no wonder there's so many covers of it.”

Indeed, River has been reportedly covered by more than 400 artists over the space of 50 years, from peers James Taylor and Barry Manilow to today's popstars Sam Smith, Ellie Goulding and the cast of television comedy series Glee.

Despite their efforts, the power of the original never dimmed and the new music video ensures that remains the case.

Updated: December 25, 2021, 1:38 PM
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