Music Monday: the Beautiful Sadness of Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’

Like many people, I think my introduction to Joni Mitchell’s classic song River from 1971 happened just this past week thanks to the new show on Netflix, The Politician.

The song is covered by Ben Platt, the 26-year old Emmy Award winner for his role as Evan in Dear Evan Hansen.

Here’s the performance by Platt (the audio and video are slightly out of sync):

It’s not only the first time I’ve heard this song, but it’s also the first time I’ve heard Platt sing. He has an amazing voice, and this song gave him a chance to showcase his vocal skills.

It’s not the happiest of tunes, and I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one crying by the time he was finished.

Soon after I heard it, I went out to Google to learn more about the song.

That’s when I learned it was first recorded by Joni Mitchell, but it was never released as a single. Despite that, it has been one of her most covered songs.

Here is a video featuring the audio of Mitchell singing the song:

Here’s another cover of the song performed on the hit TV show, Glee:

There are some other notable covers:

It’s a tribute to the beauty of the song that it is still being covered, nearly 50 years after its release.

I am grateful to The Politician for making me aware of River.

Here are the lyrics:

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

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
I wish I had a river I could skate away on

Oh, 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 say goodbye

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

*image from Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub

12 thoughts on “Music Monday: the Beautiful Sadness of Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’

  1. I’m glad I saw this. This song has been with me for a long time but I’ve never seen the lyrics before. It is sad, mainly because it’s a wish and the melody is haunting. It’s moving and timeless but there are other sad songs that cut me up far more and yet this never goes away.

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