Whether it stems from a burst of holiday spirit or the desire to write a song people will be covering for decades (with all the attendant royalties), contemporary pop songwriters have been scrambling to write new yuletide standards for decades. For all the noble effort of everyone from Elton John to the old-school indie band the dB's, few--well, none, actually--have written anything that’s displaced "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" or "Silent Night." (See the videos of them performed by Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, respectively, as evidence of that.) In a rare display of common sense, the general public even rejected Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You," the most transparently traditionally crafted (or desperate) of the bunch.

Then there’s the peculiar case of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” The song first appeared on her album Blue some 36 Christmases ago. It starts with Mitchell’s piano playing “Jingle Bells” in doleful minor chords, which leads to a delicate and exquisitely disconsolate melody, and even more forlorn lyrics. References to Christmas, reindeer, and “songs of joy and peace” crop up in the first verse, then disappear. Damning herself as “selfish and ... sad,” Mitchell confesses to disillusionment with “this crazy scene” (probably the drug-fueled Cali-rock crowd at the time) and driving away the guy who not only loved her but gave crazy-good sex (rumored to be James Taylor or Graham Nash, her boyfriends during this period). The refrain has her craving a river “I could skate away on”; she just wants to leave all of it, even the seasonal festivities, behind. The song returns to its initial chorus, but by then, it’s too late for tidings of comfort or joy. Even the Christmas references--images of trees being cut down, fake reindeer being hauled out one more time--are more cynical than buoyant. 

“River” is only peripherally about Christmas, and in lyrics and tone it’s hardly the type of song one warbles around the piano with the family (assuming people still do such things). Yet over the last few years, it’s become ubiquitous, included on a large number of yuletide albums in various genres. One can now hear “River” done up not only as adult contemporary (separate versions by Sarah McLachlan and James Taylor on their seasonal-themed albums) but as holiday adult lounge jazz (Dianne Reeves), new age guitar (Peter Mulvey), Celtic ballad (the Albion Christmas Band), alt rock (Sister Hazel), Brit pop (Travis), and jazz elevator music (Fourplay, Boney James). That’s not to count non-holiday-record covers by everyone from Heart to the Indigo Girls to Herbie Hancock (the latter, sung by Corinne Bailey Rae, is the title track of Hancock’s album of Mitchell covers, just nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy).

Through it all, “River” remains essentially the same in tone and arrangement. (It’s the vocal equivalent to Vince Guaraldi’s enduring, contemplative piano score for A Charlie Brown Christmas.) Not even Barry Manilow, who dressed up “River” with all sorts of gauzy sonic tinsel on a version released five years ago, could make the song jolly. It resists cheering up as much as that one friend who insists Christmas isn’t a big deal and would rather stay home alone that day, thank you.

Why do balladeers, jazz acts, and even alt bands flock to this comely but resolutely downbeat song, turning it into one of the few post-1950s pop tunes that’s become a Santa-time standard? Do they scan the lyrics, spot the yuletide references, and add to the list without thinking? Do they pull out their copies of Blue, rehear those introductory “Jingle Bells” chords, and go no further? Is the song’s ubiquitousness a sign of the way Christmas music has been hijacked? The recent crop of holiday music brought to us by the Lite FM-meets-Starbucks crowd isn’t meant to be caroled. Instead, albums like Taylor’s and McLachlan’s are so muted they don’t come close to drowning out the sound of gifts being torn open. They’re contemplative grown-up affairs meant to accompany the weeks (or dinnertime parties) leading up to the big day.

The growing pervasiveness of “River” covers (next year Carrie Underwood? James Blunt?) may also tie in with the long-held notion that this time of year isn't always so jolly. Recent studies have refuted the long-held notion that the Christmas season triggers an abundance of suicides, but in light of everything that’s happened in the country (much less the world) over the last six years, maybe depression is a factor--but a national more than private one. In the way “River” has been embraced without any apparent head-scratching over its lyrical content, it may be our collective way of acknowledging that giddy holiday cheer now arrives with an asterisk. How can you give yourself over completely to “Winter Wonderland” or “Joy to the World” in light of the deteriorating environment and economy, those lurking terrorists, or whatever else is looming on the horizon? Acknowledging the season yet secretly yearning for a way to leave it all behind, on one type of river or another, “River” feels as much 2001 as 1971. Given all the recently composed songs that could have been adopted for this holiday, the good news is that we’ll be hearing “River” for many more Christmases to come. Given that all our problems don’t have anything close to immediate solutions, that’s unfortunately the disquieting news, too.

David Browne contributes to The New York Times, NPR.org, Spin, and other outlets. Goodbye 20th Century, his biography of Sonic Youth, will be published in May 2008.

 

By David Browne