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Wow In Music – River

Wow In Music –  River

| On 21, Aug 2019

Darrell Mann


Released in 1971 and produced by Reprise records, River is a contemporary folk song found on Joni Mitchell’s classic album, ‘Blue’. For some reason, even though it really isn’t really a Christmas song, it has somehow become one. I guess for two reasons. Firstly, from the opening line of the lyric it’s clearly set during Christmas, and secondly, it has largely been adopted by the Generation X Nomads, who tend to love the juxtaposition of Christmas with songs that are sad and depressing (see The Pogues, Fairytale Of New York). In many ways, it is this juxtaposition between the season and the heartbreak Mitchell expresses that makes the song so powerful. The (Principle 37) juxtaposition story extend, too, within the song, both lyrically (half the verses are about the preparations for Christmas that are underway while she nurses her heartbreak and longs for a river so she can “skate away” and “teach her feet to fly”) and musically (the song begins with a piano riff on the very upbeat chorus of “Jingle Bells,” and this motif re-appears throughout the song).

Beyond this brilliant juxtaposition, which adds the weight of melancholic holiday sadness to the song, we also get the trademark Mitchell confessionalism. Somehow, Mitchell is able to make hyper-personal lyrics like, “I’m so hard to handle / I’m selfish and I’m sad / Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby / that I’ve ever had” seem universal.

What also makes the song unusual is that instead of using a typical verse/chorus style this song is written using different sections – A/B/C etc. The refrain ‘I wish I had a river’ is the overlying focus point throughout the song and is used throughout. Employing an easily recognizable common time, the song although played at a slow to medium tempo sounds as though it is moving faster due to the ornate piano part. Using the key of C major allows a free-flowing melody.

Throughout section A there is a consistent IV-I chord progression. These are aligned with each phrase and through the use of plagal cadence it makes each phrase seem resolved before moving onto the next.

Section B follows (Principle 3) a more erratic chord structure when the vocal melody is peaking on the vi-ii progression. This use of the minor second creates tension over two bars before eventually (Principle 12) resolving to the C major.

The plagal cadence (IV-I) followed by the vi chord is a neat device, and one that becomes a consistent theme used by Mitchell in several of her later songs.

Its probably not a great surprise to learn that the song has been covered over 500 times by other artists since the original 1971 release. The version we opt for here is the cover by Tracey Thorn on her 2012 album, Tinsel & Lights. Melancholy songs often benefit from melancholy voices, and Nomad, Thorn very likely possesses the archetypal downbeat GenX voice. That certainly helps the song. Its not often that a cover supersedes the original, but I think that’s the trick Thorn pulls off here. River sounds like it was written for her voice. If that were the only change to Mitchell’s original, it would probably be enough, but the final clincher, I believe, is Thorn’s addition of a (Principle 17) brass band in the background. If the combination of muted cornet and Thorn’s voice doesn’t bring a tear to your Nomad eye, nothing will.