Though each year brings a few wonderful additions to the caroling songbook, eventually, every truly great holiday song gets covered and recovered in a multitude of genres and styles. Which is to say: there's plenty of folk covermusic for the holidays. As we slide towards December, stay tuned for a cornucopia of features on Christmas albums, folk musicians, and folksinger favorites, from the Roches We Three Kings to the very best label-driven holiday compilations.
Today we begin our foray into the holiday coverfolk spirit with a focus on perhaps the first truly modern folk song to be brought into the cycle of once-a-year covers that is the Christmas Canon: Joni Mitchell's River.
For a Christmas standard, Joni Mitchell's River is extraordinarily complex. The subtle piano instrumentation and tongue-in-cheek intro lend itself to holiday ballad; even in the original, the way the sharp chords of Jingle Bells segue into a flowing, languid piano and Joni's soaring vocals calls up images of drinks by the fireside, snow falling outside frosted glass. But below the surface, this song reveals its songwriter's mental state. And Joni's not feeling very Christmassy.
Like the rest of Joni's 1971 album Blue, River bears the bitter mark of Joni post-relationship, struggling to put words to a feeling of defenseless fragility. The lyrics are explicit: though it helps to know that Joni was in sunny California at the time she wrote this song, far from the Christmas cold of her native Canada, the litany of faults and life failures which causes Joni to long for a river to "skate away on" certainly transcends mere geographical dissatisfaction.
Has River become a Christmas standard in denial of its wistful, cynical core? Or is Christmas, in our modern, overcommercialized world world, becoming something from which we long to escape? It's hard to say. Certainly the song has been disproportionately covered in the last decade: according to one authority, there are over 130 recorded versions floating out there in the ether. But most are saccharine sweet holiday pap, and many change neither instrumentation or voice much beyond adding a few layers of this era's production. Only a tiny few truly reinterpret this simple hymn of longing and regret.
But those few are treasures. For despite how easily it slides into the repertoire of the pop balladeer, and regardless of what it says about our changing feelings toward Christmas, River is eminently a song worth saving.
Today -- in a reluctant nod to the fact that half of our local radio stations have already switched over to holiday music -- we offer a short list of the best and folkiest.
Each manages to make the familiar meaningful again -- whether it is Peter Mulvey's low, broken voice bringing out the true core of Joni's longing and sadness, or just James Taylor being James Taylor, bright and full of hope even in acknowledgement of the deepest depression.
Each truly brings new light to an aging standard. Most notably, Angus Stone's re-rhythming of the song into a light, bouncy, fully orchestrated work of strings and guitar casts the work as a product of the modern mellow indie-folk movement without losing a drop of poignancy. Allison Crowe's solo piano version and Rachael Yamagata's piano-with-bass cover may not sound so different from the original at first, but listen again and the subtleties stand out: Yamagata's slurred, cracked breathiness lends tears to the sadness, while Crowe's majestic tonal read turns the song on its ear.
And each is eminently listenable. Listen to the way the waterfall tinkle of the harpsichord compliments the string-and-piano (and jingle bell) poppiness of Aimee Mann's version. And, sure, Sarah McLachlan is hardly folk, but this fellow Canadian still manages to bring the fireside feel of winter to her electrified popversion.
Enjoy today's covers, the first of many gifts from us to you as we celebrate the holiday season here at Cover Lay Down. And remember: without the bittersweet world for context, we could not so love our songs of comfort, joy, and peace.
- James Taylor, River
(from James Taylor at Christmas)
- Peter Mulvey, River
(from Wonderland: A Winter Solstice Celebration)
- Angus Stone, River
(from No Man's Woman)
- Aimee Mann, River
(out-of-print; more Aimee Mann here)
- Rachael Yamagata, River
(unreleased b-side; more Rachael Yamagata here)
- Allison Crowe, River
(from Tidings; also here)
- Sarah McLachlan, River
We'll host a full Joni Mitchell edition of Covered in Folk sometime in 2008, but if you just can't wait for your coverfix, buy Blue, and start catching up on one of the truly seminal artists of American folk music.
Or head over to Coverville to download The Joni Mitchell Cover Story II, which ends with the incredible title cut from Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters.
Or visit The Late Greats for an incredible 30-song post of songs with the word river in them, including both Joni's original and an amazing version from Madeleine Peyroux and kd lang.
Or, whet your appetite with today's bonus coversongs:
- Joni Mitchell and James Taylor re-cover Taylor's You Can Close Your Eyes
- Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell cover Dylan's Girl From the North Country
Come back Monday for a very special feature on folk covers of Disney's Winnie The Pooh, guest hosted by Kurtis of Disney coverblog Covering the Mouse! Meanwhile, I'll be over at eclectic coverblog Fong Songs analysing covers and original of The Smiths' Girlfriend In A Coma, while Fong closes the loop with a sweet write-up of yet another Winnie the Pooh cover over at Covering the Mouse. It's coverblog musical chairs!