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With her song “River,” Joni Mitchell injected a strain of melancholy into the Christmas music canon. In her real life, Mitchell had a gloomy Christmas season spent in a polio ward. In order to go home for Christmas, she surprised her family and her doctors by teaching herself to walk again. She explained how some of her determination came from not wanting to be a nuisance.

Joni Mitchell wears a sweater and a lei. She sits in front of a microphone.
Joni Mitchell | Robert Knight Archive/Redferns

Joni Mitchell’s song ‘River’ is a somber take on Christmastime

In 1971, Mitchell released “River,” a wistful song set during the Christmas season. It’s one of her better-known songs, and it imbues the Christmas setting with a level of reflective melancholy. 

“We needed a sad Christmas song, didn’t we? In the ‘bah humbug’ of it all?” Mitchell joked to NPR.

She explained that the song is about her generation, which she describes as the “Me Generation,” for its narcissism. 

“So it’s really, you know — it’s really that aspect of our inability — you know, ‘I’m selfish and I’m sad.’ Right?” she explained. “You know, people think that’s confessional, but I’d say, you know, in my generation, you think that that’s a unique personal statement? You know what I mean? It’s like, no wonder there’s so many covers of it?”

She spent time in the hospital with polio

Much earlier in her life, Mitchell contracted polio and was confined to a hospital.

“It was coming Christmas. I went in and, I don’t know now, I think I went in in October,” she said. “And, you know, it was 100 miles away from home and Christmas was rolling around. My mother came to visit me once. With a mask over her face and a haunted look in her eyes, she came in.”

During this time, her doctor — who had also had polio and was in a wheelchair — hinted to Mitchell that she would never walk again. Because of this, he told her she couldn’t go home for Christmas. She began to teach herself to walk by the light of her room’s Christmas tree lights.

“I just kept working my legs, working my legs, and then one day I said to them, ‘I want to try and walk,’” she said. “So they wheeled me into this corridor, and they lifted me up and I put my arms on these chrome bars, and I pulled myself along to the end. I turned myself around, I came back, and then I said, ‘Now can I go home?’ ‘Well, you’ll have to wear braces. You’ll have to wear,’ you know, ‘metal-lined boots. You’ll have to have a wheelchair.’” 

Because her bedroom was on her house’s second floor, she didn’t want her parents to have to help her with the stairs.

“‘I can’t be a nuisance to them,’ you know? ‘So I’m gonna have to drag myself up those goddamn stairs, one way or another.’ So I did. So that kind of attitude, you know, it’s the fighting Irish, eh? I guess that’s what it is.”

Joni Mitchell says the experience helped her become an artist 

When the interviewer noted that Mitchell’s story was inspirational, she agreed but added that “It could have been more inspirational ’cause I wanted to take ballet, but my mother said, ‘Oh, you couldn’t,’ you know. I had — I couldn’t take part in sports.”


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She noted that no longer playing sports helped push her into the arts.

“I would’ve been — I was a good athlete. I was a runner, you know? And I lost all my strength and my speed, so that’s another thing that made me more of an artist. So, you know, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should be.”