Joy and Peace…

Sure, Joy and Peace, but you’d expect in this COVID year that isolation and loneliness might be prime themes too because we know that really, despite all the uplifting messages flooding radio and TV, that…

… Christmas has shadows of schizophrenic experience for many; the river of happiness melts into another counterpoint tributary of sadness, each river and tributary a personal journey of a life lived.

I love the bittersweet… the blend of jubilation and melancholy… the summary of life and living.

This week, while listening to beautiful seasonal music on the radio, one song sunk its teeth into me… Joni Mitchell’s bittersweet RIVER… a song I don’t even remember hearing until maybe 15 years ago, despite its release 49 years ago in 1971.

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

River, from Mitchell’s 1971 BLUE album, was never released as a single.

Derivative of Jingle Bells and set at Christmas time, its opening and closing melody is “Jingle Bells” in a minor key. Yes, those minor keys that pour a mist of sadness over us.

River is thought to be Mitchell’s lament over the loss of a relationship with her “best baby that I ever had”, the one who “made me weak in the knees”, singer Graham Nash… although Mitchell is a bit coy in letting that out.

And now, in the last 20 years, River has ascended to holiday-hit status as an antidote to all those “songs of joy and peace.” “We needed a sad Christmas song, didn’t we?” Mitchell said with a chuckle on National Public Radio in 2014. “In the ‘bah humbug’ of it all.”

Aside from the sumptuous richness of the production of the song (so lush you can feel the rubbing of your shoulders with Joni on the piano bench)… taking her message of loss and sorrow and turning that blueness into something of beauty is clearly one that rings true for many.

Just drown in the chilly airiness of her singing “fly” near the end of verses 2 and 3.

And River was never truly written as a Christmas song.

Listening to the song, this week before Christmas, I’m struck by thoughts of other creations from times-past that have unexpectedly ridden a tsunami wave of popularity…

Another example… this time a cinema case-in-point:

It’s A Wonderful Life… the Frank Capra produced, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed-acted Christmas masterpiece.

Released 74 (!) years ago in 1946, it barely caused a blip on the popular radar. The film had disappointing attendance and sales, and didn’t even return its cost of production ($6.3 million).

Nominated for Best Picture in 1947, it lost out to The Best Years Of Our Lives. Jimmy Stewart lost in the Best Actor category to Frederic March, also from The Best Years Of Our Lives.

Stewart had barely returned from a 4 year-long stint as an Army Air pilot who flew 20 combat missions over Germany when he took on the role of distraught son, brother, father George Bailey and turned the suicidal character into an emotional icon of film. Critics derided it as overly sentimental…

… it languished in the movie backwaters until the 1980’s when it was released royalty-free into the public domain. It’s A Wonderful Life is now ranked #20 on the top list of movies by the American Film Institute.

The rest is history, the film is a fixture of holiday watching. And today… we all know how an angel gets his wings, right?

My Christmas is best savoured with the bittersweet…

… the unloved Charlie Brown tree, sailing away on Joni’s long river, the recovered desperation of George Bailey…

In whatever way you find your journey through this COVID holiday season – whether you say Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah or Kwanzaa (Habari Gani)…

… may you discover some Joy and Peace in your little corner of the world.