Music essayist Noah Lefevre of Polyphonic takes a look at how musician Joni Mitchell turned the classically cheerful holiday song “Jingle Bells” into a somber ode by changing the chord progression for her Christmas song “River”. This particular song, off her iconic 1970 album Blue, uses a variation and adds minor chords to express her then-present melancholy and a longing for a happier time in her life when she’d go skating along a river in the frozen landscape of her childhood in Saskatchewan, Canada.
So much of the brilliance of ‘River’ comes through in the music. The verses that bookend the song don’t actually say anything about sadness, they merely set the scene as Christmas. But the chords behind those words and Mitchell’s fragile delivery belie an emotion that you can never quite pin down with words alone.