Judy Collins' Cover of Joni Mitchell's 'River': Song You Need to Know - Rolling Stone
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Song You Need to Know: Judy Collins’ Cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’

52 years after she first covered the Canadian songwriter, Collins gives a shattering, wintry update to the Christmas classic

Decades before Lana Del Rey introduced Joni Mitchell to millennials, Judy Collins was spreading the Canadian bohemian gospel. Mitchell’s heart-wrenching Christmas classic “River” has just received its 687th cover, and it’s arguably one of the best: Collins’ rendition, released Friday off her new record Winter Stories, gives the piano-laden track a refreshing update.

“River” is Mitchell’s second most covered song, right behind “Both Sides Now,” the latter of which Collins covered in 1967 and won a Grammy for Best Folk Performance. Part breakup ballad, part Christmas song, “River” is a seasonal sulker that’s ideal to ice skate to while crying about your ex (especially if they happen to be the British member of a supergroup).

It may be predictable for Collins to record the track, but it’s worth noting that not only is Mitchell’s catalogue as legendary and influential as ever, but Collins’ voice is as remarkably clear as it was in 1961. Backed by bluegrass outfit Chatham County Line, the 80-year-old seamlessly ebbs and flows through the octaves, gently keeping the pace to mirror the 1971 original. “I’m so hard to handle/I’m selfish and I’m sad,” she sings. “Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby/That I’ve ever had.”

A collaboration with Norwegian singer Jonas Fjeld, Winter Stories tells the story of John Franklin’s fatal expedition to the Northwest Passage. Just as “River” sits cozy in the middle of the second side of Blue, Collins’ cover also appears halfway through the record. 52 years after she first helped introduce Mitchell’s songwriting prowess to the world, Collins continues to share her legacy — and shows no signs of stopping.

Find a playlist of all of our recent Songs You Need to Know selections on Spotify.

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