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The Music of Joni Mitchell$

Lloyd Whitesell

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195307993

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195307993.001.0001

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The Music of Joni Mitchell


Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter takes a sweeping view of poetic themes, focusing on a favorite thematic preoccupation — personal freedom — as explored by way of potent symbols of confinement, the journey quest, bohemianism, artistic license, and spiritual liberation. Analyses of individual songs are mustered in order to demonstrate the profundity of Mitchell's poetic-musical thought, her coupling of personal and universal concerns, and her rhetorical assurance in engaging with some of the pressing cultural issues of her generation.

Keywords:   poetic themes, personal freedom, journey quest, bohemianism, artistic license, spiritual liberation

One reason Joni Mitchell's body of songs deserves to be regarded as a coherent oeuvre rather than a miscellany of occasional pieces has to do with the musicopoetic themes running through her work in extended threads of correlation and reflection. Counted among her favored themes are substantial matters that have not ceased to occupy poets of every rank and generation: the untamable currents of love, the cost of personal independence, the stern vows of an artistic calling, spiritual perplexity, the journey quest, the terms of interracial conversation, and the charting of a mythic homeland. Characteristic of her poetic gift is the ability to couple personal incident with general human concerns in tones that blend playfulness with intellectual density.

To give a sense of the depth and texture of Mitchell's thought, I have chosen to explore a specific thematic strand—personal freedom—as she develops its ethical implications in diverse symbolic and poetic registers. The word “free” and its cognates flash forth at prominent moments in her songs like a golden thread catching the light: “She's so busy being free,” “He was playing real good, for free,” “Try and get my soul free,” “I was a free man in Paris,” “Freedom scribbled in the subway,” “A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway.” Together with related chains highlighting words like “wild,” “dance,” and “dream,” such occurrences form a highly visible set of verbal motifs spanning her entire career. As further evidence of the absolutely central importance of the theme, one can note how Mitchell frames her first album, Song to a Seagull, with two songs devoted to the question of personal freedom. The opening song, “I Had a King,” relates the protagonist's escape from a suffocating marriage; the closing song, “Cactus Tree,” evokes the more spacious horizons, as well as the emotional costs, of her ongoing quest. The two scenarios stand for the two poles she is compelled to negotiate in her search for self-fulfillment: the perils of domesticity and the perils of rootlessness. By countering the irresistible, open-ended urge for independence (p.79) with a difficult, unresolved yearning for love, Mitchell sets up a lasting internal controversy at the core of her musical expression.

To tease out the different tributaries of this grand theme, I will consider specific examples under the following topics: cautionary tales of confinement, chronicles of the ongoing quest, declarations of social nonconformity, invocations of creative license, and visions of spiritual liberation. Mitchell introduces all five of these topics on her first album.


We have already considered “I Had a King” in some detail in chapter 2. There I pointed out how the song's central idea of refusing to be trapped was dramatized musically, in scenarios of rhythmic constraint, melodic entanglement and release, and harmonic suspension. In chapter 5 I will emphasize the role of the double pedal point (lower tonic pedal, upper dominant pedal) in creating an especially constrained voice-leading situation. Here I will expand on significant details relating to the theme at hand and broaden the context for the song's configuration of symbols in connection with other songs from the first period.

The specific trap described in “I Had a King” is a bad marriage. The husband is (indirectly) portrayed as an artist—or perhaps it would be better to say that his social character is represented through aesthetic activities (painting, acting, singing). But in every case his form of expression is depicted as ugly, mean, or false. His perversion of the aesthetic impulse, or the speaker's failure to respond to him in such terms, is a strong sign of the death of love. (The following song on the album, “Michael from Mountains,” provides a counterexample: when the protagonist is with Michael, every ordinary scene takes on the bright artifice of paintings or puppet shows; even the film of oil in rain gutters shows “taffeta patterns,” magically rearranged at Michael's touch.) Mitchell expresses the sense of confinement not only through imagery (empty rooms, the enclosing grove) but through form and representation. The poem continually stages an ill fit between mythic and realistic representation, with material from postindustrial life (“drip-dry,” “salt-rusted”) showing through the threadbare medieval trappings and exposing their aura of fantasy as inadequate. Furthermore, the poem opens with a structural ill fit: the second line overshoots the expected rhyme on “pastel” to introduce a new end rhyme on “brown.” This trick with the rhyme scheme conveys the speaker's disillusionment by embedding an initial rhyme pair (“castle/pastel”) from the realm of romantic fantasy within an ultimate pair (“brown/down”) that contradicts those conventions. (Similarly, in verse 3, the initial pair “carriage/marriage” is rebuffed by “too soon.”)

(p.80) In verse 2, the emphasis is on the ill fit of an antiquated gender role.

  • He lives in another time
  • Ladies in gingham still blush
  • While he sings them of wars and wine
  • But I in my leather and lace
  • I can never become that kind

The putative king despises his freethinking queen, preferring the role of unquestioned hero. The “gingham” suggests a reduced female position (lower than royalty), as in the accepted image of the demure unassuming housewife. In contrast, the speaker's “leather and lace” is shorthand for a sense of experimentation in women's roles, in search of a personal style in which toughness and tenderness can coexist. Right from the start of the poem, the speaker signals her unease with the role of romantic “lady” in her unconventional locution: “I had a king.” Given the connotations of monarchic privilege, we would expect a more submissive turn of phrase: “I was wed to a king,” or “A king took me as his lady.” But here, the speaker claims the role of lyric subject for herself, shouldering the king into the object position. The clash between the poem's competing subjects is only resolved in the chorus, when she repudiates the man and asserts her own agency (“I can't go back there anymore”).

In other songs of the period, Mitchell continues to treat the archaic image of the “lady” as a tempting but dangerous myth. The male romantic lead in “The Gallery” (C) is another artist figure. At first, the female speaker admires his portraits of “ladies,” but the mystique palls as she is reduced to a domestic role, dusting and keeping house. As in “I Had a King,” the speaker chafes at being “left to winter here,” while her lover is free to travel. His attempts to maintain power over her are baited with the empty title of “Lady.” The speaker's ambivalence about the mystique of sentimental fantasy does not result in as strong a critique as we saw in the previous poem. The archaic language is less assuredly undermined; the woman herself is compromised in choosing to stay and wait for her man. But she does effect a stinging reversal in the third chorus when she turns his own words against him, asserting the hitherto masculine right to withhold or grant her favor (see the discussion under “The Ingenue” in chapter 3).

The song “Blue Boy” (LC) enacts a similar drama of entrapment, but in this case the outcome is wholly pessimistic.

  • Lady called the blue boy, love,
  • She took him home
  • Made himself an idol, yes,
  • So he turned to stone
  • (p.81)
  • Like a pilgrim she traveled
  • To place her flowers
  • Before his granite grace
  • And she prayed aloud for love
  • To waken in his face

The title character's assumed name wraps him in mystery; part of his allure derives from his arrogance and insistence on remaining free of emotional involvement. Another figure of perverted artistry, the blue boy sets himself up as a statue to which the poem's “lady” must pay homage. The mythic background here is the story of Pygmalion and Galatea (a statue brought to life).1 But where the ancient tale depicts the consummatory desire of a male artist for his female creation, here the trajectory is reversed: a living woman bears responsibility for her own undoing as an animate subject (“He will come few times more/Till he finds a lady statue/Standing in a door”). The potential symbols of organic nurture (“her flowers,” “his seed,” “her garden”) are negated by the prevailing image of petrification. The place of domestic comfort (portrayed lovingly in “Sisotowbell Lane” [SS] and “Ladies of the Canyon” [LC]) is turned into a confining space out of which the lady is caught gazing at the window or door. Her chance for “travel” is restricted to a pilgrimage of abasement. Her attempts at freedom of personal expression (“boots of leather,” “feather fan”) never go beneath outer layers and in any case are entirely channeled into her single consuming devotion. Given this scenario, the syntax of the third-person focal character takes on a pointed significance, reflecting the lady's utter surrender of identity to the point that she is unable to take charge of her own lyric utterance. Mitchell's cathartic performance stands in for the lady's voice, groveling without shame and holding back nothing for herself. Another factor adding to the song's overpowering melancholy is its indefinite arrangement of tonal space. The verse begins with a clear sense of “home” in C major (Ex. 4.1). From that bright beginning the harmonies move through a range of darker shades, most phrases coming to rest on G major. But is this recurring cadence point open or closed? Mitchell uses chord successions that lack strong hierarchical function; both C and G exert (fairly weak) gravitational force. Somewhere around the midpoint of the verse (with the swerve to the Bbchord) the clear sense of a C major home is lost. Harmonies continue to change as if they are going somewhere, but they always return to the same ambivalent place.

“Blue Boy” fearfully imagines a character who never breaks free, indeed who doesn't even fight against her imposed limits. Mitchell's trapped characters are not always women: the man in “Conversation” (LC) is stuck in a bad relationship; the men in “The Arrangement” (LC), “The Last Time I Saw Richard” (B), and “Harry's House” (HSL) are caught in empty cycles of middle-class consumerism.

(p.82) Nor do the pitfalls for women invariably center on relationships: some, like the speaker in “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” struggle against “dark cocoons” of inner confusion. But it is notable how in the earliest exemplars of this theme, hindrances to personal growth are manifest in terms of the social phenomenon of restrictive gender roles (housewife, nurturer, submissive partner). In formulating these cautionary tales, Mitchell was not openly advocating a feminist perspective, from which she has consistently distanced herself.2 Nevertheless, she was articulating in her own medium the anxiety felt by many of her peers over the limitations placed on women's search for fulfillment, as Betty Friedan had begun to document in The Feminine Mystique a few years earlier. In particular, Friedan pointed to a strong retrenchment in the 1950s: “After 1949 … the image of the American woman as a changing, growing individual in a changing world was shattered. Her solo flight to find her own identity was forgotten in the rush for the security of togetherness. Her limitless world shrunk to the cozy walls of home.”3 Mitchell herself has stated in reference to her song “Cactus Tree”: “I feel that's the song of modern woman. Yes, it has to do with my experiences, but I know a lot of girls like that … who find that the world is full of lovely men but they're driven by something else other than settling down to frau-duties.”4

                   THEMATIC THREADS

Example 4.1. “Blue Boy,” Chord Changes

By the mid-1970s, however, Mitchell was capable of treating the theme with wry detachment. “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” (HSL, music by John Guerin) portrays a wife in a gilded cage.

  • He put up a barbed wire fence
  • To keep out the unknown
  • And on every metal thorn
  • Just a little blood of his own
  • She patrols that fence of his
  • To a Latin drum
  • And the hissing of summer lawns

Her home in the hills, though ringed with barbed wire, has wider sightlines than the abject garden of “Blue Boy” (“She could see the valley barbecues/From her (p.83) window sill”). Her confinement also comes with material consolations of a different order (“a diamond for her throat,” “a roomful of Chippendale/That nobody sits in”). This lady is no ingenue but accepts her compromise with a cynical awareness (“Still she stays with a love of some kind/It's the lady's choice”). With its tropical sound world of buzzing flies, drumbeats, and hissing sprinklers, the poem depicts the upscale housewife in her natural setting as an outlandish tribal specimen, to be documented with anthropological composure.

In “Don't Interrupt the Sorrow,” from the same album, the theme of female ensnarement prompts an angry stream of free association rather than a scenic vignette. The musical tone is remarkably light and conversational given the difficult and combative language; Mitchell's performance projects relaxed self--assurance as if taking it all in her stride. In this song we overhear an internal monologue composed of disconnected reactions to the peremptory remarks and veiled threats (“In flames our prophet witches/Be polite”) of a faceless male speaker. The cubistic surface renders the sense obscure, but the man appears to be ordering the woman's compliance in a nurturing role (“Bring that bottle kindly”) while forbidding dissent (be polite; don't interrupt the status quo; don't disturb the peace of “patriarchs/Snug in your bible belt dreams”). The female speaker, however, is up for a fight; the “room full of glasses” mentioned at the beginning sets the scene for a contest of wills. She lays bare the trap hidden in his words and beliefs (“he chains me with that serpent/To that Ethiopian wall”). She exposes his presumptuous idea of the natural order as nothing but a cycle of “sorrow” for women (“Death and birth and death and birth”). She decries the use of religion as a tool for brainwashing (“The good slaves love the good book”). In fact, the argument rages on an intensely intellectual plane, between competing theological fictions and their consequences for women's lives. In her view, he is playing dirty by using the old propaganda of the “serpent” and Eve's guilt to immobilize her. As an alternative, she upholds icons of matriarchal power: witch, goddess, and Madonna. (In this, Mitchell is atypically explicit in her appeal to imagery of collective female affirmation and resistance.) At first, the archetypes are taken from pagan traditions; in tune with this, background imagery in the first four verses cycles through the primal elements of flames, water, wind, and rock. The Virgin Mary, the last to appear, is a “clandestine” figure of matriarchal worship carried into the established Christian church; she appears as a secret symbol encoded in the bottles of “Rhine wine” (Liebfraumilch or “Milk of the Madonna”) the man is drinking. The seventeen spent glasses also echo the woman's statement of defiance (“Since I was seventeen/I've had no one over me”), as if the years of her life might be distilled or poured out in service. The final verse when it arrives feels like something of a letdown. Instead of the anger she has been voicing, the woman seems to give ground by expressing compassion (“It takes a heart like (p.84) Mary's these days/When your man gets weak”), and it isn't clear whether she will follow through on her earlier promise to “leave on the 1:15.” From another angle, however, the last verse supplies a final diminution in the stature of the male speaker. In his first entrance he appears as the mouthpiece for a terrifying oracle (“He says, ‘Your notches liberation doll'?”), incoherently fusing the idea of freedom with images of objectification and subjugation (as in being taken down a notch, or the “notch” as a mark of sexual conquest). His second speech is still obscure (“Anima rising—/So what—/Petrified wood process/Tall timber down to rock!”), but recognizable as a threat to subdue the woman's soul (using the images familiar from “Blue Boy” of animation vs. petrification). As the poem goes on, his statements become needy and even petulant (“We walked on the moon/You be polite”). Gradually he is humanized and belittled (and subdued by the wine's/Madonna's influence) until his threat shrinks to nothing.

Later treatments of this theme can be briefly mentioned. “The Tea Leaf Prophecy” (CMRS), its central character caught in the routine of house and garden, was the focus of discussion in chapter 3. In her fourth period Mitchell returns several times (“Two Grey Rooms” [NRH], “Sunny Sunday,” “The Magdalene Laundries” [both TI]) to melancholy portraits of characters who never leave, now no longer centered in the scenario of the heterosexual couple. A footnote: it is during this period that Mitchell begins to repeat a pertinent story about her ancestors. “My paternal grandmother came from Norway, and … the last time she cried in her life she was 14, … because she knew she would never have a piano. … My maternal grandmother … was a classical musician who came east when the Prairies opened up by train. She was Scottish-French, and they brought an organ in for her and a gramophone. She was a poet and musician, but she still kicked the kitchen door off its hinges out of her frustration at being trapped in the role of a housewife.”5 The story ends with Mitchell's assertion that having inherited “the creative gene” from her grandmothers, it was entrusted to her to pursue an artistic career for the sake of those women who never had the opportunity.


Mitchell's earliest period as a musician and songwriter coincided with a surge in popularity of the (medieval) genre of the quest romance, as retold for modern readers. Her familiarity with the great writers of fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, is evident from scattered references in interviews. She named her first publishing company after Gandalf, the grey wizard of The Lord of the Rings.6 Tolkien's saga had many things to recommend it to the idealistic youth of the 1960s, among them a veneration of nature and rural folkways (as in the (p.85) pastoral Shire), a latent critique of industrialism (in the hell-realms of Mordor and Isengard, with their subterranean forges, slavery, and pollution), and an archetypal plot of simple folk caught up in grand deeds and epic adventure. The title of Mitchell's song “The Dawntreader” (SS) refers to one of the volumes (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) from Lewis's children's series The Chronicles of Narnia, about a sea voyage in search of the islands of the “utter East.” One of the characters from this book (Reepicheep the gallant mouse), not satisfied when the quest is achieved, is compelled to strike out even further into the unknown, leaving his companions behind.7 A similar spirit of adventure is present in many of the British Isle ballads from the folksingers' repertory, about travelers who sail the high seas, bid farewell to tender maidens, or return to them after many a day. These evocative tropes are carried over into folk rock and singer-songwriter genres. David Crosby's song “Guinnevere,” for instance, is redolent of Arthurian legend, with its golden-haired sorceress in her garden and the male hero making a temporary landing (“the harbor where I lay, anchored for a day”) on his ongoing voyage. Crosby's reference to the world of legend is dreamlike and atmospheric, distilling the quest-plot into an unspecified romantic yearning (“We shall be free”).8

Typically in such tales, it is the woman who is left behind; Mitchell writes her own version of the well-known scene in songs such as “Urge for Going” (Hits), “The Pirate of Penance” (SS), and “The Gallery” (C). In “Cactus Tree,” however, she alters the mythology of the ballads to fit her concept of a new kind of heroine. The song begins like one more adventure tale from the man's perspective—a man who has been sailing to far-off places “in a decade full of dreams.” He invites a lady onto his schooner and presents her with jewels. But all of a sudden she is no longer to be found on the ship: “He has heard her off to starboard/In the breaking and the breathing/Of the water weeds.” Not content with secondhand exploits, she has gone off on her own expedition, slipping into the water like a mermaid or selkie. Though the sailor is portrayed in the most glamorous terms, the refrain reveals that the lady is the true figure of glamour and mystery in this song; it is she who leaves men behind. (And the phrase structure [see chapter 6 and Ex. 6.12] confirms the status of the refrain, with its focus on the female subject, as the clinching idea to which the preceding lines inevitably move.) For most of the poem she remains an offstage presence, provoking a wry comment from the narrator (“she's so busy”) about the elusiveness of her quest.

In succeeding verses there follows a list of the men she has loved from all walks of life, who profess their constant love for her and wait for her reply. While their accomplishments are spelled out (mountain climbing, financial success, military decoration), the woman's search is left tantalizingly vague, though the array of suitors in their variety and geographical spread does imply a future of equally bountiful possibility. Such a wide-eyed view of life (echoed in the effusive density (p.86) of the album's cover art) is characteristic of an ingenue, in this case presented in archetypal rather than personalized terms. Correspondingly, Mitchell's vocal delivery is uniformly round and resonant, in line with the tone of bardic romance. A stronger touch of irony begins to emerge, however, in the fourth verse, where we learn that “She has brought them to her senses.” Mitchell's twist on the common figure of speech underscores the primacy of the heroine's perspective but in a way that goes too far, suggesting the demands of an immoderate ego. Likewise, the revelation of her amoral code in the fifth verse (“She will love them when she sees them/They will lose her if they follow/And she only means to please them”) is scandalous in its divergence from the constant maiden role of the ballad tradition. Instead, she evokes the heartless queen (from troubadour verse) in a particularly forbidding form (“And her heart is full and hollow/Like a cactus tree”). The sweeping melodic design is built around important gestures of elation (in the second [b] and penultimate [e] phrases; see Ex. 6.12) where the contour reaches its high point as the tonic pedal is released (more on pedal points in chapter 5). But it also incorporates wistful valedictory gestures in its repeated subdominant-tonic cadences (especially in the d phrases). That is to say, the song's persona admits to a certain melancholy as she bids her farewells; she “seems to know that she is giving up something important in exchange for this freedom.”9

As time goes on, Mitchell exchanges this tone of romanticized myth for more realistic representation: the indistinct “schooners” and “galleons” of the first album are traded in for “the thumb and the satchel,” “whitewalls and windshields” (“Barangrill” [FR]), “railroad cars,” and “crowded waiting rooms” (“Just Like This Train” [C&S]). Nevertheless, vestiges of myth persist in the retelling. “Barangrill” is set in a truck stop where the (second-person) narrator is taking a break for coffee.

  • Three waitresses all wearing
  • Black diamond earrings
  • Talking about zombies
  • And Singapore slings
  • No trouble in their faces
  • Not one anxious voice
  • None of the crazy you get
  • From too much choice
  • The thumb and the satchel
  • Or the rented Rolls-Royce
  • And you think she knows something
  • By the second refill
  • You think she's enlightened
  • (p.87)
  • As she totals your bill
  • You say “Show me the way
  • To Barangrill”

The narrator's internal monologue betrays the unease of an ongoing search for enlightenment. Under this inner pressure, her homely surroundings take on subliminal undertones of romanticized adventure. Chitchat about drink orders (“zombies and Singapore slings”) conjures up the atmosphere of exotic outposts. The sparkle of “black diamond earrings” recalls the ocean treasure of the earlier mythology (“amber stones and green”). The trio of waitresses in their relaxed camaraderie begin to appear as numinous figures of wisdom the narrator can appeal to for guidance. In its tone the song skillfully combines seriousness and humor. The speaker's coined word for paradise pokes fun at her own overexcited attempts to find Shangri-la in a cheap restaurant. Furthermore, the rhymes leading up to her imaginary utopia ironically call attention to the mundane activities going on around her (“refill,” “bill,” “till”).

On the other hand, her spiritual distress is taken seriously, as a search for fulfillment or peace of mind made difficult in a secular context with a lack of guideposts. The open-endedness portrayed in earlier songs as romantic possibility is now cause for confusion—a kind of craziness due to “too much choice.” (In a similar way, the speaker in “Just Like This Train” complains of the craziness that comes when “you can't find your goodness.”) Her constant inner pilgrimage sets the narrator apart from ordinary people. It signifies a special personal striving; but it also keeps her wrapped up in her own head (as underscored by the second-person subject syntax). A provisional answer to her open question comes serendipitously, through her encounter with a charismatic gas station attendant, whose spontaneity enables her to forget her self-consciousness and become “lost in the moment.” The serious character of the narrator's “longing” is captured musically through a salient harmonic shading. Each time the IV chord appears (Abm9 in the key of Eb), it borrows a minor-mode quality. At first the special poignancy of this chord is transitory (less than a full measure, e.g.: “Talking about zombies”), like a brief twinge of the heart. Then, in the second half of the verse, the harmony's strong sequential movement (up by fifths: Bbm7–Fm7–Cm7–Gm7) is suddenly arrested by the same Abm9 chord (“Show me the way”; Ex. 4.2). Mitchell lingers on this piercing moment, sustaining a high dissonant note with a breathy, vulnerable voice. The asymmetry of the closing phrase (half as long as the other three phrases) means that its closure feels fragile. Meanwhile, amid the overall tone of light self-mockery, Mitchell highlights the moment of longing with the song's most salient rhetorical gesture.

By making comparisons between songs, one can discern a cluster of semantic elements that recur in connection with the theme of the quest as Mitchell (p.88) explores it. These include the iconography of vehicles and way stations, place names and itineraries, and the promise of treasure or loot. The open-endedness of the search is often connoted by key words like “somewhere” (“Treasure somewhere in the sea” [“The Dawntreader” (SS)]; “Looking for something, what can it be” [“All I Want” (B)]). Emotional states are also important, especially the urge or longing for adventure (“I'm porous with travel fever” [“Hejira” (H)]), and the mental distraction arising from intense searching (“They'll say that you're crazy” [“The Dawntreader”]). Finally, the searcher is sometimes marked as a breed apart through a symbolic totem (“a diamond snake around my arm” [“Song for Sharon” (H)]) or corporeal transformation (into a mermaid, cactus, or “black crow,” for instance). This semantic cluster will be useful when we turn our attention to the album Hejira and its unifying theme of travel in chapter 7. For now, I will point out some of the recurring elements as they figure in one song from that album, “Song for Sharon.”

                   THEMATIC THREADS

Example 4.2. “Barangrill,” Second Half of Verse (Harmonic Reduction)

(p.89) This song takes the form of an autobiographical conversation with a childhood friend. Mitchell is writing from New York City, and her wandering train of thought crisscrosses various locales in its dense geography (the Staten Island ferry, Greenwich Village, Central Park), while also opening out to wider points of reference from her travels (“a bridge up in Canada,” “a North Dakota junction”—where she left her man behind). Looking back on her small-town childhood (“Walking home on the railroad tracks”), it seems that she was already destined for a life of exploration. The treasure at the end of the search is variously expressed as the “bells and lace” of a fairy-tale wedding; the semi-exotic mandolin (requiring a special harbor excursion); the pot of winnings at Bingo (impulsive small-time gambles echoing the larger ones); the jewelled snake bracelet; and the imagined “green pastures” of a settled homestead. Thus love, art, riches, danger, and security all compete for her attention as she “chases” her dreams. There is no guaranteed source of wisdom to appeal to for help in sorting such things out. She sends up a prayer to “Miss Liberty,” consults a gypsy fortune-teller, and listens to friends' advice about having children or pursuing “noble causes.” Yet, she concludes, we all live close to the line of despair “and so far from satisfaction.” In contrast to the words of the ingenue just setting out on her journey, this song conveys the perspective of a seasoned pilgrim, taking stock of her journey so far.

In several ways this missive can be read as a reflection of its times. In respect to the particular concerns of North American women, given their greater ability to forgo the roles of housewife and mother, it represents an adjustment to alternative identities as well as an attempt at reconciling old and new values. In respect to the hippie generation post-Woodstock and post-Vietnam, it reflects a widespread transition from modes of fulfillment through collective political action (the “wide wide world of noble causes”) to individually based, introspective modes of self-realization. (Historian Edward D. Berkowitz speaks of “the rush to join self-help and human-potential movements, such things as psychotherapy, existential philosophy, Scientology, and EST, which asked people to expend energy on themselves rather than on one another.”)10 Finally, however, Mitchell's long letter expresses dissatisfaction with this very trend. In the wake of “the dream's malfunction” (i.e., the failure of idealistic hopes for social change), her personal dreams haven't brought her any closer to satisfaction, remaining compulsive and sporadic (“a repetitious danger”). All her intense self-exploration (“the power of reason/And the flowers of deep feelings”) has proven to be a poor antidote against emptiness (“a blank face at the window stares and stares and stares and stares”). Insofar as Mitchell represents the inadequacy of the inner quest and shows how it can easily deteriorate into shallow self-interest (“all I really want to do, right now/Is … find another lover!”), her writing on Hejira carries an implicit critique of her own self-absorption. (Around the same time, some influential social (p.90) commentators were publishing critiques of what they perceived as a social trend toward self-absorption—labeled “The Me Decade” by journalist Tom Wolfe and “the culture of narcissism” by historian Christopher Lasch.)11

At first glance, the song “Night Ride Home,” a summer holiday nocturne, may not seem to have strong connections to the present theme. Its narrator is not earnestly striving but romantically settled and relaxing away from work. I include the song here for its retrospective echoes of quest imagery from the viewpoint of someone who has achieved some of her desired goals. The song's characters are living or vacationing on Hawaii—portrayed as modernized though still retaining the quality of a remote destination. At the moment, they are traveling—not setting out but heading home. The beach is peopled with local merrymakers (“hula girls,” “the ukulele man”). Power lines throw off a gleam of silver. Suddenly a “big dark horse” looms out of the night, running alongside the car like a wild spirit of nature. These are familiar symbols of adventure, but the mood is not prospective or open-ended. The narrator is focused on the here and now: instead of “somewhere” she speaks of “the man beside me,” instead of “by and by” she speaks of “a night like this.” Like the pilgrim in “Barangrill,” the narrator in “Night Ride Home” is lost in the moment as an elusive longing is fulfilled. Moonbeams and headlight beams combine with fireworks in an intricate light show; hula girls dance whimsically with “caterpillar tractors”; the pert sound of crickets marks time alongside voice and guitar. The temporary paradise in this song is an unlooked-for experience of wonder as the worlds of nature and man are harmonized by an unseen choreographer.


On the other side of the spectrum from the men trapped in middle-class circumstance are a series of rebel characters that turn up in Mitchell's work as tempters and charmers. The first one to appear is the carnival drifter in “That Song about the Midway” (C), gambling and playing guitar “like a devil wearing wings.” There is the sidewalk busker in “Court and Spark” (C&S), coming to the door “with a sleeping roll/And a madman's soul.” There are the rock ‘n' roll rebels, like Lead Foot Melvin (“In France They Kiss on Main Street” [HSL]) and Rowdy Yates (“Dancin' Clown” [CMRS]). The title character in “Carey” (B) is a cook Mitchell met on a visit to the village of Matala, a hippie hangout on the isle of Crete. He is a “mean old Daddy” and a “bright red devil” who does the “goat dance” very well (he also appears in the song “California”). His diabolical aura is embellished with fire and brimstone in Mitchell's story of her first glimpse of the man, when his gas stove accidentally exploded. “Kaboom! I heard, facing the sunset. I turned (p.91) around and this guy is blowing out the door of this restaurant. … Burned all the red hair off himself right through his white Indian turban.”12

Such characters embody the attraction of a lifestyle unencumbered by routine or the pressure to conform. The life on Crete, for instance, is easygoing and out of the way. Caves provide natural shelter. One is thrown together with assorted colorful companions (“freaks” and “soldiers”) at the local watering hole. Impulse reigns. The music in “Carey” is full of irrepressible energy, expressed in the continuous bouncing dulcimer pedal and the tune that springs up from its lowest to its highest point in a single leap. In the chorus, Mitchell and her friend dress up like roadside royalty for their night out (“Come on, Carey, get out your cane”). The village community allows for a relaxation of social conventions as well as a pocket of alternative culture where one can freely play with the symbols of status that prevail on the mainland. As in other bohemian enclaves, the values are anti-bourgeois, flying in the face of repressive morals and materialist motives. One's liberation from so-called productive society is expressed in dionysian gestures (“Come on down to the Mermaid Café and I will buy you a bottle of wine/And we'll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down”).13 Significantly, however, Mitchell is careful to emphasize that she is just passing through (“it's really not my home”). Even in this bunch of nonconformers she is unwilling to say that she belongs, so strong is her need to assert a distinct personal identity. Specifically, she wants to be able to encompass the full range of lifestyle expression, moving freely between vagabond slumming and the luxury comforts her earnings make possible (“I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne”).14 Once again, the mermaid (as in the “Mermaid Café”) comes in handy as a symbol of her amphibious nature.

Some comments from a 1994 interview are highly illuminating. To the question, “You were never really a hippy, were you?” Mitchell responds:

I was the queen of the hippies, but in a way I wasn't really a hippy at all. I was always looking at it for its upsides and downsides, balancing it and thinking, here's the beauty of it and here's the exploitative quality of it and here's the silliness of it. I could never buy into it totally as an orthodoxy.15

In a nutshell, this passage captures several crucial aspects of Mitchell's personality that shape her songwriting through and through: the need to exercise critical judgment, the dialectical turn of thought, the reluctance to belong wholeheartedly to any group, and the underlying assumption of an observer role. Her maintenance of a certain perceptual distance from her milieu no doubt relates to her perspective as a Canadian expatriate in the United States and as a female (p.92) songwriter of formidable intelligence and talent in a male-dominated industry. But autobiographical evidence suggests that as a personality trait it was formed much earlier. In the following passage from a 1979 interview, Mitchell casts back to her school days:

My identity … was that I was a good dancer and an artist. And also, I was very well dressed. I made a lot of my own clothes. I worked in ladies' wear and I modeled. I had access to sample clothes that were too fashionable for our community, and I could buy them cheaply. I would go hang out on the streets dressed to the T, even in hat and gloves. I hung out downtown with the Ukrainians and the Indians; they were more emotionally honest, and they were better dancers. When I went back to my own neighborhood, I found that I had a provocative image. They thought I was loose because I always liked rowdies. … I remember a recurring statement on my report card—“Joan does not relate well.” I know that I was aloof. Perhaps some people thought that I was a snob. There came a split when I rejected sororities and that whole thing. … But there also came a stage when my friends who were juvenile delinquents suddenly became criminals. They could go into very dull jobs or they could go into crime. Crime is very romantic in your youth. I suddenly thought, “Here's where the romance ends. I don't see myself in jail.”16

Mitchell's youthful assertion of nonconformity took the double form of a sartorial sophistication and an attraction to “rowdies.” Her desire to move freely between social groups and milieus, while maintaining a distinct identity within each, entailed a certain aloofness.

The reference to the romance of crime brings up an important point of contrast between Mitchell's bohemia and that of some of her male counterparts. Her dionysian gestures are tame in comparison to the actions of the Beats, whose celebration of spontaneous impulse embraced dangerous and criminal extremes of behavior.17 A similar mystique surfaces in altered form in Bob Dylan's songs of the mid-1960s, peopled with characters who are either down and out or beyond the law: peddlers, vagabonds, roving gamblers, bandits, lepers, and crooks. These outsiders typically appear as loners rather than in groups of companions. Given Dylan's satiric tone and absurdist scenarios, it is hard to pin down a stable angle of identification. Sometimes the outlaw character embodies a comic suspension of ethical responsibility, as in “Bob Dylan's 115th Dream,” in which the narrator has to flip a coin to decide whether to go back to the ship or back to jail. At other times, he comes in for mockery, as in the little boy lost of “Visions of Johanna,” who lives dangerously and takes himself so seriously. As Elizabeth (p.93) Brake argues, Dylan's cumulative intent is to construct a radical outsider perspective from which to question “whatever society expects or requires. [Dylan's outlaw persona] rejects possessive love, a fixed abode, regular work, social niceties, and authority of law.”18 Dionysian gestures are less evident, except in the wicked black humor impelling the carnival of dream imagery. Even the ragged clown of “Mr. Tambourine Man” is imagining a solitary trip of escape (“ready for to fade/Into my own parade”). His long string of renunciations (“no place,” “no one,” “let me forget”) acts like an emptying of personal identity. In contrast, Mitchell's nonconformist scenarios confirm personal identity and its uninhibited expression. Her attractive rebels and drifters stop short of outlaw glamour. Her acts of resistance are concrete and custom-fit rather than abstract and absolute. They celebrate the freedom to embrace different social milieus and all sides of one's nature without the need to be categorized.

These themes come to the fore in “The Boho Dance” (HSL), a song in which the bohemian (“boho”) scene is critically scrutinized. The title concept is taken from Tom Wolfe's book The Painted Word in which he skewers what he calls the “mating ritual” of the modern art world. In his withering view, the “downtown” artist clans may spurn bourgeois values, but their definition of success still depends on acceptance by the wealthy “uptown” arbiters of fashion. The ritual has two phases: the Boho Dance, in which the artist dedicates himself to the “sacred squalor” of bohemia “as if … he has a knife in his teeth against the fashionable world”; and the Consummation, in which the fashionable culturati scout bohemia for new discoveries “and shower them with all the rewards of celebrity.” It requires a special kind of mental “double-tracking” for the artist to let go of his carefully nurtured antibourgeois feelings at the moment of discovery/consummation “and submit gracefully to good fortune.” There is always the danger of “getting stuck forever in the Boho Dance,” maintaining a pathetic pride in remaining a “virgin,” untouched by success.19

Mitchell sticks fairly closely to the Wolfe-ish take on things in this song, producing the obverse of the viewpoint evident in “Carey.” In the earlier song, Mitchell extols bohemian life while looking forward to the perks of success. In the present song, on the other hand, the speaker takes time out from a glamorous lifestyle for a disappointing visit to the “Boho zone.”

  • Down in the cellar in the Boho zone
  • I was looking for some sweet inspiration, oh well
  • Just another hard-time band
  • With Negro affectations
  • I was a hopeful in rooms like this
  • When I was working cheap
  • (p.94)
  • It's an old romance—the Boho dance
  • It has not gone to sleep

The wild rebel figure of earlier songs appears here in muted form as the second-person addressee, the “subterranean” in the parking lot (a reference to the Beat ethos by way of Kerouac's novel The Subterraneans). But in this tableau the character on the street is contemptuous of the speaker; in Wolfe's terms, he is one of those artists trapped in the bohemian phase. She in turn is stung into a harangue against his self-righteousness and an elaborate defense of her high living. Such issues had autobiographical relevance at this time: in 1974 Mitchell had moved from the funky semi-rural artist's community of Laurel Canyon to the exclusive neighborhood of Bel Air. In songs such as “People's Parties” and “The Same Situation” (both C&S) she had already started to probe the customs and ambience of L.A. society, and the change of milieu became more pronounced in Hissing. When asked in 1994 to comment on this change and her concomitant transformation in style (“the chic, jazzy Joni of the ‘70s”), Mitchell explained: “I can only say that you write about that which you have access to. So if you go from the hippy thing to more of a Gatsby community, so what? … Life is short and you have an opportunity to explore as much of it as time and fortune allow. No subject matter ever seemed barred to me, and no class ever seemed barred.”20 Mitchell seems to have internalized the Wolfeism about submitting to good fortune, expressed in “The Boho Dance” and echoed in this interview twenty years later.

In line with the new melodic aesthetic established in her second period (see chapter 6), Mitchell's vocal delivery is flexible, moving fluidly between a full singing voice and heightened speech. This permits her to exploit the dramatic possibilities of the situation (a blend of internal monologue and one-sided conversation) through variations in expression, from quiet, letdown sigh (“oh well”) to forceful harangue (“Jesus was a beggar”). Mitchell harshly disparages her unnamed addressee, insinuating that his outsider status is a calculated pose (“by your own design”) and that he hypocritically longs for the rewards he pretends to despise.

  • Like a priest with a pornographic watch
  • Looking and longing on the sly
  • Sure it's stricken from your uniform
  • But you can't get it out of your eyes

She goes so far as to portray his pose as a “uniform,” that is, another kind of conformism. By the same token she represents her own brand of class mobility—roaming at will from the “cellar” to the “cocktail hour”—as more authentic and freer from conformity. Viewed as an act of one-upmanship, the exchange is unfairly matched: the unreported accusations of the subterranean character have (p.95) little chance of prevailing against the speaker's hyper-articulate rationalizations and imperious rhetoric. But the song can also be viewed as an internal reflection on the speaker's changing relation to the “old romance” of bohemia as she becomes aware of yet another hidden trap. For a dedication to “hard-time” living is no guarantee of creative inspiration. It may just as easily lead to empty affectation, moralistic attitudes (e.g., “noble poverty”), and a dogmatic rejection of middle-class affiliations. Mitchell prefers to override the equation of personal freedom with hippie styles of renunciation.

She does this by exposing the ideological distinction between economic classes (the two “sides of town”) as a false dichotomy: both the poor man Jesus and the rich king Solomon were vessels of enlightenment. The categories themselves are psychologically restrictive and insidious: true freedom consists in ignoring or seeking to escape categories (“Nothing is capsulized in me”). Thus even when scrabbling for income, the speaker claims, she never totally abandoned middle-class values (“The cleaner's press was in my jeans”). Even when frequenting fashionable restaurants, signs of hippie negligence show through (“A camera pans the cocktail hour/Behind a blind of potted palms/And finds a lady in a Paris dress/With runs in her nylons”). To convey her metaphorical escape, the speaker actively restructures the poem's symbolic space, so that “the streets” and the parking lot can no longer claim the outsider position: there is an ulterior space of freedom “outside” the Boho dance. This ulterior perspective is embodied in the device of the mobile, omniscient camera, exposing hidden contradictions and mirroring the speaker's role as detached observer.

Significantly, Mitchell portrays nonconformist identity in terms of aesthetic self-presentation (through apparel), thus merging the artistic and the personal. Artistic expression and self-fashioning are indistinguishable, as suggested in the reference to the characters' “style” or their “own design.” This means that the poetic argument about self-expression reflects indirectly on Mitchell's newly glamorous musical aesthetic. According to certain well-established codes, authenticity in rock is linked to rough performance styles and overtly rebellious gestures. In her defense of personal glamour, therefore, Mitchell is implicitly defending her music's timbral sheen, slick production, and sense of decorative detail (like “lace along the seams”) as an authentic form of expression, in defiance of arbitrary stylistic connotations. She cues this subtext by way of audible dichotomies: the plainness of solo piano and declamatory voice (relating the visit to the Boho zone) versus the polished sound and sparkling highlights of the entire band (entering when the speaker describes her improvised swank). Likewise, the occasional dramatic vocal outburst emerges from an ultra-suave mix of minimal horn riffs and cool emotional control. The central image of “stepping outside” the prescribed dance steps is dramatized in the rhythmic contrast between the verses with their (p.96) smooth groove and the instrumental interludes with their loss of momentum and triplet figures that resist assimilation to the meter. Conversely, the harmonic progression feels stuck in a limited set of moves that always loop back to the same unresolved dominant chord. Overall, the musical patterns in this song project a highly refined sensibility in line with the intellectual sophistication of its argument and imagery. It is not an easily accessible song but one that requires a bit of effort to follow. Its unique tone derives from Mitchell's unabashed embrace of her quite rarefied perspective (as wealthy celebrity/loner) as well as her willingness to flout preconceptions of genre and individual style.

“A Strange Boy” (H), from the following year, is much more accessible: straightforward in language, its bohemian theme is framed within the popular scenario of a romantic affair. The rebel character is a younger man full of an untamable energy (we first see him causing “havoc” by skateboarding through a crowded sidewalk). So far he has managed to evade the disciplinary forces of society: the military system (“the war and the navy/Couldn't bring him to maturity”) and behavioral taboos, conveyed by the references to “curfew” and “house-rules,” as well as the lifeless stare of the rows of “antique dolls.” Not even the speaker herself has succeeded in taming him (“ ‘Grow up!' I cried”). It shows a striking variation on the main theme that she should be associated with the forces of adulthood and discipline in this way. The boy's attraction consists in his wildness, youth, agility, and strong sense of self; the battered (“damaged,” “parched”) speaker looks to him for rejuvenation, trading her “jewelry” and “power” for his “crazy wisdom.” In contrast to “The Boho Dance,” this song represents a favorable bohemian episode.

  • A thousand glass eyes were staring
  • In a cellar full of antique dolls
  • I found an old piano
  • And sweet chords rose up in waxed New England halls
  • While the boarders were snoring
  • Under crisp white sheets of curfew
  • We were newly lovers then
  • We were fire in the stiff-blue-haired-house-rules

However, the thematic elements are arranged differently: the “crisp white sheets” now signify censoriousness rather than comfort; and the “cellar,” site of spontaneous music-making, is now inside the very structures of established society (“waxed New England halls”). There is no enclave of free-minded companions here, just two loners coming together. Nor is there an out-of-the-way community; culture and counterculture, “inside” and “outside,” are thoroughly entangled. This motif of spatial/temporal paradox is expressed as weaving skillfully through a (p.97) grid (of intersections, of properly ordered waking hours). The regulated, squared lines of traffic and “stiff-blue-haired” tradition are contrasted with the natural curves of lovemaking and the “rising” forces of surf, fire, and music.

The musical patterns also pick up on the notion of weaving through a grid. The introductory riff with its unhurried, extended chain of syncopations (see Ex. 7.5b) expresses the familiar idea of accents playing “off” the metric pulse (and the voice participates in this too—for instance, in the offbeat stresses of the phrase “midday sidewalk traffic”). The lead guitar enters sporadically in spontaneous solos, a figure of wildness against the steady background rhythm guitar. In fact, the overall aesthetic of melodic flexibility Mitchell is exploring in this album is a sonic symbol of freedom in the midst of established convention: verses that freely breathe within strophic divisions along with the singer's freedom to discover new peaks and valleys within each turn of the melodic cycle. The one consistent melodic peak occurs in the final line of each verse, where it emphasizes the theme of paradox (in verse 1, the strangeness of an immature but wise boy; in verse 2, his blending of selfishness and empathy; in verse 3, her relinquishment of power). Just as the boy's special freedom is portrayed as an illogical balancing act (“holding on to something wild”), the romantic relationship involves a tug of wills or a difficult dance of mutual coordination. The fullness of love ebbs and flows, as does the harmonic color, alternating between the “sweet chord” of full tonic major (lines 1 and 5) and blues inflections (especially the punctuating guitar riff in hollow parallel fifths). A détente of sorts is reached in the final (truncated) verse when the tussling lovers are united in opposition against the representatives of bourgeois conformity. At the same time, in a strange sudden swerve, the last two lines (“We were newly lovers then”) place the whole romantic episode in the unrecoverable past.


Earlier in this chapter I pointed out how Mitchell occasionally uses the description of a person's artistic talent (as in “I Had a King,” “Michael from Mountains,” and “The Gallery”) as a metaphor for the quality of his or her personality or dealings with other people. In many other songs, she refers in passing to her artistic vocation (whether as painter, writer, or musician) and its related baggage. Certain songs acquire a special status by taking art itself as their theme, pondering the different paths open to the artist given conflicting ideas of success and the elusive nature of creative inspiration. In three early songs, Mitchell dramatizes (or lyricizes) three different accommodations to the muse, in each case enlarging upon the distinct emotional resonance. “Ladies of the Canyon” (LC) portrays a (p.98) bucolic, bohemian haven whose denizens are free to pursue their offbeat lifestyle. This means nurturing their individual gifts without any intrusive influence. Trina, working in paint and fabric, cultivates a unique sense of decoration and “weaves a pattern all her own” (note the important connections to the “weaving” image from “A Strange Boy” and the idea of “your own design” from “The Boho Dance”). Estrella fills the canyon with music, which “pours” out unimpeded. Mitchell's description here employs the precious language of fantasy: “Songs like tiny hammers hurled/At bevelled mirrors in empty halls.” The last image is dense in connotation. It evokes a romanticized past (“empty” as in uninhabited and forgotten). In its lack of narrative detail it suggests a sense of stories yet unwritten, appropriate to the ingenue persona. In connection with the image of mirrors, the empty space connotes introspection and the undisturbed solitude necessary for concentrated work. Overall, the song creates an atmosphere of simple pleasures and deep personal fulfillment.

In “For Free” (LC), however, there is a split in the path. The lyric speaker is a musician who has already achieved commercial success. At a stop on her tour she comes across a clarinetist playing on the street “so sweet and high.” The sight electrifies her; alone, undiscovered, not even asking for change, he embodies a kind of music-making she has left far behind. In explaining her own situation, she never even describes her music; instead, she is preoccupied with the perquisites of fame (wealth, star treatment, bodyguards) which have distanced her from her audience as well as the original source of her inspiration. The “halls” in which she plays represent lucrative business contracts and large audiences (no longer the resonant “empty halls” of solitude). The street musician is not weighed down with such things; his creative gift is free to ramble where it will. He symbolizes a state of grace from which she has fallen.21 For a moment she stands, undecided as to whether she should cross to his side of the street. But as the signal changes she continues on her way. Mitchell's performance of the song is laden with grief for the path not taken.

“For the Roses” (FR) also contains a split between the speaker and an alter ego, but their relative positions are more complicated. This song captures the perspective of a musician seeking temporary refuge from the pressures of the business, conducting an imaginary conversation with a friend and fellow songwriter still in the flush of stardom.

  • I heard it in the wind last night
  • It sounded like applause
  • Did you get a round resounding for you
  • Way up here
  • It seems like many dim years ago
  • (p.99)
  • Since I heard that face to face
  • Or seen you face to face
  • Though tonight I can feel you here

Verse 1 turns on the framing sound-image of “applause,” which acts like a Proustian sense-memory to unlock thoughts of the life left behind. Employing relaxed, informal language, the opening lines establish the speaker's physical distance from (yet emotional closeness to) her friend. The rustic setting, “way up here” away from civilization, alludes to Mitchell's property in British Columbia to which she had retreated (with the intention of retiring) after undergoing emotional trauma during the recording of the album Blue.22 Obviously, the wounds are still fresh; the conversational flights of fancy are fueled by bitter disappointment. Verse 2 slips into an elliptical narrative mode, suggesting a cinematic montage of a star being born. His breathless rise to fame (“Up the charts/Off to the airport—/Your name's in the news/Everything's first class—”) is exhilarating but happens far too fast to absorb. Furthermore, Mitchell's figures of speech project intense dissonance between the musician's sensitive gift and the voracious corporate entity ready to exploit it:

  • In some office sits a poet
  • And he trembles as he sings
  • And he asks some guy
  • To circulate his soul around

The language of sacralized art and of commodity ventures are in sharp conflict. The poet's “trembling” conveys the excitement and fear of the ingenue, likened to sexual innocence.

As before, entry into the business is experienced as a fall from grace. In verse 3, the speaker acts as a voice of conscience for her friend, recalling the days when his guitar was a direct tool of self-communion: “you used to … pour your simple sorrow/To the soundhole and your knee.” (Significantly, Mitchell recorded the song au naturel in its solo guitar version with no additional players.) Once solid and immediate, his music is now converted into media streams for distribution on “giant screens.” Once whole, his soul is now cut up into company shares. (Mitchell's voice on the word “slices” has a memorable edge. She also places a great deal of emotional weight on the word “glitter,” in pained reaction to the mind-set that corrupts artistic value into purely monetary gain.) The new-fledged star is caught up in the “caressing rev of motors”—that is, the deceptively glamorous machinery of profit and public relations, which has ways of seizing control over one's creative output (“They toss around your latest golden egg”). In short, the industry is an elaborate, well-baited trap. Mitchell caps this motif of the loss (p.100) of artistic freedom in verse 4, by invoking the heavily freighted image of crucifixion—another story of good intentions spiraling out of control:

  • Oh the power and the glory
  • Just when you're getting a taste for worship
  • They start bringing out the hammers
  • And the boards
  • And the nails

Her sprawling, offhand tone couches a bitter self-mockery over past delusions. The crucifix image is also apt in that it represents a theatrical form of martyrdom, engineered for the public display of a personal anguish.23

Yet, in another burst of candor, the speaker admits that her condemnation of the industry is compromised since she “really can't give up” the material rewards of fame just yet.24 (With special black humor, this verse begins with a self--portrait as wild dog—“teeth sunk in the hand/That brings me things”—and ends with a self-portrait as the messiah.) Nor is she entirely free of the desire for public recognition, as signified by the ghostly memory of applause. The speaker's conflicted attitude toward her career is captured in the poem's confused sense of place, bouncing back and forth between “up here,” “somewhere,” “up there,” as if deeply unsure of its point of identification. In a similar way, the image of a seated musician as a focus of creative energy is multiplied in a series of locations and ambivalent emotional contexts: the poet sitting and trembling in the office, sitting alone with his guitar; the speaker herself sitting in front of the TV, exiled from the music scene and reduced to watching it secondhand. The poem rigorously adheres to this motif of doubling and displacement: in the parallels between speaker and alter ego (and thus the double signification of the pronoun “you”) but also in more abstract perceptual metaphors. Thus the speaker's reflections are set in motion by a sound she imagines as echoing or “resounding” across the distance separating her from her friend. The industrialized media network represents a more insidious kind of displacement, converting organic sounds and performances into images for copying and repeated circulation (until they split up into pixels like “confetti”).

The title of the song alludes, on the one hand, to the cut-flower tributes after a performance, passed up in bouquets or thrown singly from afar. On the other hand, and more bitterly, it suggests the wreath placed over the winning horse at the racetrack, thereby reducing the speaker's subjective viewpoint to that of a prize horse in someone else's competition.25 But the title phrase itself is cut off, and its exact referent is uncertain—say, “the trials we put ourselves through” for the roses, or, “is it all just a race” for the roses, or perhaps, “thank you” for (p.101) the roses. The latter understanding suggests a farewell note from the speaker to her audience, as if seriously commemorating the end of her career. Thus in the incomplete verse 5, she returns to the echo of applause, recognizing it as an aural illusion formed of the ephemeral sounds of nature. Though on the one hand this represents a return to present reality, on the other she is still lingering over fanciful reflections and wistful recollections of the past:

  • It was just the arbutus rustling
  • And the bumping of the logs
  • And the moon swept down black water
  • Like an empty spotlight

Where in verse 1, the ghost-applause evokes her friend's success and acclamation, in the final verse that scene is displaced by the idea of the speaker's own last imaginary bow as she retreats to the “empty halls” of solitude.

On the other end of the spectrum from this earnest head trip is a light anecdotal number from Mingus, “The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines.”

  • I'm down to a roll of dimes
  • I'm stalking the slot that's hot
  • I keep hearing bells all around me
  • Jingling the lucky jackpots
  • They keep you tantalized
  • They keep you reaching for your wallet
  • Here in fool's paradise!

Set on the Las Vegas strip, the song seems an unlikely place to encounter themes pertaining to an artistic calling. But the circumstances of the album as a whole—a collaboration with Charles Mingus, terminally ill at the time—provoked two portraits of the great jazz artist in the songs “God Must Be a Boogie Man” and “A Chair in the Sky,” which meditate on his psychological makeup, his achievements, and his place in the “divine plan.” Moreover, the poem for “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” places Mingus within an ongoing generational history of African American music. In the context of its neighboring songs where the figure of the artist is such a strong presence, “Dry Cleaner” serves as a foil, a witty burlesque on a related theme. It is one of those songs in which a lyrical observer expresses fascination with a stranger's skill or charisma—for example, “For Free” and “A Strange Boy,” as we have seen in this chapter. In “A Strange Boy,” the skill in question is ironically characterized as the childish and fairly trivial art of skateboarding (“He sees the cars as sets of waves”). The dry cleaner's skill is even more trivial—the ability to “clean up” in any game of chance. Mitchell sustains a comic tone by emphasizing the low stakes involved (“a roll of dimes”), the surreal tourist-trap setting (p.102) (“the cowgirls fill the room/With their big balloons”), and the tackiness of the prizes (“He had Dinos and Pooh Bears/And lions pink and blue there”).

Nevertheless, the dry cleaner is amazingly gifted—and maddening to watch. This poem can be seen as a humorous take on the “artist envy” scenario of “For Free”: like the street musician from that song, the dry cleaner “plays real good” while the speaker misses every time. The subliminal analogy between gambling and playing music is carried out in a string of noisy action words: “clanking,” “pitching,” “I blew it,” and especially the persistent sound of winning bells (“He kept ringing bells/Nothing to it!”). There is also a suggestion of manual dexterity (or “chops”) in his nimble action at the tables as well as his Midas touch (“the cleaner from Des Moines/Could put a coin/In the door of a john/And get twenty for one”).26 On the other hand, unlike Mitchell's usual treatment of the artist and in keeping with her comic purpose, the gambler's skill is absolutely devoid of any ulterior ethical value (such as authenticity or aesthetic ambition)—another meaning behind the phrase “nothing to it.” This breezy vignette reflects wryly on the haphazard allotment of worldly success and the inexplicable origin of innate talents (“he must have had a genie in a lamp”). The speaker's rueful refrain (“It's just luck!”) is at the same time a shrug of cosmic resignation and a case of sour grapes, belittling the skill she wishes she had (“You get a little lucky and you make a little money!”).

What makes the song witty at the level of its perspective is that even as Mitchell-the-speaker is putting on the air of a sad sack, Mitchell-the-poet is ringing bells with a virtuosic display of verbal skill. This tune is one of several written by Mingus for Mitchell to set to words. It moves along at a good clip and has a two-octave range (low E to high F). The tune follows no set phrase structure. Instead it originally consisted of improvisation over a standard twelve-bar blues progression, where the aim is unfolding rhythmic variation and contrapuntal interplay with the underlying four-bar units. (In its final form the song consists of three vocal choruses, an intervening instrumental chorus, another vocal chorus, instrumental chorus with scat vocal, a final vocal chorus, four more instrumental choruses with vocal riffs, and a coda on the tonic.) Mitchell was faced with a preexisting melody that was elastic and mercurial, weaving between the grid of a repetitive formal pattern. In response she came up with a rap that is chatty, colorful, and fluid (nonmetric)—yet projecting a strophic form (five verses) with a clear rhyme scheme. (In verse 1, for instance, the first two four-bar units are paired—“slot that's hot/jackpots”—and the third unit contains its own rhyming pair—“tantalized/paradise.” This basic scheme persists with variation until verse 5, which contains four rhyming pairs spread asymmetrically.) Her poetic lines have a great rhythmic freedom in order to accommodate melodic fragmentation on the one hand (as in verse 3: “He got three oranges/Three lemons/Three (p.103) cherries/Three plums/I'm losing my taste for fruit!”) and extended enjambment on the other (as in the following lines from verse 4, set to one melodic gesture that bridges two four-bar units: “He picked out a booth at Circus Circus/Where the cowgirls fill the room/With their big balloons”). The resulting dance of interlocking patterns (rhyme scheme, blues progression, variable phrase structure—not to mention Jaco Pastorius's tight horn arrangements and hyperactive bass) is a feat of amazing coordination, carried off with insouciant flair.


The five thematic strands I am untangling in this chapter are closely related—naturally, in an intense search for personal freedom, one's relationships, career, lifestyle, and creative choices will feel like overlapping aspects of a single goal. Likewise, the desire for personal liberation may be experienced as a spiritual desire, and this is often the case in Mitchell's poetry. In “The Dawntreader” (SS), for instance, her yearning for adventure on the sea (with the accompanying imagery of treasure, mermaids, dolphins, etc.) is expressed in vague and mythical terms so that it can metaphorically encompass a range of personal yearnings. These include the specified desires for love and social change (“A dream that the wars are done”) but also desires that remain unspecified (“questions there's no answer for,” “A dream that you tell no one but the grey sea”). In the context of wide-open horizons and fabulous creatures, these unspoken desires take on a metaphysical resonance. The refrain, “Like a promise to be free,” suggests a utopian longing that is not confined to the earthly realm. We can understand this tentative mysticism as religious expression under the influence of countercultural values (in particular, the rejection of established institutions and doctrines, the emphasis on expanded consciousness, and the sacrosanct value placed on personal expression). Under these conditions, the religious impulse may take the form of a highly personalized reinterpretation of traditional symbols, such as the garden in “Woodstock” (set against cosmic stardust and psychedelic warplane/butterflies); the figures of god and devil, reworked in a Manichean register in “Shadows and Light” (HSL); or the notion of the Trinity, applied to Charles Mingus's own psychology in “God Must Be a Boogie Man” (M). It may look to alternative spiritual traditions, such as the borrowed Native American shamanism found in Carlos Castaneda's books (an inspiration for “Don Juan's Reckless Daughter” [DJRD]) or the Hindu belief in reincarnation alluded to in “A Chair in the Sky” (M).27 Finally, the impulse for countercultural religious expression may elicit new symbols, tailored for personal use. In “The Dawntreader,” the seabird from verse 3 is a prototype for such an idiomatic spiritual symbol. Creature of the sky (“Seabird I have seen you fly above (p.104) the pilings”), it descends to earth to commune with the speaker about visionary ideals (“Fold your fleet wings/I have brought some dreams to share”), thus embodying a bridge between human and metaphysical realms. Avian personas such as this come to assume an important role in Mitchell's work as a means of evoking transcendent perspectives and visionary flights to a better world. As we will see, her expression of utopian longing is rarely free from ambivalence and is usually tempered with an awareness of human frailty and imperfection.

In “Song to a Seagull” (SS), the guitar's emphasis on quartal harmony lends a spacious but stark atmosphere (Ex. 4.3). Chords are grounded on a low, tolling drone that never abates. Around this primal frame the voice circles in a free, chanting rhythm. The sentiments distilled are pure and naive, one solitary soul calling to another.

  • Fly silly seabird
  • No dreams can possess you
  • No voices can blame you
  • For sun on your wings

As the song opens, the speaker hails the seagull as her surrogate, partaking of an unknowing, natural freedom. In the refrain she envisions herself joining the gulls in their flight from the sphere of human contempt and misunderstanding (“My dreams with the seagulls fly/Out of reach out of cry”). In Mitchell's creation of a transcendent poetic perspective, three symbolic elements are crucial: the projection of the speaker's identity outward to a vicariously imagined subject; the defiance of gravity, with the associated experience of physical exhilaration and widened spatial focus; and the act of disappearing, flying out of reach of sight or sound. The last element signifies the ultimate freedom to rise above the limits of one's earthbound life and leave it behind. Nevertheless in this instance it produces an uncanny and melancholy ghost-effect. That is, though the speaker's visionary desire is winging away out of sight, such a conceptual image depends on a residual awareness of her actual, gravity-bound position on shore (out of sight of whom?). Furthermore, in contrast to “The Dawntreader,” here there is almost no content or shape to her dreams, the goal of which belongs to another realm of knowledge. This ineffability is exhilarating in its suggestion of an escape from mundane thought; at the same time, it implies a conceptual divide that may very well be unbridgeable. (There are plenty of songs in which Mitchell spells out specific social or philosophical ideals; but these often do not coincide with the use of visionary rhetoric. For example, in “Sisotowbell Lane” (SS), the utopian geniality of the earthy-crunchy community she portrays consists precisely in its being realizable at this moment in the world.)


                   THEMATIC THREADS

Example 4.3. “Song to a Seagull,” Intro

Mitchell goes on to place two other metaphorical sites in counterpoint with the visionary horizon. In verse 2, the speaker cries out against the urban wasteland and its disfigured effigy of nature (“On an island of noise/In a cobblestone sea”)—no spiritual nurture here. In verse 3, she escapes to an earthly haven where the seagulls are in view.28 But even here, the sad facts of mortality soon intrude into consciousness (“But sandcastles crumble/And hunger is human”). This vein continues into the last verse, where a question forms for the seagull, as if it could tell us of those who came before (“where are the footprints/That danced on these beaches/And the hands that cast wishes/That sunk like a stone”). Here the perspective widens once again, this time over a temporal horizon. Once again Mitchell summons images of disappearance: castles that crumble, footprints washed away, dreams that come to nothing.

Thus the powerful visionary urge, which always returns with the refrain, is held in tension with the knowledge of frailty and transience. The rising wing is countered by the sinking stone. At the climactic point in each verse just before the refrain, the melody rises repeatedly to Bb, the seventh degree of the scale (see Ex. 6.8). In the modal language of the song (Mixolydian; see chapter 5), this builds a questioning as well as a directional force (creating expectations for an upward arrival on the tonic). The verse articulations are thus poised on an updraft that is carried through only in the guitar. During the aspirations of the refrain, the vocal melody is in fact sinking on its way back to the tonic. Mitchell's persona in this song may be filled with idealistic longing, but she is well aware of how little effect such longing might have. The longed-for world is incommensurable, a “world we can't share.” Where are the signs of the other dreamers that have been here? Her final call to the gull goes unanswered; it seems that her wishes must also fall back to earth, leaving no sign. The final phrase “out of cry” takes on an extra resonance. Not only does it suggest the crying bird moving out of our range of hearing, but it also suggests the imperviousness of the gull to the human cry. Mitchell portrays her visionary flight with an image that evokes both exhilaration and melancholy, transcendence and separation.

In its title and central image, “Sweet Bird” (HSL) refers glancingly to the Tennessee Williams play Sweet Bird of Youth; the song spins out a meditation on the transience of youth without ever once speaking the word. Where “Song to a (p.106) Seagull” moved among three symbolic poles, “Sweet Bird” is absorbed in a single dense image, suspended in time and space.

  • Out on some borderline
  • Some mark of in-between
  • I lay down golden—in time
  • And woke up vanishing

The high-flown language of the first four lines works on two levels: its most concrete subject is the passing from one's prime into middle age. Somewhere out there, it says, was a line I crossed, a moment that marked, however subtly, the onset of decline. This concrete meaning is continued with the reference to age-defying makeup in the seventh line. Surrounded as it is by highly abstract utterances, the latter image (“beauty jars”) is itself rather jarring, with its assumption that an ideal can be packaged or even contained. The image of facial care also has an oblique retrospective effect on line 4, evoking associations of “vanishing” cream—one vain remedy against the erosions of time.

But the concrete level of meaning is initially quite difficult to pick out, being ironically embedded within a transcendent level. The opening poetic figures are powerfully vague and abstract, placing us on some unspecified horizon, which could be in space or time. If space, it's an airless sort of limbo; if time, it's a gyroscopic balance-point. The speaker is projected or abstracted “out,” away from any worldly anchor; her states of sleeping and waking assume a metaphysical connotation. Metaphysical as well, it would seem, is her turn from golden fullness to a state of vanishing, as if her identity, with its inevitable limitations, has just dissolved in the rarefied air. With the invocation of the bird in line 5 (“Sweet bird you are/Briefer than a falling star”), we have all the signs of transcendence: outward projection, flight, and disappearance. One further element contributing to the transcendent perspective in this song is the poetic diction itself. Abstractions and suggestive imprecisions—“out,” “up,” “somewhere,” “horizon,” “time and change”—continue throughout. Keeping the language consistently removed from a mundane setting reinforces the effect of elevation and widened focus. That is why the mundane “beauty jars” are so intrusive and why the whole topic of aging stands in an ironic relation to the transcendent. The figurative language (and the music, as we shall see) gives us a taste of an expanded perspective, from which human concerns seem a small matter. This state of privileged vision is embodied in the strange bird, who laughs at our vain anxieties (“Sweet bird of time and change/You must be laughing/Up on your feathers laughing”). The message of the song will turn out to be our inability to grasp firmly the ideals of youth and beauty; but the musical experience extends the seductive illusion that we can inhabit a world of ideals.

(p.107) The song begins with a very gradual fade-in, as if we are approaching or tuning in to something that's already there. The alternation between two chords (Bm7(6) and Em7) creates a circular rather than a forward motion. Strumming acoustic guitar is set off against a warm glow of background vocals and wailing electric guitars. The voices cluster and shift like a spatial mass; the electric guitars unfurl in a high, haunting stratum; an intermittent, rocking piano is also added to the texture. Each instrument group occupies a distinct registral layer, the rhythmic activity of which is independent of the others; voices and high guitars are especially free floating. A very special sound-world is created: rather static in time, with no beginning; spatially layered, with strata that hover and float; tone colors that combine a “golden” glow with eerily distant reverberations.

The vocal melody maintains a low range and low expressive profile. In fact, the larger section of each verse (all but the first four lines) hovers closely around the single note D. The relative stasis of the melody is offset by the complex harmonic progression (Ex. 4.4). When the melody enters, the harmony breaks out of its alternation between minor chords into a G-major area. The G center is held largely in suspension, however, only rarely touching down as a stable tonic. At certain points in the harmonic circuit, the chords break out dramatically from the G center. The first point occurs at line 3. After “I lay down golden,” the chord slips from E minor to an Ebmaj9 (or Bb/Eb “slash”) chord (Ex. 4.5). The underlying voice-leading is chromatic, but the arrival on Eb is far down the flat side of G—the result is something like the bottom dropping out of the key. This effect is heightened by the pungent but open stacked-fifth spacing of the E chord (built into the guitar tuning: C G D G B D). The tonal rupture occurs at (p.108) the turning moment in the opening poetic gambit—the balance-point between fullness and decline. Mitchell extends the duration of this line of text to linger over the effect.

                   THEMATIC THREADS

Example 4.4. “Sweet Bird,” Chord Changes, Verse 1

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Example 4.5. “Sweet Bird,” Chord Changes, Lines 3–5

At “Sweet bird” (line 5) there is another rupture, this time on the sharp side of G (an A/D slash chord). Both ruptures are momentary, quickly folding back into G. They complicate the tonal space of the song in uncanny ways; at the same time, their arrangement on either side of G in the circle of fifths reflects the thematic idea of balance. Balance is evident as well between the introductory material (also used as interlude and coda) on the dominant, or sharp side, and the verse, which tends to the subdominant, or flat side, of G. The flavor of flat and sharp combines with that of major and minor to further distinguish the verses from the interludes. The circling minor harmonies of the instrumental sections imbue them with melancholy; in contrast, the mostly major subdominant shading in the verses gives them a certain serenity. This polarizes the tension maintained in the lyrics between an imagined sphere of Platonic perfection (“golden in time”) and our real exclusion from such a sphere (“cities under the sand”). The instrumental sections thus concentrate in themselves the ache of longing or perhaps grief over our shortcomings. This symbolic connotation intensifies in the central interlude, in which the regular meter is audibly truncated, confused by cross-rhythms, and arrested by awkward accents in the guitar figuration. After the contrast of this limping, imperfect world, verse 2 truly soars. At the end of that verse, the song falls into a loop (“Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching”) of alternating subdominant chords (F/G—C(9)/G). The loop repeats so many times that it seems the song will end on this serene plateau. But at the final vocal phrase the balance tips, and we return to the melancholy instrumental loop for the fade-out.

(p.109) “Sweet Bird” begins from an awareness of lost youth, but this awareness is only evoked through allusion and circuitous expression. Mitchell exploits -indirect language in favor of a meaning cloaked in indeterminacy. When the bird first appears it is “briefer than a falling star”: it must represent youth itself. At the next invocation, it is now “sweet bird of time and change”; apparently its meaning has shifted to encompass the process of loss and transience. And youth is not all that is lost; we see “power, ideals and beauty fading.” When we come to the final moral, it has drifted farther away from the initial concern.

  • No one knows
  • They can never get that close
  • Guesses at most
  • Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching

That close to what? Once again the song has moved powerfully toward the abstract, pushing concrete circumstances to the point of disappearance. We are left with “guesses,” a rushing sky, and shifting patterns of time and change.

In “Amelia” (H), the autobiographical speaker is a woman on the road, wrapped up in episodic contemplation; each verse teases out a different view of travel as a metaphor for life or love. The various strands of the quest for “paradise”—personal, romantic, artistic, and spiritual fulfillment—are inextricably linked. Mitchell alludes to her rambling persona from the early seafaring period (in the reference to the “Cactus Tree Motel”), but the landscape is now more desolate—dusty and dry, as if the cactus metaphor has taken root. The ethereal bird character of earlier songs has been translated into an airplane and by extension into the romantic figure of Amelia Earhart. A world-weary apostrophe to the aviator rounds off each verse. The visionary aspect of this poem is not as pervasive; from the mundane realm we catch intermittent glimpses of another, “higher” perspective. Significantly, the speaker is behind the wheel of a car while all her meditations are about air travel. Yet her skyward yearnings never quite coalesce into a sustained stratum of privileged vision.

  • I was driving across the burning desert
  • When I spotted six jet planes
  • Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
  • It was the hexagram of the heavens
  • It was the strings of my guitar
  • Amelia, it was just a false alarm

In verse 1, the sight of jet planes provides the occasion for the speaker to project her identity outward. The image of her guitar strings (i.e., her creative/expressive persona) spreads to fill the heavens in the wake of the planes and their (p.110) seductive engine drone. The effect of this metaphoric substitution is one of brief release from a “bleak” physical setting into a cosmic state. But the original image that triggered the vision—the “vapor trails”—is insubstantial and already in the process of disappearing. The refrain brings the point home with its reference to a “false alarm.” These words signal a deflation of the transcendent perspective and an inability to sustain it for long. More devastatingly, they reflect upon the speaker's artistic confidence, which has been implicated in the insubstantiality of the vision. (The point is underlined by the rhyming of “guitar” and “false alarm”—and through an imperfect, failed rhyme, at that.) What if her musical achievement itself is nothing more than a vapor trail? The refrain is indeterminate enough to serve for every verse, but at each occurrence the message is one of disappointment at the deceptiveness of appearances, or the failure of hopes and dreams.

A gestural rhythm of elation and deflation is also conveyed in the song's harmonic progression (Ex. 4.6). The beginning of each verse is marked by a series of harmonic upturns. After the intro/interlude in F, line 1 is introduced by an unprepared shift to a G tonic. Line 2 consists of similar material, now shifted up in a momentary tonicization of Bb. Both shifts are accomplished by the left hand sliding on the strings. This upward voice-leading strand reaches its high point at the C chord at the beginning of line 4, after which the bass line turns back down through B, A, and G. The entire verse (except for the B chords) sits within G major; but at the end of line 5 the descending bass overshoots and falls down into F for the refrain and interlude. Verse and refrain thus exist in a false tonal relation with each other, and the slump into F corresponds to the disappointment embodied in the refrain.

  • A ghost of aviation
  • She was swallowed by the sky
  • Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly
  • Like Icarus ascending
  • On beautiful foolish arms
  • Amelia, it was just a false alarm

The climactic emergence of the visionary occurs in verse 5, where Mitchell portrays Earhart's historical fate in mythical terms. The pilot disappears over the horizon, following her dream; the speaker identifies her own sense of vision with that of the pilot. But Amelia is an Icarus figure, reckless and flawed. The speaker is admitting to ambivalence about her own “beautiful foolish” aspirations—namely, her relationships and artistic goals, and the precarious balance between the two. As verse 6 bears out, the special vision integral to her artistic personality entails a risk of losing perspective, of being swallowed by the dream (“I've spent my whole (p.111) life in clouds at icy altitudes”). The harmonic overshooting at the refrain has a pointed metaphoric correspondence here to the threefold crash of Icarus, Amelia, and Mitchell herself.

                   THEMATIC THREADS

Example 4.6. “Amelia,” Chord Changes

The signs of ambivalence about spiritual matters are sharpened in this song. Take the idea of disappearance. In “Song to a Seagull” and “Sweet Bird,” this idea was used complexly to convey the knowledge of mortality (“where are the footprints?”; “vanishing”) and the dream of escape from mortality (“out of reach”; “vanishing”). In “Amelia,” two things vanish: the vapor trails and Amelia herself. Both are instances of the failure of the visionary, and Amelia's fate offers no escape from mortality. Likewise, in verse 6, being airborne is presented in a seriously negative light (“icy altitudes”) as a hindrance to living fully on earth. The song doesn't go so far as to repudiate the visionary impulse, but it does seek to redirect it in search of a healthier, more sustainable relation between the transcendent and the mundane.

“The Beat of Black Wings” (CMRS) is largely cast as a dramatic monologue, spoken by a young Vietnam veteran (“Killer Kyle”) whose experience in the maw of the war machine has left him morally and psychologically damaged (“There's a war zone inside me—/I can feel things exploding”). The insidiousness of the damage is captured succinctly in the story of his girlfriend's abortion in verse 3.

  • He said, “I never had nothin‘—
  • Nothin' I could believe in
  • My girl killed our unborn child
  • Without even grievin'!
  • I put my hand on her belly
  • To feel the kid kickin'—damn!
  • (p.112)
  • She'd been to some clinic
  • Oh—the beat of black wings”

This account ruthlessly recapitulates and externalizes elements of the original trauma: death meted out in a moral void, the obviation of grief, a preemption of his powers of decision, a future scraped hollow. The soldier's words are left offensively raw, in harsh contrast with the highly crafted music. Meanwhile, Mitchell delivers one of the most mannered vocal performances of her career, changing expression with every line and veering from one timbral extreme to another as if barely in control of her characterization. Given the context of despair, one might wonder how the visionary enters into this song. The refrain does invoke bird imagery, but the black wings that squawk, flap, and beat belong to bats or carrion birds. Superimposed on this is the image of a military helicopter; the sound of whirring rotors provides the fundamental rhythmic track for the song. None of these winged things is associated with soaring flight. Instead, they suggest a predatory hovering—a mockery of any wish for transcendence.

The surprise lies in the music, for this is where the vision is to be found. There is still an awareness of pain and outrage in the stumbling piano figures, the jabbing percussive highlights, the plosive keyboard bursts with their reedy edge, and indecipherable background vocal mumbles. But all these elements are extremely stylized and fused into a tone of chilly ecstasy. The basic chord progression is an elated affirmation of D major while the harmonic surface is iridescent and tinted with extended sonorities and oblique shiftings. There are also several metaphorical techniques of suspension at work. In the interludes, for instance, the surface harmonic phenomena change every measure, while at a deeper structural level a much slower rate of harmonic change is projected (a new chord every four bars, as follows: I—V—I—vi; Ex. 4.7). Surface motion is thus suspended over a slowly turning background. The electric bass during these same passages heavily emphasizes the dominant; even during the tonic harmonies, the bass gives the strongest metric position to the dominant, thus suspending the tonal ground. Furthermore, the first and third phrases of every verse extend the regular four-bar scansion by inserting a two-bar half-cadential figure. The suspense just before these cadences is heightened by the sudden emptiness of texture and the momentary disappearance of the harmony (e.g., in verse 1 at “name was Killer Kyle” and “tough one for me to sing”). The prolongation of such up-in-the-air qualities gives a joyous inevitability to the full cadence at each refrain. Mitchell caps this cadence with a high, poignant keyboard descant whose prominent, shimmering overtones resemble an unearthly organum (Ex. 4.8).29

(p.113) One can think of the music as achieving outward projection in an emotional sense. The soldier's vortex of rage and despair hardly affects the musical environment—so polished, so transfixed. Mitchell's setting places a breathtaking emotional distance between her raw subject and her expressive artifice. There is also a defiance of gravity in the multiple musical suspensions, which are not hard to hear as gestures of buoyancy and release. The third element of transcendence—the horizon or vanishing point—is more difficult to conceive in musical terms, but one can interpret the moments of textural dissipation along such lines. At these moments, it seems as if the orchestral body fades to transparency. Through the aperture, we briefly hear the most basic stratum of sound—the rotor wings—unaccompanied before the orchestral substance rushes back in. This basic stratum is ongoing throughout the song but usually not directly perceptible. The aperture effect approaches a privileged perspective through points of musical vanishing.

                   THEMATIC THREADS

Example 4.7. “The Beat of Black Wings,” Intro (Instrumental Parts)

How do the visions square? I have just interpreted the rotor oscillation almost in spiritual terms as an intimation of fundamental reality. Yet to the poor soldier, the wing-beats that won't go away represent the ongoing nightmare that finally subsumes his identity. The musical figure of disappearance offers an exhilarating (p.114) sense of weightlessness; but the soldier's experience of disappearance (in the last verse) means the appalling loss of personal solidity:

                   THEMATIC THREADS

Example 4.8. “The Beat of Black Wings,” End of Verse

  • There's a man drawing pictures
  • On the sidewalk with chalk
  • Just as fast as he draws ‘em
  • Rain come down and wash ‘em off
  • “Keep the drinks comin' girl
  • (p.115)
  • ‘Til I can't feel anything
  • I'm just a chalk mark in a rain storm
  • I'm just the beat of—
  • The beat of black wings”

The centrifugal forces threatening to rip the young man apart (the internal “war zone”) are countered by the music's sublime self-possession: even the (sinister?) helicopter track sounds like an image of perfect balance and control. What is the point of this ironic contradiction? In my view, the affective dissociation between words and music carries no cynical, neutralizing force; it doesn't deaden the pain. By surrounding the young man's harsh outpouring with a visionary joy, Mitchell reminds us of what he has lost. Her indictment of social ill is made all the more piercing by the distance between corrupt reality and the possibility of grace trembling in the music.

One final touch remains to be mentioned. During the interludes, Mitchell adds a brief vocal tag—“Johnny Angel”—from the 1960 hit sung by Shelley Fabares. The dissonance of the importation strikes multiple sparks. The quoted song invokes the (now-distant) time of its release, probably the young man's teen years, before going off to war. Moreover, it is a song about innocence, a simple expression of unrequited love; it refers in its naive way to flights of celestial happiness, in stark counterpoint to the infernal apparitions tormenting the soldier. (Lines from the quoted song include: “Every time he says hello my heart begins to fly” and “Together we will see how lovely heaven can be.”) Once again, music (here, a musical recollection) is the bearer of a whole pattern of lost possibility. By now we should realize the pathos behind the soldier's complaint that he “can't even hear the fuckin' music playin'?” for the sound of the black wings. He has suffered a spiritual impairment, cutting him off from the innocence, hope, and wholeness which, from our favored perspective, we can hear shimmering all around him.

The pull of freedom in its multiple guises forms a grand theme running through Mitchell's songwriting. Right from the beginning, however, we feel the tug of a counterweight. Imagery of weaving, dancing, dreaming, and flying is tangled up with imagery of entrapment, stone (hardening, sinking), hollowness, and illusion. Musical gestures play with contrapuntal possibilities of constraint and release, elation and deflation. Following a dialectical way of thinking that remains characteristic, Mitchell expresses the urge to be free as a tension between love and solitude, idealism and worldliness, abstract yearnings and concrete realities. It is this skeptical turn of mind, her attraction to polarity and contradiction, that enables Mitchell to explore such rich sources of significance in her chosen thematic domains.

(p.116) In referring to these themes as “musicopoetic,” I stress the fusion of media at the heart of song, a correspondence having special immediacy when music and lyrics spring from a single author. In the preceding discussion of visionary imagery in particular, I have been at pains to emphasize the mutual interaction of musical gesture and poetic imagery in the creation of a conceptual whole. Both here and in chapter 2, my analyses touch upon a number of distinctive musical effects, many conveyed by harmonic means: modal complexity, unorthodox chord progressions, over- or underexposure of tonal center, and dualities of key. In the following chapter, I take a global perspective on Mitchell's approach to harmony, laying the groundwork for an appreciation of her harmonic technique as it informs her expressive sensibility and thematic vision.


(1) . Thanks to Udayan Sen for this insight.

(2) . JM: “I never called myself a feminist. I could agree with a lot of the men–s point of view. There was something very noble in a woman being willing to swallow her own dreams and devote herself to caring for her husband.… Not that I could ever have done it. I had this talent to feed! … A Gypsy told me that this is my first life as a woman. In all my previous incarnations I was a man. I–m still getting used to it!” (Bill Flanagan, “Lady of the Canyon,” Vanity Fair, June 1997).

(3) . Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Norton, 1963), 44. Jennifer Rycenga has studied the album Court and Spark from a similar perspective: namely, as an articulation of woman–s experience in terms analogous to concurrent feminist concerns (Rycenga, “Not the Same Situation: Joni Mitchell–s Work as a Sonic Document of Feminism,” Symposium on the Music and Art of Joni Mitchell, McGill University, 27 October 2004).

(4) . Interview with Penny Valentine, Sounds, 3 June 1972; in Luftig, 46.

(5) . Barney Hoskyns, “Our Lady of Sorrows,” Mojo, December 1994; in Luftig, 174–75.

(6) . The name of her second publishing company, Siquomb, derives from a projected original children–s story set in a (Tolkien-inspired) mythical kingdom (Karen O–Brien, Shadows and Light: Joni Mitchell, The Definitive Biography [London: Virgin Books, 2001], 52). The first paperback editions of Tolkien–s trilogy were issued in 1965.

(7) . Another expression of such highly romantic, open-ended yearning for the unknown is found in Bilbo–s traveling song, “The Road goes ever on and on,” from the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings.

(8) . Crosby, Stills & Nash (Atlantic Records SD 8229), 1969.

(9) . Fleischer, Joni Mitchell, 58.

(10) . Edward D. Berkowitz, Something Happened: A Political and Cultural Overview of the Seventies (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 158.

(11) . Tom Wolfe, “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” in Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976), 126–67; Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: Norton, 1979). See also Edwin Schur, The Awareness Trap: Self-Absorption Instead of Social Change (New York: Quadrangle, 1976).

(12) . Flanagan, “Lady of the Canyon,” 176. Mitchell described her stay on Crete in more detail in Larry LeBlanc, “Joni Takes a Break,” Rolling Stone, 4 March 1971.

(13) . Compare the sentiment in “Night in the City” (SS): “we run on laughing with no one to meet.” There are embryonic expressions of bohemia such as this (and the alternative community of “Sisotowbell Lane”) in the first album, though they have not yet coalesced into a full thematic representation.

(14) . Compare the same range of economic options in “Barangrill” (“the thumb and the satchel/Or the rented Rolls-Royce”), where she presents it as a dilemma of personal expression.

(15) . Hoskyns, Our Lady of Sorrows; in Luftig, 167.

(16) . Interview with Cameron Crowe, in The Rolling Stone Interviews: Talking with the Legends of Rock and Roll, 1967–1980, ed. Peter Herbst (New York: St. Martin–s Press, 1981), 381.

(17) . For a study that places hippie culture in the context of a long history of bohemian countercultural expression, see Richard Miller, Bohemia: The Protoculture Then and Now (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1977).

(18) . Elizabeth Brake, “to Live Outside the Law, You Must Be Honest: Freedom in Dylan–s Lyrics,” in Bob Dylan and Philosophy: It–s Alright, Ma (I–m Only Thinking), ed. Peter Vernezze and Carl J. Porter (Chicago: Open Court, 2006), 78–89; see 79.

(19) . Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 17, 21, 33.

(20) . Hoskyns, Our Lady of Sorrows; in Luftig, 167–68. For a glimpse of the glamorous social scene open to the newly minted musical celebrities, see Barney Hoskyns, Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the L.A. Canyons, 1967–1976 (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), 188–90.

(21) . In a live performance from 1983, Mitchell embellishes the refrain with four extra lines, describing the player himself as a “fallen angel” and a “rising star,” thus confirming him as one of her wild rebel characters. See Refuge of the Roads (Shout Factory DVD 30352), 2004.

(22) . O–Brien, Shadows and Light, 133–34.

(23) . JM: “When I retired I felt I never really wanted to do it again—ever.… I gained a strange perspective of performing. I had a bad attitude about it, you know. I felt like what I was writing was too personal to be applauded for” (interview with Penny Valentine, Sounds, 3 June 1972; in Luftig, 49).

(24) . Mitchell sounds this motif again in “Court and Spark”: “I couldn–t let go of L.A./City of the fallen angels.”

(25) . The visual art associated with this album also projects intense ambivalence regarding the rose imagery. On the inner gatefold of the album, Mitchell includes a felt-tip pen drawing of a woman rapturously smelling flowers in what appears to be a garden setting (though unofficially, the drawing has acquired the title Judy Collins in the Green Room.) This suggests yet another interpretation of the song title (shared by the album), namely, the desire to recover a sense of integration with nature. (This is borne out by the cover photography of Joni set within the wild Canadian landscape.) On the other hand, on the cover of the For the Roses songbook, Mitchell–s drawing depicts a whinnying or smirking horse wreathed with roses, in rear view, on which is superimposed the figures of three “fancy women in thirties evening gowns,” so that the rose bouquets they hold aloft appear to emerge from the horse–s ass. Inside the songbook, accompanying the printed lyrics to the title song, is a drawing of a bedroom or hotel room interior. A male singer sits on the bed in a despondent, drooping pose, guitar at his side; in the foreground a cut rose in a whiskey bottle rests on the table near an abandoned game of solitaire.

(26) . Mitchell makes an explicit connection here to a statement by Mingus (“everything I touched turned to gold”) included as a rap (“Coin in the Pocket”) leading into this song.

(27) . On Castaneda and the fad for borrowed Indian spirituality, see Philip Deloria, “Counterculture Indians and the New Age,” in Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s‘ and 70s, ed. Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (New York: Routledge, 2002), 159–88, esp. 174.

(28) . Mitchell uses these two sites to structure the entire album, prefacing its two parts with lines from this song. Part 1 (“I came to the city”) has an urban setting; part 2 (“Out of the city and down to the seaside”), various pastoral settings. The urban, the pastoral, and the visionary horizon are all captured in Mitchell–s elaborate cover art for the album; the visionary portion of the cover is set off by its widened focus, lack of color, infinite fan of sunrays, and flight of gulls (more on this album as a whole in chapter 7).

(29) . Organum is a type of medieval sacred music in which singers harmonize a chant melody in open-sounding intervals (fourths or fifths).