Awash in Joni Mitchell

I'm having a major Joni Mitchell moment, brought on by the sound coming from my son Theo's computer. He's home for the summer, so I get to be an At-Home Mom with an actual (grown up) child at home. Theo is a musician, and is constantly trolling through websites to find interesting music. And, as many of us with children in our lives have found, he often stumbles, with the delight of first discovery, on people and sounds we once cherished. This, after all, was the son who long ago asked me if I had ever heard of the Beatles. This morning he was playing a 1970 BBC recording of a live performance of the song "California", in London.

Joni Mitchell is alone on the stage, a spotlight shining on her long, straight, glossy blond hair. She is wearing a plain pink--pink!--dress with what look like those familiar (in my day) crocheted cap sleeves. Her face is angular, expressive; no makeup, no eccentric visual displays. She is pure, simple, unadorned. She is all about her music. She is playing the dulcimer, and the sweet harmonics coming from that strange, ancient instrument, caught my ear from upstairs in the laundry room. There is no back up, no amplification, no strange and heavy-handed mixing. Her lyrics are poetic, the whole performance ethereal.

As I wandered downstairs, drawn by the sound of her rich, contralto voice, I became flooded with memories...first hearing Joni Mitchell, introduced to her in high school, at exactly the time of this BBC performance, by another extremely talented musician, my friend Ray. He knew everything about jazz, and about great music in general, and we would spend hours listening to new albums, poring over the liner notes, lost in the sounds, captivated, enchanted, as children can be, because they are open to entering into music and becoming one with it.

Joni (and that's who she was, to us, a first name goddess long before there was Madonna) would have been about 26 or 27 during the BBC performance. Of course, I had never seen it--if not for the Internet it would be lost to most of us. She was twelve years older than I, and a guiding light, a sort of big sister and teacher. Everything she sang about, I knew I would get to eventually. Love, loss, despair, pleasure, joy, confusion, amazement, loneliness, independence, anger, and yearning, yearning, yearning--for more, for better. Joni sang about living large, and loving deeply, and about letting herself fly through her days.

As I watched the BBC clip over Theo's shoulder, I began to choke up, and tears came to my eyes. I felt a deep, sharp sadness at how much time has passed, how completely young and innocent she looked--and we all felt--in those days. Yet, years later, I would learn that by the time she was 25 she had already been stricken with polio, taught herself to walk again, given up a child for adoption, left home to join the music scene in Greenwich Village, and gotten married. Her face is unlined, so full of pure, radiant youth--her face is so full of music.

This week I'm going to listen to all the Joni discs I own; as I sit here, I'm playing Clouds, from 1969. (And yes, I know, that means the music is in the background, but I was so moved to write that I couldn't help myself. I'll listen to the record again after I publish the post. And take Theo to the grocery store. And finish the laundry.) She sings the anti war anthem, The Fiddle and the Drum, with no instrumentation at all--that's how strong is her voice--and her confidence. "Can we help you find the peace and the star..." Joni Mitchell's songs have always had a profound moral decency--in the political, do what's right, sense. Even the wild abandon with which she lost her heart seemed important, to me, in my twenties. That she has been able to accompany those of us who love her through our entire lives--and through hers--must be one of the miracles of our days.

Another is watching a new generation discover, and appreciate, the beauty that our generation can bequeath to them--in some enormous, global ways, we are leaving our children such a mess, that it helps to think also about the great things we have given them. Joy began to flicker through my aching sadness. There is nothing lovelier than sharing moments of transcendent beauty. I yearned to reconnect with the girl that I once was, the girl who believed that art would burn through grief, and that love was transformative. "Songs to aging children come; Aging children, I am one." 


aspiritofsimplicity said...

I used to listen to Circle Game when I was pregnant with my first daughter. When she got older some one more contemporary did a remake and she told me it was one of her favorite songs. Funny.
I loved Joni Mitchell.

Cristina said...

...aging children... I'd never heard this expression before. it makes me think over (with just a little bit of sour retro taste...)

Susan Gerofsky said...

For me, the album that hit me deepest was Blue, and especially the song A Case of You. I just found out recently that the line "i am as constant as the northern star" is a quote or paraphrase from shakespeare's Julius Caesar -- it's something that Caesar says regarding a political decision, the last straw that convinces the senators to kill him. There's a bit of resonance for ya!

I think I still know all the lyrics to all the Joni songs up to about 1980. She (and Leonard Cohen, and Neil Young and ...) make me proud to be Canadian.

Lucky you to have such a great son! Well done, mom.

Anonymous said...

After sorting Theo out could you answer my e-mail, I love how a song can take you somewhere else, I have a R.I holiday song that Mark and Me played the whole time we where there together, when I play it back here in England I am back in the car with him in R.I.

Much love
Aaron (Great Dixter)

maryinaustin said...

Wow...same age, same experience with Joni Mitchell. Is there anyone any more talented than her?

Doug said...

A wonderful post. A few years ago I realized I didn't own much of her early music as my LPs had long disappeared. I replaced most of her music with CDs and continue to love her older and newer music. There's a great film called Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind with much archival footage that for me corresponds to the heart of your post. So much I had forgotten, and so much from that time I still cherish in my 60s.

Anonymous said...

Still have her records in my garage in case vinyl makes a comeback. If you still say Joni people know of who you speak. I have Joan Baez and Carole King as well. Thanks for the reminder of a different time.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

"Come on down to the Mermaid Cafe
and I will buy you a bottle of wine
and we'll laugh and toast to nothing
and smash our empty glasses down".

This song is my soundtrack every summer. Joni is a genius, and an uncompromising one. It's comforting to know that another generation is appreciating her. She has much wisdom to share, as well as some really good music!

She's a rather excellent painter as well.

Kerri said...

My college boyfriend introduced me to Joni and gave me a copy of "Blue" because of the line "I met a redneck on a Grecian isle." He was from Georgia, but had lived in Greece. I still love all of the songs on that album. Thank you for the link.

sylviatx said...

Joni MItchell, prescient as ever, is still at it:

"Spirit of the water
Give us all the courage and the grace
To make genius of this tragedy unfolding
The genius to save this place."

This has been on my mind since April 20th.

Have been enjoying your blog and watching your career from a distance. It's a long way from being staffers together at TM.

Christa said...

Great timing - I just saw " The Kids Are Alright" (a really wonderful film) and Joni played a part in it....

Also saw James Taylor and Carol King earlier in the summer. It is incredible, the time travel music can induce....

Deya said...

I'm one of those kids that discovered Joni Mitchell, thanks to my mother. She had most of Joni's albums on tape, and she would play them on and off during my childhood.

When I was a sophomore in college, I visited my best friend in Berkeley and wandered into a music store. I rather randomly picked up Blue and decided to buy it. I listened to it non-stop - not to be overly dramatic, but it seemed like Joni was singing about me and my feelings as an almost 20-year old. I then got my best friend and my sister listening, and now the song "California" comes with us anytime we travel anywhere to remind us of home (we're California girls after all).

It's been 10 years since then, and my mom and I have connected over Joni Mitchell's music. I buy her the old albums on CD so she can listen to them in her car, and then I steal them so I can listen to them as well.

Barbara said...

She has such a distinct sound that you instantly recognize her. Love her voice.
Aging children... me too.

karenleslie said...

After watching Joni sing, I thought I could pass some of that magic on to my 15 year-old daughter. She plopped on my office couch, I explained that Joni was huge "in my day", hit the hyperlink and after a short bit, I turned to her expressionless, bored face. "You hate it don't you?," I asked her. "Pretty much," she said. I had to laugh "Ok, you can go." But as she walked out, she said, "I guess it's not that bad." They move so fast these 15 year olds that they can't hear the slow things.

mary said...

Thanks for reminding me of Joni---the perfect voice for that moment in time when so many of us felt we could deliver peace to the next generation. Hmmmm. the hope and aspiration is still there, but it is going to take a bit longer than anticipated. Thanks for a wonderful morning.

Laurie said...

Dominique, once again your words, like Joni's songs, have touched my soul. So very lovely!

Everyday Goddess said...

My daughter bought one of those peasant tops at a thrift shop and was surprised when I showed her a picture of me from way back when wearing a similar one. Only I had on feather earrings, egad! Wonder if those will make a comeback?!

dterrydraw said...

Dear Ms. Browning,

How funny to see a reference to Mitchell's "Carey".

I "discovered" Mitchell during the 80's (when I was in my twenties).

I recall playing the song for a friend (ten years older than I was and, actually, my landlady at the time). Given her age, she was more than aware of Joni Mitchell.

At one point, while I rhapsodized about the song "Carey", she told me she'd DATED "Carey". Of course, I said "No....you DIDN'T!!!???"

Well?..Before he went off to live in a "hippie community" in Greece(and, eventually, have an affair with Joni Mitchell), he did actually live in a particular somewhere in the USA. According to my friend, she and several of her friends (all of whom had slept with him during those early days) were overwhelmed with sadness and a sense of his ultra-coolness when he left for Greece.

A couple of years later (and they were all Joni Mitchell fans, of course) they found themselves listening to songs about every local hippie-chick's favorite ex-boyfriend before he went off to Greece.

Rather similarly?.....the same friend (and I can promise you that she doesn't make up stories) found herself,much later, being taken to the movie "Patch Adams" (Robin Williams playing a doctor-with-a-clown-nose)on a date. She didn't know anything about the movie, but realized very quickly that she'd DATED the guy when he was in Medical school (VCU).

In any case, I have a longtime friend who's dated (to put it politely) both Joni Mitchell's "Carey" and Patch Adams....before either of them became a commodity.

I continue to find that very amusing, although she doesn't.


David Terry

c said...

aging children ... aren't we all?
;-) [love the term]

Because I was born and spent my teen years in a far away place, Joni is not part of my memories. (I never heard her name until I moved to the US.)

But The Beatles are very much part of my memories. And what a moment it was when my own children listened and sang and related? to my own growing-up music ...

i'm an aging child, alright (and so are they ...sigh!)

Privilege of Parenting said...

I love this post and all the comments awash in nostalgia, appreciation and synchronicities.

Your blog is my wife's favorite and she forwarded this post to me, saying that she thought we share a similar ethic of loving the world (my post last week was all about "The Kids are Alright" and Joni Mitchell.

Anyway, I do love the spirit of your blog and smiled to realize that Katrina Kenison has our two blogs right next to each other on her site.

"All I really want our love to do, is to bring out the best in me and you."

Anonymous said...

So many Joni songs got me through my empty mornings following my separation last year. I haven't listened to her now for 5 months. Maybe because we reconciled. The first thing I'll do after work tonight is put on a disc. I'm sure I'll find all of the positives and not just the melancholy. Love her.
Thanks for reminding me.
Sue, Australia

My Dog-Eared Pages said...

I relate to every word of this lovely Joni post ... especially the yearning "to reconnect with the girl I once was." And, listening to Joni is a way to do that. I'm also loving your Maine posts having just returned from Swan's Island. Thanks Dominique - just great!

Barbara said...

Thank you so much for this! (& I have passed it on, via my Facebook page).

P.S. I have wanted to write to you for a while, but don't want to publish it for all the world to see. Is there a means to send messages to you that don't go public? A "contact" link, or some such thing?

Serene said...

I'm having the same experience repeatedly with my 18-year-old. It was the Beatles for a while; this month, it's Dylan. I love telling her I loved these people before she was ever born and seeing her get all respectful for a minute. But just a minute. :-)

Jill said...

"I want to have fun, want to shine like the sun, want to be the one that you want to see. Want to knit you a sweater, want to write you a love letter, want to make you feel better, want to make you feel free"
I guess that's been running through my head for 30+ years, and it never fails to fill me with longing, and the older I get, a desperate sadness. Done the knitting--no clue about the rest...

Phil said...

Joni was the soundtrack to our 70s (the decade, not the age). I remember being in college in Ohio in the late 60s, and I caught a ride home with a guy who was dropping me off and heading up to Detroit to hear someone named Joni Mitchell play in a cafe. Can you imagine that?

One of my favorite lines (Car on a Hill): "We seem so righteous at the start, when there's so much laughter, and so much spark, and so much sweetness in the dark." Tearing up a little just typing it.

melanielynn said...

when my daughter was born, i looked up her astrology chart. she will be one year old in a few weeks. a leo. and her moon is in cancer. when i learned this i couldn't help singing joni's song little green. though it is sad about her daughter she gave up for adoption, it is still beautiful.
'born with a moon in cancer, choose her a name she will answer to....
call her green and the winter's cannot fade her..."
thank you for your beautiful blog

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post. I got lost in the link you gave to past Joni Mitchell performances. She's been my absolute favorite forever. What a brilliant person she is! Thanks.

Denise said...

What a touchstone she is. I've dragged both my kids to see her in concert. The best part is, once this music dialogue with kids begins, it never ends. Now they return the favor and fill my Ipod with the most amazing music. An elegant essay about a very elegant artist.

Anonymous said...

I have missed listening to Joni Mitchell and just realized how much when Pandora sent me a note that they just introduced "Joni Mithell Radio"
Been floating on sweet music all afternoon. Wonderful!

Anonymous said...

I think one of your advertisements caused my internet browser to resize, you might want to put that on your blacklist.

Anonymous said...

I defy you to find a Canadian male over the age of 50 who is not still totally in love with Joni. When I was 18, (1972), we listened to Zep and The Stones and The Who etc. but we were in love with our Joni. She was/is beautiful and she seemed so vulnerable back then. We all just wanted to hold her and tell her everything would be alright. Her music was/is brilliant.

bryan flake said...

Oh man, music is the bread of life for me! I am huge into Joni Mitchell's music. The Beatles and the Stones are some of my other all time classic favorites! I would give anything to just research music all day long!

bryanflake1984| http://www.redandblackpainting.com.au