Joni Mitchell is Not a “60s Folksinger”


“If one more major media outlet refers to Joni Mitchell as a “60s Folksinger,” I am seriously going to lose. It.” — Julian Fleisher, via Facebook

It took a second for me to register what my Facebook/actual friend had noticed — news outlets using shorthand to encapsulate someone who spent a life defying exactly that.

I’m going to suppose that, to some extent, it can’t be helped, that people just don’t have enough time to see more than the easiest talking point. They have careers, lives, and a newsfeed that scrolls endlessly in both directions. “‘60s folksinger” is good enough for enough people. It’s all that people who don’t really care have time to care about. And in an age where the “power” of the sharing economy lies with the consumer and not the artist, perhaps Joni should count herself lucky to be remembered even for that one sliver of her output.

But man, I wouldn’t say that to her face.

She has been cantankerous with her legacy, scrapping biopics that smell shallow or expedient, eschewing stars who can’t yet hold a candle to the role they’re being lined up to play. Maybe some people are surprised by that — surely she knows the money she’s leaving on the table, right? The sales bump, the retrospectives and accolades she could fill her closets with?

My relationship with Joni comes in and out of focus as her career progresses. I’ve missed chunks of it and been obsessed by others, and for all she’s already given me, I know there’s more coming, and it’s that broad, restless gift that the term “’60s folksinger” insults so deeply.

I found my parents’ cassette of 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon in the back of the family station wagon, and it’s one of few records I know backward and forward. When the merchants roll their awnings down in the opening track, “Morning Morgantown,” the gesture settles me in to the troubled pastoral of the record. This is an era I wasn’t around for, with a time-stamped resonance I might not fully understand, but it doesn’t matter to me — her angelic soprano and precise guitar and piano figures swing the record open like gallery doors of an exhibit I return to, over and over again.

By Hejira (1976), Joni had blown everything apart, and took me with her — she exploded song forms, the possibilities of pop arrangement, and even the guitar itself, with exotic tunings that created tangled, complex stacks of chords. The opening track, “Coyote,” describes her rolling past a farmhouse that’s burning down “in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night,” and I can’t help but remember those Morgantown merchants, and how they had to be sacrificed in order for her to keep moving.

It’s impossible to encapsulate the twists and turns she took — which is, of course, my point — but I fell deep again with 1991’s Night Ride Home, not considered a pillar of her discography, as far as I know, but frankly I’ve never checked because I don’t care. On this record, there is a mature connection between lyric and melody that could only have occurred from all the experiments she conducted over the years. As a songwriting teacher, I’m not sure I could approach my class with what I feel is present in these songs. I would sound like an idiot and give some odd reduction of what it is to do something for a long time, and to watch the rules become tired before you do — as if you are driving, “a prisoner of the white lines,” and to suddenly, quietly, take flight.

At this point, her pristine voice has gone smoky, taken residence in her chest, and deepened with a kind of wisdom most people don’t allow pop stars to have. Pop is shiny, you know. This Joni-voice is suited for novels, painting, and acceptance speeches for lifetime achievement awards. Analogous voices would be Patti Smith’s writing voice in the brilliant memoir Just Kids, or photographs of Lucien Freud in his studio, paint-splattered and severe and towering over pristinely nude models.

This Joni sounds like she has returned from the journey she always told us she would take. Her travelogue is more mannered, backward looking, and attentive to classics from other art forms (Yeats’ “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”). Throughout, her synesthesia justified my own, and further smeared the lines between forms of expression.

I remember listening with a friend to 1994’s Turbulent Indigo and winding up in tears, and I still don’t know why. Maybe it’s something in the lyric of “Sunny Sunday,” a song I have often thought of discussing in class. Without a chorus, and with only a hint of refrain (the passage of one day), the story depicts a trapped suburban woman who waits for night to fall, then pulls out a gun and takes a shot at a streetlight. The result:

“Dogs bark as the gun falls to the floor
The streetlight’s still burning
She always misses
But the day she hits is the day she leaves
That one little victory
That’s all she needs…

Isn’t that everything? Or, doesn’t it feel like everything? I can’t tell the difference, personally. But her bravery, over the years, is a light that has helped me navigate.

Later on that album, she snarls a line that confronts the listener and establishes herself as the kind of wild-haired mentor all artists search for.

“Oh, what do you know about living in turbulent indigo?

Maybe I know a little, but in some ways, maybe I only know what she’s told me. Either way, it’s a lot.

She will continue to be called a 60s folksinger by media people with fifteen seconds to fill and a deadline to meet. It reminds you how much news we actually get from them.

But Joni’s been diligent, and has left so much truth for those who wish to dig for it.


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