Like some others, I have been thinking about Joni Mitchell this past week. Mitchell* performed at the Newport Folk Festival on July 24, 2022 after not performing an entire set for many years. Unlike some of my friends, I haven’t listened to her much this last week. Not sure why that is, but I think it might be because Joni Mitchell is already in my blood like holy wine.
Some of you have heard this story before (and some of you lived it with me), but I want to write about it again. I am writing this article sitting in my chair. No music now, but there are clouds off to the right through the balcony window.
I think I first listened to Joni Mitchell’s music in the fall of 1968 when I was not quite 19 years old. It is possible that I heard Judy Collin’s version of “Both Sides Now” before I heard Mitchell’s own version. I liked both versions–then and now. Soon after, I heard Mitchell’s albums, probably on one of my college roommate’s record player. Then and now, when I hear those words and that voice–or just think of them as I am doing now–I am transported to another place. There is pain in that place, but the words and the voice I hear sing a strong and healing magic.
For several years when I was young, I would sing Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, and Joan Baez songs. This was quite a feat because I can’t–and never could–sing well, so I sang when I was alone. I sang Mitchell’s “Michael from Mountains,” “Tin Angel,” and “Blue” thinking of Tom. Sometimes I would sing as I walked at Lone Rock beach at Lake Powell near where I taught or while I drove the back roads of the Intermountain West, where I often didn’t have radio reception.
In 1973, I received a teaching fellowship for a Master’s degree in English at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. That was great (except for the stipend, of course, which was a meager $2,000 per year). Many of my Grand Canyon friends were in Salt Lake at the time and I met another lifelong friend there, my fellow teacher, Laura. I was still bewitched by the songs of Joni Mitchell and, because I wanted to study the English words that meant a great deal to me, I decided to write a thesis on the lyrics in Mitchell’s songs.
Many things happened: I taught freshman composition classes including reviewing hundreds of essays, I got married and shortly Tom and I were expecting a child. My plan on the thesis was to finish it before our first child was to be born in May of 1975. With one thing and another, I finally finished the thesis not long before our second child was born in May of 1977. Our friends from back in the day may remember me listening, writing, rewriting, stalling, obsessing, and worrying about the paper. I had elements of the thesis in various states of readiness for months, but the final version came together when I was able to spend a week working alone at our friend Sally’s apartment. My thesis was accepted and I remember the kind words of Professor Phil Sullivan–an aging hippie among the more standard issue faculty I had at Utah. Phil agreed with me that music lyrics could indeed be poetry. Rest in peace, Phil.
Note: You can tell how long ago all of this was because my thesis only covers Mitchell through Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975). It was also so long ago that I needed to hire a typist to type/format my paper into a form that the university would accept. That cost some money. What I remember most, though is how much it cost to copy the thesis. I wanted to make a copy of the thesis to send to Joni Mitchell. Each page back then would cost about one dollar to make a good copy. At a little over 100 pages, I didn’t feel I could afford to copy the thesis to send. I didn’t really know where I might send it anyhow. A Grecian Isle, a red dirt road in Spain, or California? Years passed. Mitchell kept writing, composing, and painting. I kept parenting, gardening, working (mostly in education), and listening to music.
Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now” at the Newport Folk Festival on July 24. I did listen to it and I loved the rendition. Both Joni Mitchell and I are old now, so we have had ample opportunity to look at both sides of our lives with all those illusions and that winning and losing. I don’t really know life at all, but I am okay with that. I remember and still believe what Mitchell said in “Woodstock”: “I don’t know who I am but life is for learning.”
With all the years of loving, winning, losing, and learning in my life, I was happy this morning to see that I still agree with the final sentence of my thesis: “Joni Mitchell, for her part, writes song poetry the way Dylan Thomas would have it, as ‘the rhythmic, inevitably narrative movement from overclothed blindness to a naked vision.'”
*When I started writing this piece, I automatically started writing “Joni” instead of “Joni Mitchell” or “Mitchell.” I don’t write “Will” for William Butler Yeats and I realize I want to equally acknowledge Mitchell’s gravitas, so I have written about her here formally.
**Artist and friend Howard Brough drew this portrait as a wedding gift for Tom and me in 1974. Howard also drew illustrations for Mitchell songs and two more portraits, which were included in the thesis. Thank you, Howard.