As a black woman raised against the backdrop of the U.S. civil rights movement, the songs of Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and James Brown, were and remain, central to my identity. But I was also wowed by flower power hits such as "Our House" and "Woodstock" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
To be sure, I'd heard of Joni Mitchell. But Odetta was the folksinger that reigned in my blue-collar, black neighbourhood. I was amazed to discover, decades after the release of the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tune, that Mitchell had composed the iconic "I came upon a child of God" anthem and inspired Graham Nash to craft the "two cats in the yard" harmonics that helped define a generation.
Then came the shock of reading a 1990s article about Joni Mitchell that appeared, if memory serves, in Vibe magazine. The context? A major music-industry soiree in Los Angeles. As the reporter told it, Mitchell dismissed the glitzy gathering, noting that she had been "the only brother in the house."
That's right, the blonde, Saskatoon-raised artist likened herself to a black male performer. Now that I'm better versed in Mitchell's extraordinary life and career, her self-assessment seems less audacious.
Indeed, Mitchell's respect for black culture - from traditional African rhythms to slick urban hip-hop moves - courses throughout the The Fiddle and The Drum. The rightly celebrated dance work, first performed in 2008, showcases Mitchell's music and multi-media designs. In doing so, the piece offers a hard-hitting but ultimately ennobling meditation on war, love and global destruction.
Program notes reveal that during rehearsals, Mitchell exhorted the predominately white Alberta ballet to "find the Afro-American groove" in her work, coaching its members to respond to "the saxophone's entry into the score here, the guitar refrain there, the voice."
As I watched the performance in Victoria (a cultural component of the Winter Games in Vancouver), I was mindful that the cover of her album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977) features an image of an Afro-coiffed Mitchell dressed as her reputed alter ego, a black hipster named Art Nouveau.
Her 1979 album Mingus stands as a landmark project with the eccentric black jazz bassist Charles Mingus (1922 - 1979). River: The Joni Letters garnered for pianist/composer Herbie Hancock the 2008 Grammy Award for the best album of the year. Then there's Mitchell's oft-voiced appreciation of "Trouble Man." It's a gutsy musician of any race who'd dare to sing the signature Marvin Gaye soul tune. YouTube shows Mitchell letting it rip before a live audience.
An intriguing portrait of Mitchell can be found in the new book, Will You Take Me as I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period, by Michelle Mercer. A mesmerizing mélange of memoir, biography, interviews and criticism, it takes its title from Mitchell's song "California," from her acclaimed 1971 release Blue. In the opening pages, Mercer details the importance of Blue, which includes "River," "A Case of You," and "Carey."
"I wanted to lie next to someone who experienced the same ravishment of self-reflection when he listened [to Blue]," she writes. "A soul mate would hear the ingenuity of Joni's chords, the novelty of her song structure. ... Was the powerof her words and music animating new reaches in him?"
Mercer notes that Mitchell has found disconcerting the impact of Blue on her career. "Everything was compared unfavourably to Blue," Mitchell explained. "They wanted me to stay in that tortured way. I peeled myself down to the bone, there was no place left to go. I had to start building up and healing myself and looking outward."
On that note, Mitchell, who is now 66 and has been an unrepentant smoker since age nine, cites tobacco as a positive influence on her craft. "It's a focusing drug," she told Mercer. "Everybody should be forced to smoke."
As for her enduring alliance with blacks, Mitchell responds with her trademark candour: "They're my best audience. The 'Joni Mitchell, she don't lie school'." Central to her truth-telling is the fact that the pride of Saskatchewan has never distanced herself from visible minorities. Consider the video projections of a black male soldier and a traditional Aboriginal mask that appear in The Fiddle and The Drum.
Behold, by Mitchell's masterful design, the luminous image of her face, in both.
Evelyn C. White is the author of Alice Walker: A Life and Every Goodbye Ain't Gone: A Photo Narrative of Black Heritage on Salt Spring Island.
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