Rosanne Cash, 62, is a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter. She will be appearing at New York's Lincoln Center on March 27 as part of its American Songbook series and is completing an album due later this year. She spoke with Marc Myers.
Everything felt dire in the spring of 1971. I was 16 and living with my mom and stepdad and three sisters in a small beach town in Southern California. The Catholic school I attended was strict, and I was always in trouble. I didn't feel like my passions were valued.
I desperately wanted to start my life, fast, but I couldn't do that where I was living. My parents' divorce didn't help. I was close to my father, Johnny Cash, and here I was across the country, away from him and his inspiration. I was writing reams of poetry and begged him to take me out of school. He wouldn't hear of it.
At home, my escape was a local record store. I'd spend hours listening to music while looking at new albums. In June, Joni Mitchell's "Blue" arrived. I knew nothing about her, but one look at her on that cover was like looking in a mirror. I bought it.
At home, the sheer beauty and conﬂict in Joni's voice hit me. It was like ice and ﬁre - her sharp yearning, nonchalance and anxiety. I loved the ﬂuidity of her upper range.
"River" on the second side connected deeply. The song opens with a "Jingle Bells" motif with Joni singing about a homespun Christmas scene. Then she sings about wishing she could get away from it all: "But it don't snow here / It stays pretty green / I'm going to make a lot of money / Then I'm going to quit this crazy scene / Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on."
About halfway in, Joni sings about a lover and how she screwed up and lost him. I almost didn't want her to sing about that. It was enough for me that she was reﬂecting on how unbearable it was to be trapped where she was.
I wouldn't have become a songwriter had it not been for "River" and "Blue." They gave me permission to live life out loud. Through singing, I could skate oﬀ on that river, change myself and perhaps others, too.
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