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Joni Mitchell Lights Up Newport Folk Festival Print-ready version

We never expected to see her onstage and performing again like we did last weekend.

by Adam Gopnik
New Yorker
July 29, 2022

Joni Mitchell has become a living international treasure—a musician who speaks to the heart through the strongest of imaginative languages. Boston Globe / Getty

The videos of Joni Mitchell's return, after fifty or so years, to Newport Folk Festival became first widespread and then what is stupidly called viral - given our lives these days, we should call "viral" only the things that replicate and that nobody wants; those that replicate through shared delight should be called something nicer and more Biblical, like "fruitful." Certainly, anyone who cared for her work was reduced to tears by the videos - and the deeper reality is that there are more people than ever around who care. Her voice two octaves or so lower than in her youth, she was seated regally, with a face at first a touch frozen, and then opening, unthawing, warming to youth as her own remembered music pulled her along. She was, throughout . . . herself, racing through her matchless lovelorn lieder of the seventies, swooping and smiling as she sang.

It was a cause for celebration and for cerebration, too. Some of the celebration lay in the truth that most of us never expected to see or hear her this way again; murmured word of her medical history during the past few years, particularly since a devastating aneurysm in 2015, had suggested that she might no longer be capable of performing. But still more of the collective feeling had to do with the extraordinarily significant place that her work, in retrospect, now occupies.

Joni Mitchell's accomplishments look, or rather sound, larger than those of almost anyone else of her time. She has become a bigger figure with each passing year in the minds and hearts of all, including the younger musicians who surrounded her at Newport, and Joni's work, which in its day was often seconded to that of others, now looks like the thing itself.

Reputation is a curious thing. "Fortune and fame's such a curious game," her friend and, for a while, collaborator James Taylor once sang. "Perfect strangers can call you by name." (This in a song of wistful resignation to his own sentence: singing "Fire and Rain" and "You've Got a Friend" every night for the rest of his life.) Some of the vagaries of Joni Mitchell's reputation surely have to do with her sex, presenting a classic feminist fable of a woman's accomplishment unduly ranked below those of men.

Reading the letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop from the sixties, it is unmistakable that, in his day, Lowell had much the greater reputation, and presented steadily a more fragile and grandiose self, to be nurtured and coaxed. Yet, in retrospect, Bishop appears the greater poet, with Lowell's disjointed sonnets seeming, as one critic said, like all-star teams that have never practiced together. And Bishop's kindly, specific counsel has a deeper wisdom than Lowell's own confessional leaps.

Something like the same thing seems true about the relationship of Joni - I will call her that, because no one has *ever* called her Mitchell, which, in any case, is her name from a brief and unhappy marriage - to her peers Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (with whom she had a brief affair, producing the beautiful "Rainy Night House"). One may be a devoted addict of those singing poets and still recognize that, in their celebrated heyday, Joni Mitchell, by contrast, was often treated as a mere warbling soprano, registering "women's feelings," rather than as the finished and superior artist she was. Certainly, anyone looking for an instance of a woman being severely underrated by a critical system dominated by machismo has only to reread some of the rock criticism of the seventies to find it. (During this time, *Rolling Stone* did a chart of Joni's love life, as they imagined it, and though they justified the act as candid and prompted by her confessional, seemingly autobiographical lyrics, it was clearly both cruel and belittling.)

Yet one has the sense - from overheard remarks, and from the testimony of friends who know her - that Joni carried forward a stronger sense of neglect than perhaps the facts in the case warrant. In almost every memoir of the period - her one-time boyfriend Graham Nash's, for instance - her genius and superiority to the men who surrounded her are as quickly and uncontroversially asserted as, say, Bishop's is now. The boys in Led Zeppelin, to take one instance, are said to have found their patterns of musical chiaroscuro, the movement from soft to loud and back, in her work. Yet the small insults of an artist's existence are easier for others to look past than they are for the artist.

As we watched Joni play again, three distinct *artistic* virtues or accomplishments, perhaps not as instantly visible, came to mind to help explain her stubborn superiority. They are her musicality, her jazz roots, and, particularly, the deep if unobvious Canadianness that has survived six decades in California. (Choosing to live in California being one of the most Canadian things about her.)

First, her music. It is easy to forget how original and daring her system of open tunings was in its day. Her prime time, the nineteen-seventies and pre-music-video eighties, was an era of male guitar heroes, captured and chloroformed and joyously pinned for good by Christopher Guest's portrait of the fictional Nigel Tufnel, in "This Is Spinal Tap" - racing up and down the fingerboard at dizzying speed with such inconsequential meaning that he can walk away from the guitar and still leave it playing. Joni's strange, original system of chording - the endless run of ringing, resonant tunings that make songs like "Chelsea Morning" ever fresh - now seems far more alive than all that show-off stuff, and still has young guitarists frowning as they study it, like violinists studying scores from Beethoven. One student of her work has counted more than *sixty* distinct "Joni tunings," though they can be helpfully grouped by family relationships. There's a charming moment in one of Joni's live recordings where she hits the wrong places in the wrong tuning, and giggles helplessly at being confounded by her own system, a fisherwoman caught in her own net.

So, though her seated singing of "A Case of You" and "Circle Game" at Newport last weekend was moving, for any hardcore, deep-cut Joni Mitchell fan, the hair-raising, tear-squeezing - because one never thought to see or hear this again - moment was when she got up and did "Just Like This Train," a song from her most ambitious early album, "Court and Spark," on electric guitar, working within one of her classic open tunings. (CGDFCE, if you're keeping score.) I'm told by more knowledgeable guitarists that she has the advantage of a pedal that switches from one Joni tuning to another, but the fingers across the fingerboard are still distinct and the guitar style unforgettable.

The other related virtue is how much more easily than any other artist of her time Joni drew on the tradition and influence of jazz. That was her original background as a musician, pre-folk house, and of course culminated in her much misunderstood and, in some ways, ill-fated "Mingus" studio album - ill-fated only inasmuch as her original intention, to collaborate with the great bass player and composer, was transformed by his sudden physical decline into something more like a tribute album. What was astonishing was how easily her sounds fit with Mingus's. And, hearing her today, her throatier singing still calls to mind the older Billie Holiday or Anita O'Day: the smoky, swirling, off-the-beat voice all the better for having deepened (in part by the old unintentional jazz technique of smoking too much too long).

Finally, it is not mere nationalism on the part of those of us who were Canadian-raised to find in Joni something distinctly, well, national. It is there in the accent, one of the most pure and perfect Canadian accents on record, all "eh"s and rounded "oh"s, as distinct as Barry Humphries's Australian. But it is there, more importantly, in the note of unexcitable common sense that under-lights and firms up her extravagant and lyrical trips. Her masterpiece, "Blue," is an album about despair, of course, and broken hearts, but it is also about pleasure, and sensible choices. The wonderful "Carey" is a song of a woman choosing her pleasures according to her own rules. On "Court and Spark," the point of a "Free Man in Paris" is that the free man - David Geffen, by general consent - is being gently guyed as he is being spoken of, neither attacked nor defended, just described, with a gentle smile. (Not that her attitude to that particular gentleman always remained gentle.) Even her tart remark about her seemingly sudden renewal - "They're kind to you when you don't die" - had about it a touch of the Saskatchewan-raised prairie woman, allergic to, and immunized against, American celebrity. Some of us may even recall her sharing with Dick Cavett, right after Woodstock, the point that the only thing Canadians cared about politically was the new flag, which was made in the nineteen-sixties and which no one had really liked. This sense, which is a purely Canadian stance, of being just at a remove from American madness - and longing for a more stable winter scene - is endemic to her work. (It is perhaps typical that, although she wasn't at Woodstock, she wrote the permanent song about it.) This sense of space, of point of view and perspective, lights up what may be her greatest song: "River," about celebrating Christmas in Los Angeles while longing for the north, a song that no Canadian can hear without choking up. (I've tested this truth.) It is not, I hope, mere national chauvinism that sees something northern, too, in her uncanny search, as a young woman, not for confessional truth alone but for permanent wisdoms, evident in the precocious universality of "The Circle Game" and "Both Sides Now."

Age is hard on us all: eyes go out, brains shut off, strokes and aneurysms come as they will. But the one good thing about aging is that a fairer reputation tends to arrive if you live long enough to let it. Paul McCartney, as no one now recalls, had the most brutal of critical receptions for decades, and now here he is, back onstage at eighty, sharing the greatest songbook since Irving Berlin's, universally recognized as such. (He resembles Berlin very much, too, in range, manner, and the combination of high style and instinctive populism.) Joni, having passed from girl soprano to seventies poet of forlorn loves to (for a time) baffling jazz experimenter, has become a living international treasure - above all a musician who speaks to the heart through the strongest of imaginative languages. As Lewis Carroll might have said, outliving the snark is one way to never become your own boojum.

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Added to Library on July 29, 2022. (2848)


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