Dr. Kevin Healey is an Associate Professor of Communication at UNH.
Poignant. That's the word that rushed to mind as I watched Joni Mitchell's surprise appearance at the Newport Folk Festival last month, where the eminent songstress crooned alongside Wynonna Judd and Brandi Carlile.
In recent years the latter younger star has established herself as an earnest caretaker of Joni's legacy, taking the stage at Carnegie Hall to cover her mentor's classic LP Blue in its entirety and with unparalleled skill.
At the Newport performance, Brandi clutches her chest and leans forward as Joni sings the final verse of "Both Sides Now" where the songwriter reflects, "I've looked at life from both sides now/From win and lose and still somehow/It's life's illusions I recall/I really don't know life at all."
Carlile wasn't the only attendee moved by the poignancy of the moment. Photos show teary-eyed listeners covering their mouths while watching a woman of 78 years, a still-recovering brain aneurysm survivor, express such humility.
Poignant moments are paradoxical, fusing hopefulness with regret. In this case, hope appears as we witness wisdom and integrity fully embodied on stage before us. Imagine the depth of personal and artistic integrity it takes for someone like Joni to express ideas at a young age that still ring true, yet even more deeply, in their later years. We know that living with integrity is possible because we can see and hear it in real-time.
The regret in this moment is twofold. First, there is the looming knowledge that Joni herself will pass away, sooner rather than later and rightfully content with her life's work and purpose. Second, there is a pressing fear that our culture may no longer be capable of cultivating such exemplary voices in the first place. What if no voices arise to keep guiding us toward wisdom? What if Joni leaves behind a culture that is broken beyond repair?
This fear is especially acute in the current political moment where the humility of admitting "I really don't know" on any matter is not a virtue but a disqualifying vice, whether for political candidates or cable news pundits. Today, the very possibility of wisdom and humility seems to be edging closer to death.
And yet we know the song is not over, because voices like Brandi Carlile's bring it strength and renewed vision. It's part of the ethos of folk music for artists to find inspiration and build upon the work of those who came before. Since Woody Guthrie sang "This Land Is Your Land" while strumming a guitar etched with the words "This machine kills fascists," the American folk tradition has always contained a distinctly anti-commercial and radically humanistic core. We "folk" build our future together through sheer generosity and love for community.
In that shared spirit, I've been imagining new verses to extend the enduring wisdom of Joni's "Both Sides Now." True to the song's title, the Canadian-born singer has lived on both sides of the continental United States, from New York City ("Chelsea Morning") to Los Angeles ("Ladies of the Canyon").
Her body of work, a "travelogue" of places and ideas, stretches us toward a broader, yin-and-yang perspective beyond the norm. Over time, she's offered an incisive critique of America's volatile mix of political, economic, and religious extremism. In the current moment of insurrection and injustice, I imagine her weary voice crooning an unrecorded verse for this land of ours, which she's made her own:
"Stars and stripes and apple pie / And fireworks on fourths of July / Don't tread on me! Live free or die!/ I've looked at this land that way."
"Now flagpoles sharpened into spears / Take aim at all we once held dear/ The day, once far, draws ever nearer/ That flag no longer proudly waves."
"I've seen this land from both sides now/ Its love and hate/ And still somehow/ It's land illusions I recall/ I really don't know this land at all."
As we journey through clouds of love, life and politics, Joni's legacy reminds us that in moments of uncertainty and crisis, it's humility that allows the dust to settle long enough for the path toward wisdom to appear.
As the U.S. heads toward the mid-terms and the next presidential election, I'll be listening for those voices who still manage to find strength in honesty, even when that means admitting that one's own party or leaders have made mistakes. Against the din of polemical partisanship, such voices may lead us to a more poignant politics, where regret and hope coexist in a renewed vision for this land we share.
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