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Fact Or Fiction: Joni Mitchell’s Debut ‘Song To A Seagull’ At 55 Print-ready version

Joni Mitchell’s debut Song to a Seagull is painted with broad brushstrokes she would draw from in different shades throughout her career.

by Matthew Dwyer
PopMatters
April 3, 2023

Joni Mitchell's Song to a Seagull is a debut album that painted broad brushstrokes she would draw from in different shades throughout her career. Although Mitchell has described herself as a "painter derailed by circumstance", Song to a Seagull showcases her natural songwriting talent. The fact that Mitchell gained notoriety by writing songs for other artists, such as Leonard Cohen and Judy Collins, foreshadowed the shape-shifting form her versatile debut would allow her to inhabit. The focus of Song to a Seagull on storytelling threaded together songs that covered a wide range of subjects, much like Mitchell's narrative-style songwriting bridges seemingly disparate parts of her catalog as a whole.

Mitchell has often been loathe to categorize herself as a folk singer because of the many genres she would later experiment with. Jazz-rock record The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) received middling reviews at the time of its release, however, until Prince cited it as a significant inspiration. "While [I was] getting publicly trashed in the press... the young artists coming up... could still see there was something going on there," she said in 1979. Because the stories on Hissing criticize tradition by examining the restrictiveness of the nuclear family, listeners, upon its release, failed to see the blueprint of a folk song within them.

The first volume of Mitchell's archive series, titled Archives, Vol. One: The Early Years (1963 - 1967), released in late 2020, displays Mitchell's full early devotion to covering folk songs. Songs such as "Dark As a Dungeon", "Molly Malone", and "Nancy Whiskey" mirror the songs of Song to a Seagull both in style and theme. However, Mitchell's strong adherence to the folk genre ensured she would leave it behind. Artists whose work transcends genre do not make a statement about music or sound through their output but about the human condition.

This philosophical quality of Mitchell's work would emerge as her catalog expanded, leapfrogging over the criticisms of individual sonic pivots. By deviating from folk and pop, Mitchell communicates that although public adoration may wax and wane, a full life constitutes one that is lived on the terms of the artist. This statement of artistic freedom also mirrors her personal life: Mitchell frequently found herself struggling from underneath the impositions of men, both business and romantic. "If you squeeze sand too tightly, it will run through your fingers," she wrote in a letter to Graham Nash, for whom she wrote the ballad of regret "River".

In the 2020s, Taylor Swift is currently seen as one of the clearest inheritors of Mitchell's legacy, not only for her narrative storytelling style but for her musical shape-shifting. During her prime, Mitchell had many peers who stayed loyal to folk. Tom Rush and Judy Collins, who both covered songs written by Mitchell, categorized their work by adherence to genre. While this approach ensured career longevity, Mitchell's genre-hopping challenged established norms by questioning what a folk singer could accomplish, what parameters defined the genre of folk and genre itself, and how a female singer-songwriter could challenge the status quo of a business run by men.

In the 1974 hit "Free Man in Paris", Mitchell criticized friend and label executive David Geffen, saying, "I deal in dreamers and telephone screamers / Lately I wonder what I do it for." Similarly, Swift began as a country singer but battled her record label to become a pop act. "'Love you, mean it...but this is how it's going to be,'" Swift told Big Machine Record Label president Scott Borcetta when he asked her to put "three country songs" on her pop breakthrough 1989.

Another similarity between these two singers is the uniformity of their treatment by the press. In a 2016 interview with Vogue, Swift looked back at her dating experience in her early 20s as "a national lightning rod for slut shaming". Similarly, Mitchell experienced biased coverage of her personal life from major media outlets. In 1971, Rolling Stone dubbed her "Old Lady of the Year", publishing a chart that mapped out her romantic entanglements. ("Rolling Stone did a really horrible, sort of catty thing," she recalled.)

By interrogating relationships, Swift and Mitchell inherently challenge the patriarchy by articulating obstacles that almost anyone dating a man will encounter. Analyzing a biased system from the perspective of a marginalized group reveals the psychological machinations behind that bias. Mainstream American culture, often an extension of the male psyche, lashes out with misogynistic press coverage to invalidate the criticisms of men that Mitchell's and Swift's romantic entanglement inevitably lead to.

This process of superstardom, followed by criticism, mirrors a psychological exercise of individual men: strengthening the ego by exalting a female partner, claiming to admire her beauty or potential, then limiting her growth when he feels eclipsed. "You don't like weak women, you get bored so quick / But you don't like strong women 'cause they're hip to your tricks," Mitchell quipped on her first top 20 single, 1972's "You Turn Me on I'm a Radio". It was the lead single for her fifth album, For the Roses, the title of which refers to the process of laying wreaths on winning racehorses before killing them.

A New York Times review of Song to a Seagull at the time of its release stated that the album's adherence to an acoustic sound created "monotony, albeit gentle monotony". However, the reviewer also notes that this sonic cohesion, in the hands of a "lesser talent", would have drowned the record. Mitchell's storytelling accentuates each song, revealing her true thesis as an artist. It makes sense that Mitchell began in folk, a genre rooted in the passing down of tales, because, ultimately, what Mitchell had to say about contemporary culture would enshrine her in the popular consciousness. The essential tragedy of Mitchell's life lurks in Song to a Seagull: a prairie girl, born into a traditional lifestyle, makes music that sounds traditional but morns a departure.

Song to a Seagull omitted several of Mitchell's compositions that had become popular when recorded by other artists, such as the Judy Collins hit "Both Sides Now", which would appear on Mitchell's sophomore album Clouds, and "Urge for Going", which had been covered by Tom Rush, and would later appear as a B-side on Mitchell's single "You Turn Me on I'm a Radio". However, the omission of these hits did the record a service by displaying the extent of Mitchell's prolific nature as an artist: she didn't need hits promoted by other artists to claim her territory. Like many of Mitchell's LPs, Song to a Seagull was not designed to create a hit. As a star who would later lament the trappings of fame, Mitchell began her recording career on an appropriate note by creating stories that didn't have their own ambitions.

Although many tracks on Song to a Seagull are fiction, such as "Pirate of Penance" and "Sisotowbell Lane", others draw on autobiography. "Michael from Mountains", also covered by Collins, mentions Colorado musician Michael Durbin by name, and several of the tracks address Mitchell's divorce from Chuck Mitchell, with whom she participated in a traveling folk act during their two-year marriage. On "I Had a King", she sang, "I had a king in a tenement castle / He's taken me off to his country for marriage too soon." Song to a Seagull is a folk album in its sound and medieval references. Although "I Had a King", upon examination, appears autobiographical, it fits into an album of fictitious songs by re-imagining Mitchell's marriage as a dark fairy tale. However, the bluest fairy tale still lay ahead of her.

Blue, Mitchell's 1971 breakup album, inspired by muses such as Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, and Graham Nash, became the apex of her autobiographical writing. The albums that followed, similar to her previous albums, would blend autobiography and fiction, such as in 1974's Court and Spark, when the tale of Hollywood debauchery "People's Parties" came alongside the character study of a sex worker meeting a man in a hotel, "Raised on Robbery". However, even "People's Parties", which analyzed the superficial nature of high society that fame had allowed Mitchell to access, created mythology. Starting with Blue, Mitchell did not begin with folktales and blend them into her life. Instead, she began writing about her life and knew it was now the folktale listeners wanted.

Talking about the motivation behind Blue, Mitchell said: "If they're going to worship me, they should know who they're worshiping." Blue's sheer commitment to transparency makes it not just an autobiographical album but a record about the necessity of its own confessions. This disclosure became accidental commercial ambition: the public latched onto the version of Mitchell it could associate with real places and people, superimposing it onto the rest of her output. However, replicating Blue would have nullified its mission: divulge too much and details become meaningless. Taylor Swift has succeeded at making such confessions the central principle of her work by marketing them heavily through genre switches and associations with famous muses. "It's a lie to get you to see the truth," Mitchell said. Artists must always sacrifice something to translate their experiences into something tangible, and each artist makes a different choice as to what that will be.

In Song to a Seagull, the juxtaposition of fictional songs that feature contemporary settings, and autobiographical songs that rely on fantasy, foreshadows the struggle between fact and fiction that persists in Mitchell's work. "Marcie", a fictional tale about a spurned lover, takes place in New York City, while in "Harry's House/Centerpiece" of Hissing of Summer Laws, a housewife contemplates a life in which her spouse is largely absent: "He bought her a room full of Chippendale that nobody sits in." Both protagonists hinge the direction of their lives on the will of the man and end up alone.

Mitchell had always seen through the "pretty men who tell pretty lies". However, her observations didn't prick against the sensibilities of listeners until they contradicted the persona enshrined in the public consciousness after Blue: the "hippie folk goddess". Critic Ann Powers said, "We don't know how to accept childless women as adults." Both Swift and Mitchell, through their youthful personas, embody the patriarchal expectation that women remain eternally young, but rebel against it by forgoing the follow-up presumption: motherhood. They mark their transitions from youth to adulthood with artistic and professional achievements instead of personal ones. This contradicts the idea that female celebrities should embody two opposite poles: comforting material figures and empowered and unencumbered youth.

Listeners want to believe that these two qualities can exist in a person simultaneously while also limiting the possibility of that becoming a reality. The closing track of Song to a Seagull, "Cactus Tree", follows a protagonist who, while "busy being free", avoids the advances of countless suitors. Although the narrator identifies many of them with contemporary signifiers ("He has seen her at the office / With her name on all his papers"), their sheer quantity designates them as satire.

Like the simplicity of the caricatures "Molly Malone" and "Nancy Whiskey", "Cactus Tree" create iterations of men that serve as stand-ins for their cultural presence, which the song's protagonist felt stifling. However, even when falling out of public favor, Mitchell ensured she was her story's main character. The suitors of "Cactus Tree" would become Laurel Canyon peers, record label executives, and the looming presence of a warmongering country, but that's the beauty of folktales: they can apply to any age. The teller of them must be willing to evolve and maybe confess a thing or two along the way. "Humans are hungry for worlds they can't share," Mitchell said on the title track of Seagull. But we will always try.

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Added to Library on April 4, 2023. (534)

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