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Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

by Victoria Wasylak
Under the Radar
June 14, 2024

"I'm not a biographer, in the usual definition of that term," Ann Powers writes in the introduction to her book Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell. Her confession isn't necessary; it's apparent in every aspect of her innovative and downright meticulous tome on the folk icon, which aims to chart "the byways, the roads where [Mitchell] had wandered unnoticed." Armed with a newsstand's worth of old articles and new interviews from close collaborators and former flames - although lacking any firsthand chats with the book's feted subject - Powers navigates this unique approach with zeal, tackling Mitchell's life chronologically, yet unabashedly meandering into thinkpieces at many turns, to the point where Powers finds herself in the weeds of the aforementioned "tome" territory.

As our guide to these uncharted routes, Powers' enthusiasm is matched only by her ability to pack chapters with commentary. She doesn't just unfurl the sorrow behind a poignant classic like "River"; she places the song within the context of the "reclamation of sadness by women" across literature during second-wave feminism. Nor does she merely document Mitchell's second marriage (to musician, collaborator, and producer Larry Klein) - instead, she links the star's impermanent wedded bliss to the lower divorce rates and overall heightened desire for domesticity in the 1980s, providing a stark contrast to the free love ethos that prevailed when Mitchell's career first blossomed.

Cue that comment about not being a biographer in the traditional sense. Powers approaches Mitchell's massive career as only a music journalist can, frequently editorializing about the icon's thoughts and emotions and beefing up the book with cross-cultural framework that varies in usefulness. However, Powers nets significant credit for dedicating a chapter to Mitchell's indelible (and to this day, unacknowledged) appearances in blackface as the cringeworthy character "Art Nouveau." Powers goes so far as to include a thought-provoking Q&A with Queens College professor Miles Grier about the subject, stating that no other Mitchell biography has dug so deeply into the thorny topic. Ironically, this uncomfortable but necessary portion of Traveling provides Powers' best example of mapping unexplored territory in Mitchell's life.

Ultimately, though, Traveling is defined by its myriad detours. Whether or not that's a good thing largely depends on whether or not the reader has the patience - or the will - to sit back and enjoy the scenic route.

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Added to Library on June 17, 2024. (226)

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