Folkskeptic Alice Sage gives her heartfelt reasons why Mitchell’s music rules ok.
When I was fourteen I bought a copy of Song To A Seagull for my mum’s birthday. But by then she had lost her singing voice to a combination of old age and yelling at the kids in her inner-city reception class and the pretty, but unfeasibly high, vocals of Marcie or Night In The City just upset her as they slowly slipped out of her range.
I hated Joni Mitchell. All through my youth I was forced to endure awful, girly, emotional folk music – Donovan, Simon and Garfunkel, Buffy Sainte-Marie. Earnest and laboured hippy crap that my mother adored – born from singing in folk clubs through her teenage years.
However, the intricate, feathery lines of the cover image intrigued me. I’d put the CD on just to take out the inner sleeve and run my eyes over the colours and find the tiny, hidden signature. The story told through that album – tiring of a city, moving to the country, then finding the loneliness that had attacked you waiting out to sea – carefully imprinted itself in my mind. Almost without realising it had become a journey I loved coming back to, regardless of the fact that my mum had left it behind.
It didn’t take much persuasion to turn me on to Blue, Mitchell’s seminal LP and the (almost) undisputed rebirth of songwriting as personal storytelling. It takes the sex and broken-heartedness of the blues (rather aptly) and threads it through the free-roaming stream-of-consciousness style of good literature. If modern America has given anything of cultural importance to the world, that was it.
I loved the boldness of her scary face on the cover, the dark lines around her sad mouth. Through The Last Time I Saw Richard I could see my parents and their friends – the hedonism gone, the priorities moved on. Something so sad and at the same time so unapologetic – it described, quietly, everything I feel Bob Dylan struggles to say. It was nicely reassuring to read Mitchell’s recent (frankly, over-exposed) barb to the Los Angeles Times – that Bob Dylan was a fake and a thief.
After all that…
Folk music doesn’t seem so bad.
Mum died while I was still a teenager. I didn’t quite get to share my dreamy Joni love with her while she was still alive. Kidding myself I can sing along to California is her embarrassing legacy.
A friend made the point that, even though she’d hated the recorder since my mum had tried to make her play it, she now feels almost gleeful at its squeeky sound. Nostalgia does that to you. The almost unbearable chirpiness of Chelsea Morning does it for me!
Similarly, when I am sad, it is the bleak regret of River (ignoring its horrific association with Ally McBeal), the shameless wanderlust of Cactus Tree or the crumbling heartache of Michael From Mountains that makes me feel a-ok again. Rather, makes me cry uncontrollably for a few minutes, followed by feeling much better. It’s the same purging logic as drinking till you puke.
Anyone who dislikes Joni Mitchell won’t be persuaded by this sycophantic nonsense but be warned – nostalgia, sentimentality and whimsy come to us all, eventually. In my opinion it’s worth having these records in stock, for when the time is right for you. As Joni sang: all good dreamers pass this way. Someday.
It’ll be your turn soon.