By Adam Corrigan Holowitz
I am listening to Joni Mitchell as I ride the train from Toronto back home to London. In preparation for the upcoming production of “Joni Mitchell: River,” at The Grand Theatre, I am re-listening to my Joni playlist.
It is a true pleasure to listen to music as some of the most beautiful countryside passes me by. This is the joy of experiencing the connection between music and landscape, song and geography.
The music of Joni Mitchell seems especially connected to our landscape.
As Canadians we identify her musical cannon as one of the cornerstones of our cultural iconography. I certainly feel that affinity to her songs today as I ride the train. In songs like “Circle Game” you can see the billowing clouds of her home province of Saskatchewan. Or perhaps you may see a Lawren Harris-esque cloud formation over a northern lake.
In “Case of You” she sings:
“Just before our love got lost you said
“I am as constant as a northern star”
And I said “Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar”
On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
With your face sketched on it twice
Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet”
You can hear the expansive size of our country echo when Joni sings “I drew a map of Canada” and to reiterate the size she echoes “Oh Canada.” We hear about being constant as the Northern Star. Listening to the song I can see the clear white light beaming down from Polaris across the snow covered map of Canada. These are big images and juxtaposed against these massive images is an intimate love story. A story that takes place in bars, is seen in the reflection of TV screens and is drawn on the back of coasters.
Since I was very young Joni Mitchell has been part of my musical palette. When I was about eight years old Mitchell released her fully orchestrated album “Travelogue” (2002). That album is a favourite of my mother and seemed to be in the record player constantly in our house when it came out. Songs that you hear at a young age become part of your subconscious. The lyrics from the title track of Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece “Blue” album ring true for me “Blue songs are like tattoos.” Her lyrics for me, and I am sure many others, are tattooed onto our mindscape. They are also tattooed on our Canadian landscape. That is the Canadian’s understanding of her work.
Photo by Adam Corrigan Holowitz.
But wait, really what are the songs of Joni Mitchell about?
For us, the Canadian audience, her songs are tied with Canada, but Mitchell’s music is often much more about wanderlust. Mitchell’s music is about traveling and trying to find your way to home you have yet to find.
Joni Mitchell now lives in California and she does not have great sentiment for her home town in Saskatchewan. Her songs from “Amelia” to “Carey” are about a longing to find a home or home in a loved one.
Amelia by Joni Mitchell [YouTube]
Carey by Joni Mitchell [YouTube]
Both “Amelia” and “Carey” use desert imagery and both songs are about characters moving on. In “Carey” we hear about the African wind. it is clear that the hot wind kept the main character awake during the night and now she is ready to move on.
“Amelia” has two narratives. One is about the character driving through the desert. The other is about Amelia Earhart’s desire to fly around the world. The chorus of the song is the main character speaking to Amelia trying to reassure her in her hour of distress that “it’s just a false alarm.”
Often there is contradiction between what the public sees in Joni Mitchell’s music and what the music may be about. These are songs that are synonymous with Canada and yet are also about trying to find home somewhere else. Though she is seen as a songstress of the sixties, she is unsentimental about the sixties. Mitchell has said in an interview that free love was only really good for the guys.
And Mitchell has known that first hand. She had to give up her daughter to adoption in 1965. The father had left town, and Mitchell was young with little financial means just starting to play clubs in Toronto. She had to keep the pregnancy a secret from her parents back in Saskatchewan. For almost three decades she kept the fact that she had had daughter quiet until she began to actively search for her child. She has said that all her songs she has wrote came from a deep longing for her daughter. When in the late nineties daughter and mother were reunited Mitchell stopped writing original material. The need was no longer there. The longing was gone, that search for home had concluded. Only recently has Mitchell begun writing again.
The art of Joni Mitchell’s music is that they are specific and yet enigmatic. The music is universal in its meaning and so they speak to us all in different ways. Depending on who is listening they may be songs about the Canadian landscape, or about wanderlust. Searching for a lost loved one, a child, or they may be tied to memories of dancing with your loved one. As the song goes “songs like tattoos” that stick to our mind.
Joni Mitchell: River
The Grand Theatre
Oct. 18 to Nov. 5
Tickets from $29.95