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Joni Mitchell: Cactus Tree

I didn’t know who Joni Mitchell was until I went to college and fell in love—and really I can’t think of better music with which to have ventured all that acute desire, doubt, and ambivalence. The first of her albums with which I became properly obsessed was Mitchell’s fourth, Blue (1971), which, yes, translates to “A Case of You” on repeat for… a year? More, probably. But I did eventually work my way through the rest of her astonishing output, including Song to a Seagull (1968), her debut, which ends with “Cactus Tree.”

This piece is so beautifully constructed; so much of the story is told with irresistible details like, “She has brought them to her senses.” I also love its use of negative space—three of only five stanzas in which the proper subject of the song is merely a concept, an absence: “While she’s so busy being free.” Only in the penultimate stanza (There’s a lady in the city…”) is “she” finally addressed.

You know that thing they say about how the Mona Lisa’s eyes look at you no matter where you stand? “Cactus Tree” does that. As I hear it over time, it tells various stories: about connection, about reticence, the unsolvable puzzle of “yes” or “no,” independence, loneliness. With that final paradox, “her heart is full and hollow,” this song does one of the most comforting things a song can: it embraces the incongruous—something senseless and entirely true. I always want to hear it. 

Joni Mitchell: Hejira

So, Joni.  Her influence on my life is profound, and when I was asked to share five songs, I knew one would have to be Joni’s. The real challenge again was to choose only one song from her huge catalog. The first of her albums I encountered in my youth was Ladies of the Canyon, and it contains many of my favorites.  But as she released album after album, my list of favorites grew and grew until she finally ascended to a supreme position in my personal pantheon of best loved artists. Just as I had wanted to be Joan Baez back in the folk music days, later I wanted to be Joni Mitchell. She said everything I ever wanted to say much better than I could ever have said it. I never cease to marvel at her way with words, her melodic and harmonic ingenuity and her power to reach the hearts and souls of her audience. All this from a person who refers to herself as “a lonely painter” who lives “in a box of paints”, as she says in yet another of my favorite songs, “A Case of You”.

After weighing endless options, I finally flipped a coin and selected the title song from “Hejira”.  It’s vintage Joni and from the period just before her voice began to fray due to her obsessive love affair with American Spirit cigarettes. In this song we hear a very world weary Joni. The music is a simple but rich setting for the lyric—both brilliant and heartbreaking.

I’m traveling in some vehicle
I’m sitting in some café
A defector from these petty wars
That shell shock love away
There’s comfort in melancholy
When there’s no need to explain
It’s just as natural as the weather
In this moody sky today
In our possessive coupling
So much cannot be expressed
So now I’m returning to myself
These things that you and I suppressed
I see something of myself in everyone
Right at this moment of the world
As snow gathers like bolts of lace
Waltzing on a bridal girl

You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or you stick to some straighter line
Now here’s a man and woman sitting on a rock
They’re either going to thaw out or freeze
Listen
Sounds like Benny Goodman
Floating through the snowy trees
I’m porous with travel fever
But I’m so glad to be on my own
Still, the slightest touch of a stranger
Sets up a trembling in my bones
But I know no one’s going to show me everything
We come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone

Well, I looked at the granite markers
Those tributes to finality – to eternity
Then I looked at myself here
Chicken scratching for a piece of immortality
In the church they light the candles
And the wax rolls down like tears
There is the hope and hopelessness
I’ve witnessed all these years
We’re only particles of change – I know
Orbiting around the sun
But how can I have that point of view
When I’m bound and tied to someone
White flags of winter chimneys
Waving truce against the moon
In the mirrors of a modern bank
From the window of my hotel room

I’m traveling in some vehicle
I’m sitting in some café
A defector from the petty wars
Until love sucks me back that way

Joni Mitchell: Both Sides Now

Hello Reader-pals,

Today I’m all about multitasking. Our time together is nearing an end, yet I feel there is still so much amazing music I want to share with you! While contemplating my penultimate song selection I struggled to settle on a single artist. Thankfully, I came across my most beloved Joni Mitchell song, Both Sides Now and inspiration struck.

Now, Joni Mitchell is one of my top five favorite singer/songwriters. Her lyrics and ethereal soprano (later turned haunting contralto) sound have always resonated deeply with me. She has lead an interesting and diverse career spanning the genres of folk, pop, and jazz. Perhaps it is this chameleon-like flexibility that has made her songs so ripe for reinterpretation by other artists. Therein lies the inspiration Readers: we don’t have to settle for a single version of this fantastic song.

Mitchell wrote Both Sides Now in 1967 and while she would later record the song herself, it was premiered by Judy Collins (which earned Collins a 1968 Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance). Since then, the song has been covered hundreds of times by a vast array of artists: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Robert Goulet, Dianne Reeves, Herbie Hancock, Doris Day, Sara Bareilles, and most surprising to me, Leonard Nimoy…just to name a few (one song of the day, twelve hyperlinked videos and counting…See? Multitasking!). I am amazed by how each version differs from the next. It just goes to show that with a solid song as your foundation the possibilities are limitless. Even Joni herself took this to heart when she re-recorded the song later in life, opting for lush orchestrations that add weight and perspective to the years lived since writing the piece.

With so many amazing renditions out there, it is (clearly) hard to pin down a favorite for our Song of the Day. Luckily, one of my favorite humans has put his spin on it, making my life a little easier. Casey Breves is a dear friend and so incredibly talented that often my husband and I don’t refer to him as human at all, but as an Alien. Let me explain. See, we have this list of friends whose talent we find to be so unbelievably limitless that we’ve put them in the distinguished category of “Aliens.” They are so good, it can’t be humanly possible. It’s an inside joke, but is certainly no laughing matter. Casey’s voice is capable of incredible things. Born and raised in New York City, Casey studied at Yale where he engaged in an array of performances from opera to a capella. After graduating he joined the Grammy Award winning ensemble, Chanticleer singing in the Soprano section for three seasons. He then went on to pursue a career as a solo recording artist and has produced a diverse collection of original material and covers (several of which have gone viral on YouTube). I’m constantly impressed by his musicianship and creativity. Seriously, who thinks to combine French song with Adele? Casey, that’s who. I couldn’t dream of ending my week on this blog without sharing his immense gift with you.

Reader, I sincerely hope you enjoy Casey’s simple and honest delivery of this beautiful song. Thank you again for stopping by for this Thursday’s edition of Song of the Day. Fingers crossed, I haven’t thrown too much material at you, but if you’re anything like me there are always a dozen open tabs on the web browser anyways! Multitasking at it’s finest. Juggle on, my friends.  XO-M

Joni Mitchell: Big Yellow Taxi

Of all of today’s jaw-dropping political insanities, the fact-free, capricious dismissal of climate change strikes me as the most destructive and short-sighted. We can’t lose time, we can’t blame it on China, we can’t just tweet it away. I’ve been thinking obsessively about this Joni Mitchell classic for the past few days—“Big Yellow Taxi,” a cheerful tune with a sharp, still-timely environmental message. I first heard it when I was at college. Joni was a star by then, but for reasons I shall never understand she did a few nights at a little coffee-house in New Haven. I grabbed a friend and went to hear her. She came over to our table after the show and shared a few words with us—a very unpretentious, unguarded person at that time, amazingly sweet. In this video you can see the Joni I met that night, doing one of the songs she sang. I had hoped that “Big Yellow Taxi” would sound dated by now. Alas, it is as fresh and necessary as it was 46 years ago.

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