11.26.2017

listening to joni: #1: joni mitchell (song to a seagull)

This is my first post in my re-listen to the music of Joni Mitchell in chronological order of album release. These posts come with all kinds of disclaimers, chiefly that I don't know what I'm doing.

I wanted to write about the two Reckless Daughter books before starting on these posts, but I'm ready to move on to the second album, and haven't yet finished the books. So here we go.

* * * *

Joni Mitchell (Song to a Seagull), 1968

Song to a Seagull, front cover
I hadn't listened to this album in a very long time -- probably not since childhood. I am the youngest of three siblings, and got into music much earlier than my peers, listening to anything my older siblings had. My sister and I adored Joni and listened to her obsessively. Of course in the present, all the songs came back to me immediately (long-term memory is amazing) and I knew many of the lyrics.

The songs on this album hang together as a whole, which was very common in those days. The album is also thematically divided by sides: "Part I: I Came to the City", and "Part II: Out of the City and Down to the Seaside".

Joni Mitchell's early music is usually referred to as folk or folk rock. As I listened to this album over the past weeks, I kept thinking, This is not folk. There is nothing folk music about it. I was glad to see my view validated by Joni herself: in the anthology, in separate interviews over much of her career, Joni insists that she never recorded folk music. At the start of her career, she performed folk music in clubs and at festivals, but once she recorded her own music, it was never folk. But, she says, she looked the part -- female, long hair, acoustic guitar -- and no one knew what else to call her music, so they slapped on the folk label. Twenty, 30, and 40 years later, journalists were still referring to her as "folk music turned jazz singer" and the like.

Full cover, opened to show back (left) and front (right)
I read various descriptions of what comprises folk, folk-rock or folk revival, but didn't find any clear definition. To my own ears, folk and folk rock music usually have fairly simple lyrics, simple guitar chords, basic melodies (often a stock melody used for many different songs) and are full of repetitive choruses or refrains. Taken together, these elements make folks songs easy for anyone to play and conducive to sing-alongs -- hence folk, which means people.

Song to a Seagull has none of those elements. Musically, Joni is already using the open tunings for which she will become famous, her playing already distinctively Joni. The melodies are complex and often unpredictable -- or almost nonexistent. The lyrics are dense and intricate.

Repeated refrains or choruses are absent, too. In most songs, the closest thing to a refrain is one repeated line -- "And she's so busy being free" (Cactus Tree) or "My dreams with the seagulls fly / Out of reach out of cry" (Song to a Seagull) or "All his seadreams come to me" (The Dawntreader) -- or a line that changes a bit in each stanza -- "We have a rocking chair" (Sistowbell Lane) or "Red is..., Green is...." (Marcie). "Night in the City" has an actual refrain, but Joni's impossibly high notes render it impossible for most singalongs.

The most quintessential Joni song on this album is also, for me, its best song: "Cactus Tree". It is only 1967, and Joni is already exploring what would become one of her central themes: the conflict between love and freedom. Each time the line repeats -- "she was off somewhere being free" -- it is sung with more urgency. In the Reckless Daughter anthology, every review mentioned this song. Many critics hear it as laced with regret, but I hear it as a wistful understanding. It is also a bold disruption of the popular image of women waiting for men to settle down and marry them.

After three stanzas about the different men who court her, the song turns to the woman herself.

Inside Cover
There's a lady in the city
And she thinks she loves them all
There's the one who's thinking of her
And the one who sometimes calls
There's the one who writes her letters
With his facts and figures scrawl
She has brought them to her senses
They have laughed inside her laughter
Now she rallies her defences
For she fears that one will ask her
For eternity
And she's so busy being free

The woman is full of love, but she knows that commitment, for her, will be poison. Perhaps the next, final verse signals a tinge of regret, as she describes the woman's heart "as full and hollow as a cactus tree" -- not exactly an image of warmth and comfort. (This is the first of many cacti in Joni's songs.) But the cactus is also strong, a survivor, and the heart is not only hollow, it is also full. She knows "they will lose her if they follow". She knows herself well, so she "rallies her defences".

Other great songs on this album are "Michael From Mountains," "Night in the City," and "Marcie". Some of the songs also have a kind of pompous feel. In "I Had a King" -- said to be about Joni's brief marriage to Chuck Mitchell -- lines like "he's taken the curtains down" and the repeated "they never can" with the big flourish finish, seem too much like proclaiming. Such was 1967.

This is an astonishing debut, especially when we consider it doesn't contain some of her best-known early songs. Judy Collins had already become famous for Joni's "Both Sides, Now", "Urge for Going" had been covered by both Tom Rush and George Hamilton IV, and Joni herself sang "Circle Game", "Chelsea Morning," and "The Song About the Midway" in clubs and festivals. According to biographer David Yaffe, in those days it was not uncommon for an artist to release only one or two major songs on their debut album, and save the really amazing stuff for their second album, once they had built a following. Bob Dylan is a great example of that, and Joni clearly did it, too. Yaffe says that by the time Joni went into the studio with her then-boyfriend and nominal producer David Crosby, she had enough original material to fill three albums.

The album cover

Although the title "Song to a Seagull" is clear in the photo (above), on the album itself, it's barely visible. It's written in the Vs that are birds in flight. I always assumed the album was called "Joni Mitchell," and I think many others thought so, too.

The cover art is Joni's own drawing, and it references all the songs in the album, along with two fish-eye photos of Joni in a city, and some Hirschfeld-esque drawings of her own name.

Other musicians on this album

David Crosby is listed as producer, but apparently what he did most was keep others from ruining the music. Stephen Stills plays bass. Everything else is Joni, including background vocals and a bit of piano on "Night in the City".

3 comments:

allan said...

I don't know what I'm doing

You should maybe delete that because you clearly know exactly what the hell you are doing: Writing great stuff about music you know and love. Maybe more commentary on your personal connection to the music will come with later albums. There are old clips online of Joni performing from this time period (and earlier, I think, on a local Canadian station). Are you going to include and comment on those?

(I believe this project is the time during which I finally get you to listen to THE HISSING DEMOS!)

allan said...

Rolling Stone, May 17, 1969
Introducing Joni Mitchell
The Canadian-born singer-songwriter makes folk music hip again

Into this newly re-ploughed field has stepped Joni Mitchell, composer, singer, guitarist, painter, and poetess from Alberta, Canada.

Miss Mitchell, a wispy 25-year-old blonde ... A second album — recorded during successful concerts at UC Berkeley and at Carnegie Hall — is ready for release, and another studio album has already been recorded. She is editing a book of poetry and artwork; a volume of her compositions will follow shortly. And she has received a movie offer (to conceive, script and score a film). ...

Just who — and what — is Joni Mitchell, this girl who's so obviously perched on the verge?

To those who don't spend hours in audio labs studying the shades, tones, and nuances of the human voice, Miss Mitchell is just a singer who sounds like Joan Baez or Judy Collins. She has that fluttery but controlled kind of soprano, the kind that can slide effortlessly from the middle register to piercing highs in mid-word.

Like Baez, Miss Mitchell plays a fluid acoustic guitar; like Collins, she can switch to the piano once in a while. And her compositions reflect the influences of Cohen.

On stage, however, she is her own woman. Where Joan Baez is the embattled but still charming Joan of Arc of the non-violence crusade, and where Judy Collins is the regal, long-time lady-in-waiting of the folk-pop world, Joni Mitchell is a fresh, incredibly beautiful innocent/experienced girl/woman.

***

We were talking about that idea of holding back some of your best songs for a second (and maybe third) album. Don't you run the risk that the first album will tank and there won't be a second album? Maybe only people with a sizeable pile of good songs did that. If someone had only two or three good songs, they (and the label) probably wanted them all on the debut.

laura k said...

Thank you Allan.

I wasn't planning on writing about performances or biography or anything else but the albums, and as you say, my personal connection to the music. But things have a way of growing.

About the first-album question, I have something from the book to share. Next comment.