Friday, May 23, 2008

A Tribute to Joni Mitchell

The Genius of Joni Mitchell by Jon O'bergh

This is the third in a series on great artists.

Joni Mitchell rode to popularity during the folk music revival of the 1960s, but her music grew far beyond the confines of that genre in the ensuing decades. Even today, in a song like "If I Had a Heart" from Shine, her music retains roots in the strophic structure that characterizes folk music: instead of "verse / chorus," there is a series of verses ending with the same lyric. A good example of this pattern is "Amelia" from Hejira, where the hook that ends each verse is "Amelia, it was just a false alarm." (Sometimes, as in "If I Had a Heart" or "Court and Spark," Joni adds a contrasting bridge section.)

Whereas folk music traditionally sticks with simple chord progressions, Joni is harmonically adventurous with unorthodox guitar tunings, expanded chords and interesting chord progressions. In the 1970s her music took her closer and closer to jazz. At first, she would sneak in a jazz standard on an album: "Twisted" on Court and Spark, "Centerpiece" (with Joe Sample on piano) embedded in another song on The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Before long, she was writing her own jazz-inflected tunes like "Blue Motel Room" and "Jericho," followed by the album Mingus, a tribute to the legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus, who had called upon her in the last months of his life to work on a musical version of T.S. Elliot's Four Quartets, a project which ultimately was scrapped but served as the catalyst to the album.

A fine example of Joni's subtle genius with the traditional folk song format is the hauntingly poignant "Furry Sings the Blues" from Hejira, a paean to a vanished musical era in Memphis. The song is structured in four verses:

intro music
Verse 1
Verse 2
Verse 3
Verse 4
outro music

What makes the form distinctive is that each verse is comprised of three phrases rather than the typical two or four. And rather than end each verse with the repeated hook - "(Old) Furry sings the blues" - she places it at the beginning of the third phrase. She also rhythmically varies how she sings the hook. In the first verse, she sings "Furry" on the downbeat; in the second verse, she syncopates "Furry" by stretching the two syllables over the downbeat; in the third and fourth verse, the downbeat falls between "sings" and "the blues." She sings the hook a fifth time to bring closure at the end of the fourth verse, and here the downbeat falls between "Old" and "Furry." These differences are subtle, but they make the music less predictable than it would otherwise be. There are other subtle variations as well, as when she sings the line "carrion and mercy" in Verse 2, or in the irregularly phrased interludes between each verse.

Joni's lyrics are famous for their poetry, but it is the interplay between the lyrics and the music that raises her art to the level of genius. The music of "Furry Sings the Blues" has a haunted, languorous quality that evokes the ghosts and faded storefronts of the song - listen to how she draws out the word "ghosts," then drops the pitch on "history falls." In "Car on a Hill," the melody of "I watch for judgment anxiously" is set to a repeated ascending scale and pitched high, rising into falsetto, mimicking the growing sense of anxiety as she waits for her lover to arrive. When she sings "waiting for a car climbing, climbing, climbing the hill," the three repetitions of "climbing" underscore the repeated hopefulness and frustration as each car turns out not to be the one. Or take the humorous non sequiter "I was raised on robbery" in the song of the same name that evokes a voluble, aggressive woman. These are all subtle choices she makes, but they enhance the emotional power of the music.

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