Tag Archives: Joni Mitchell

Through a Vale of Tears: The Story-Song

Joni Mitchell in 1974 Wikipedia.org
Joni Mitchell in 1974  

To sing is to have the self confidence to make oneself more accessible to others. Perhaps this is what Augustine meant when he said that “the person who sings prays twice.”

Are there spheres of communication that have a perfect form?  Are there ways to express the nearly inexpressible? These are grand but interesting questions with at least a partial answer. One plausible way to adding meaning to a message is to carry its burdens in two dimensions: for example, in words and images, or in words and music.  Sometimes it seems like the world increasingly prefers the first option.  We have seemingly insatiable appetites for even bad video and film, with even worse sound.  But I keep coming back to the revelatory power of the other pairing centered on the aural: words and music. The combination can suddenly make apparent what cannot be made visible or represented in language alone.

The song–from folk to opera–is potentially expression times three: words laid within the “hooks” of melodies, modulated in attention-getting  triads within major or minor keys, and sometimes set literally to the rhythm of the heart. The effect is both poetic and disclosive, nudging the voice into a registers that seem to make the soul more transparent. To sing is to have the self confidence to make oneself  more accessible emotionally. I’d like to think this is what Augustine meant when he said that “the person who sings prays twice.”

Story-songs are a special case. Lately they’ve been celebrated in feature films such as the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), as well as popular documentaries such as Laura Archibald’s Greenwich Village: Music that Defined a Generation (2013).  And while it’s hard to avoid being hopelessly reductive when discussing music, it’s relentless pull on our attention  still manages to bait us into the effort. Bears have honey.  We have music.

Narrative ideas are sometimes worked out in so-called “concept albums.” Cabaret singer Nancy Lamott’s My Foolish Heart (1993) has a string of pieces that start with a couple’s first infatuation (The Best is Yet to Come) and ends 10 songs later in a relationship that is spent, the broken couple dividing up their books as they prepare to move on (Where do you Start?).  

The story-song goes even further to construct its own three act play, often in very personal terms.  And if there’s not always a full third act, there is at least the expressive power bound in a sequence of events cast in the prose of personal biography. Few working in this more intimate  style settle for the kinds of statements of sheer romantic bliss that iconic writers of the Great American Songbook took as their norm. Instead, the best are individualized narratives that still manage to tap feelings we already know. The story-song offers a para-history:  partly someone else’s biography and–because of the empathy  a fragment of sentiment evokes–partly ours as well. The effect can be transformative. The mingling of words and music in three or four chords can be more precious to its listeners than multi-million dollar films that often squander their mandates to tell a compelling story.

Identifying classics of this form will always be an idiosyncratic exercise. Story songs have obviously sprung from everywhere, including Southern Appalachia (Iris DeMent’s Our Town), the folk revivals of the 1960s and 70s (Bob Dylan’s Ballad in Plain D), Nashville (Taylor Swift’s Love Story), and even suburbia (Richard Shindell’s Hazel’s House).

There are so many songs that could be called iconic.  Everybody’s playlist is different and not to be dismissed. Consider a small sample:

For a full three-act narrative there’s Marty Robbins’ 1959 ballad, El Paso. To say that it got its share of airplay in its time is an understatement.  Robbins wrote it for his Gunfighter Ballads, album, doing in four minutes what the popular horse operas of the day spread over 90.  It retains the same masculine form emphasizing action over feelings as Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (1976). Lightfoot put to music the widely known drama of a Great Lakes freighter lost in a fierce Lake Superior storm.

Sometimes story-songs seem take us very close to a writer’s past, such as Dar Williams After all (2000), It recounts a family in disarray, and her subsequent bouts of depression as a younger woman.  Some of the same kind of despair exists in The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York (1987), where the alcohol-induced meltdown of the Irish group seems to be happening during the recording.

Kris Kristofferson once said to Joni Mitchell that she was maybe too biographical in her music: “Oh Joni – save something of yourself,” he cautioned after hearing one of her sets decades ago.  Her Night Ride Home (1991) avoids the darker cast of so much of her output. It it she simply celebrates the freedom of heading out with her friends in the band after a successful performance.  No cares or phones.

Two story-songs deserve special mention for the sheer beauty of their visions. One is Shindell’s, Wisteria.  If ever a song catches an adult’s wistful sense of a place he once knew, this might be it.  And there is also Michael Peter Smith’s The Dutchman (1968), an earnest folk song in the tradition of its era, and a surprisingly touching story of an aging couple trying to hold on. Woods Tea Company found the perfect venue to record it, using the kind of coffee house intimacy the ballad demands.

Story-songs usually have a melancholy cast. Ironically, they give pleasure by taking us through endless cycles of suffering and release.  In our world they are perhaps the closest counterpart to “the vale of tears” a Christian is said to pass through on the path to a better life.


Thanks to my daughter, Hilary Woodward, for introducing some of these songs to me.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

The Sentimental Songs of Dis-Connectivity

Source: Wikimedia
                              Source: Wikimedia

There was a time when connectivity was the enemy of our romance with imagined possibilities. 

The digital DJ in my iPod was on to something the other day when it decided to play a mix that started with Joni Mitchell’s Night Ride Home before proceeding on to Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie bouncing through the classic Tea for Two. 

Mitchell’s song is a favorite.  She rhapsodizes about hitting the “open road,” something that perhaps resonates more with a child of Saskatchewan. An unfettered stretch of highway is the perfect representation of escape from the narrow borderlands of the familiar and domestic. Perhaps I want to see this because I also spent my teens traveling the same kind of narrow asphalt ribbons that threaded through pines and aspens, sometimes reaching pockets of high-mountain snow refusing to yield even to August. The chance to fly along these highways alone or with a girlfriend made them all the more mysterious and promising.

A clear highway to the horizon was a potent adolescent meme. It meant freedom, and an opening to different and perhaps dangerous possibilities: the kind fearless independence suggested in the film Thelma and Louise.  Just without the cliff.

We can make too much of a few song lyrics, but I was struck with lines in both songs that referenced the pleasures of not being connected.  In those days there was romance in the idea of leaving behind the entrapments of the telephone, among other things. Mitchell sings about the pleasure of hitting the “open road” with her boyfriend with the promise of “No phones ’til Friday.”[1]

What’s changed?  How did the phone go from being a nuisance to what it is now:  an addictive preoccupation, especially for the young?

I can’t say I get the same thrill of infinite possibilities today rolling through the countryside of the Delaware Valley, pretty though it is. I’m older.  But for me the car is still an escape from the phone. The automobile salesperson was annoyed when I told him I had no interest in connecting my mobile device to the car’s “Sync” system. To be sure connecting an IPod made a lot of sense, even though the “Sync” lady responds to my requests for music as if I’m speaking Polish. My cell stays off but close, mostly because the not-so-open road now throws up obstacles that can make a night ride home more treacherous.

But here’s the point. There was a time when connectivity was the enemy of our romance with imagined possibilities. The phone was an instrument of obligation.  It represented unwanted entanglements and reminders.  Irving Caesar’s lyrics in Tea for Two promises lovers unbroken time together, uninterrupted by “friends or relations on weekend vacations.”  In this perfect space, he writes,

We won’t have it known
That we own a telephone, dear[2]

What’s changed?  How did the phone go from being a nuisance to what it is now:  an addictive preoccupation, especially for the young? I suspect this reversal is related to changing patterns of courtship and marriage. 50 or 60 years ago there was a clearer threshold that divided living with one’s family from the transition to launching an independent life. Among middle class teens, passing this milestone occurred earlier. And most couldn’t wait to be on their own. The open road in mid-twentieth century America was paved with endless possibilities that would end too soon. In those years, teens caught in the thrall of an escape fantasy could never imagine that Jack Kerouac or Peter Fonda would want to check in with mom every night.

For many reasons we are now less likely to see young couples pairing off into early marriage. Most depend on their cell phones to maintain a larger and less exclusive network of friends. To be sure, they still romanticize moving out of the shadows of the family. But the means for taking on the world is now less physical than psychical. Phones and their digital wonders now function as devices for transporting facsimiles of oneself onto social networks of peers. They promise a better life through the constant connectivity that seems a safer substitute for an actual search to find paradise just beyond the next hill.

So the modern versions of this old family appliance no longer carry the stigma of an unwanted tether. They are now instruments of an inner space few want to leave.         

[1] Joni Mitchell, Night Ride Home © 1988; Crazy Crow Music

[2] Vincent Youmans, Irving Caesar, Tea for Two
Copyright: Irving Caesar Music Corp., WB Music Corp.

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