Saturday, November 14, 2009

Name-Droppers: Joni Mitchell Edition

Joni Mitchell’s early career was marked by confessional songs about her relationships. It wasn’t hard to find out who each song was about, and people did. But, at that point, Mitchell never dropped a name in her songs. For this reason, these early songs possess a universal quality that makes them just as relevant to listeners today as they were then.

So what was it that inspired Mitchell to drop a name later in her career? It happened twice.

Joni Mitchell: Furry Sings the Blues


Furry Lewis was a blues musician in Memphis in the 1920s. At the time, Beale St, his chosen haunt, was a center of lawlessness of every kind. Gambling, drinking, prostitution, and drugs all thrived here. And so did the medicine shows. A medicine show would feature musical and other entertainment, and then the main event would be a pitch for some sham medication. Lewis was a noted medicine show performer.

For thirty years after that, Lewis disappeared from view. Then, in the folk revival that began in the 1950s, Furry Lewis was rediscovered along with so many others. But many of these revival artists made artistic compromises to try to stay in the game. Even the great Lightnin’ Hopkins plugged in. But not Lewis. He played his music just as he had thirty years earlier. And he continued to do so for the rest of his life.

Joni Mitchell had sung songs about resisting artistic compromises in the past, For Free being one example. So I think this is why she was drawn to Furry Lewis in particular. Furry Sings the Blues appeared in 1976, and Lewis would still sing for another five years. He passed on in 1981.

Joni Mitchell: Goodbye Pork Pie Hat


Mitchell’s version of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat is an unusual example of vocalese. Charles Mingus wrote the original, instrumental version in 1959, as a tribute to Lester Young. Mingus counted Young not just as an admired fellow musician, but also as a friend. The song became a jazz standard. Twenty years later, Mingus had asked Mitchell to collaborate with him on what would be his final work. As they got to know each other, Mingus shared his reminiscences of Lester Young. Mitchell then shaped these into the lyrics for Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. What is unusual is that this version features an entirely new musical arrangement, done in collaboration with the creator of the original work.

Mitchell was going to do Goodbye Pork Pie Hat in any case, due to the extraordinary nature of the project it was a part of. But Lester Young was also uncompromising. In his case, this applies to not only his music, but also to his resistance of the social pressures of his time.

blog comments powered by Disqus