Sunday, April 15, 2012

Suites and Medleys: Harry’s House/ Centerpiece

Joni Mitchell: Harry‘s House/ Centerpiece


Most songs are fairly straightforward. They have one story to tell, or one mood to express. But there are times when musicians are inspired to greater complexity. They will string together a song that inspired them with the results of that inspiration. Or they will create a piece of music that features shifting moods and concepts. These are suites and medleys, and we will be looking at them all week. Roughly, a suite is a unified piece of music that features distinct sections with musical and emotional shifts, while a medley is a set of songs where one blends into the next, but the songs can be separated out and performed as individual works. But there are times when it is hard to tell the difference.

Consider our first example: Harry’s House/ Centerpiece by Joni Mitchell. Centerpiece is a cover. It was originally an instrumental by Harry “Sweets” Edison. Jon Hendricks then added words to it, for his group Lambert Hendricks and Ross. Considering that Mitchell had previously covered the group’s song Twisted, I don’t doubt that it was Lambert Hendricks and Ross’ version of Centerpiece that inspired Mitchell. All of this would seem to indicate that Harry’s House/ Centerpiece is a medley. But Harry’s House is a Mitchell original. The song finds its male narrator thinking of how his marriage has shattered his idealism about love. He and his wife have become completely overwhelmed by the burdens of raising children and the pressures of maintaining their lifestyle and reputations. Yet Harry can still remember the purity of the love he first felt. He does this in a flashback to how things were in the beginning of their relationship, and Mitchell uses Centerpiece for this flashback. So one can find performances of Centerpiece without Harry’s House, but Harry’s House is incomplete without Centerpiece. For this reason, I would call Harry’s House/ Centerpiece a suite. The juxtaposition of the two songs makes a brilliant statement.

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