'Like Me, She Had A Dream to Fly'
“I’m traveling in some vehicle/I’m sitting in some café/A defector from the petty wars/That shell shocked love away” – Joni Mitchell, “Hejira”
I’m writing on a train from Amsterdam to Brussels. On either side of the tracks I see fields stretching out to the horizon, where the sky is blue and full of clouds that could turn threatening at any moment. The weather changes quickly here. The farmland is lush and orderly, ribbed with neat rows of trees and the canals that protect the Netherlands from sinking into the sea. Once in a while we spot an impossibly Dutch-looking windmill. (I am here because my band will begin a four-week tour of Germany later this month, so my bandmate Ellie, her sister Abby, and I flew out early to do some traveling in Europe.)
On this train, I’m listening to Joni Mitchell’s 1976 album Hejira, which I feel is the best possible album to listen to while traveling. The title comes from the Arabic word “Hijra,” meaning journey. Hejira is Joni’s road album – much of it was written during a cross-country drive, and the lyrics repeatedly reference highways, planes, motel rooms, faraway sometimes-lovers. There’s a horn here, some light percussion there, but overall Hejira is an electric guitar album. Gone are the pianos and dulcimers of Blue or the lush production of Court and Spark. On this album, the arrangements are sparser, and many of the songs seem like long variations on one complete idea. Joni’s guitars churn through each song with fingerpicked figures like a dark geometric river. This album marks Joni’s transition towards experimental jazz, and she uses the more complex harmonic structures to evoke restlessness and motion.
The album’s second track, "Amelia," is most likely the song I would name if forced to pick one all-time favorite song. I listen to it often with an almost meditative focus. It’s just over six minutes in length and contains only verses, no chorus, with a refrain at the end of each verse addressed to Amelia Earhart: “Amelia, it was just a false alarm.” As Joni identifies with Earhart's solitary journey and calls to her for communion, I commune with Joni by listening to this song. At this moment “Amelia” feels like it was written for the sole purpose of looking at the sky through the window of a moving vehicle in a foreign place. Put on “Amelia” the next time you’re traveling and you'll understand what I mean: the song is gently propulsive and cyclical, ever moving itself forward. The guitars intertwine and roll around each other, and the chords move between tonalities, never quite settling in either F major or G major. The guitar riff at the end of the verse seems to land in F, but then the verse begins again with an upwards lift – we’re somewhere near G major for now.
Joni describes “Amelia” in this way: "I was thinking of Amelia Earhart and addressing it from one solo pilot to another ... sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do." A group of women traveling without men is commonplace in 2017, but in a world that’s often hostile towards women, traveling on our own sometimes feels like a small defiance. It’s a way of announcing our presence in the world and taking up space in it. Joni, of course, did this on a much grander scale with her music.
I hesitate to bring my tribute to Joni Mitchell too far in the direction of feminism, as Joni has disavowed the movement in interviews. Whatever Joni’s misgivings were about the feminist movement, her music forced the world to make space for the full breadth of women’s ideas and experiences. And my understanding of Joni Mitchell – and, in truth, my understanding of most things – is impossible to separate from my knowledge of women’s struggle for equality. It’s hardwired in the way we forgive Neil Young or Bob Dylan their charming late-career cantankerousness while calling Joni “bitter,” or the way we praise Joni’s beautiful singing voice and confessional songwriting before considering her formidable chops as an experimental composer, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer. (She was the only producer credited on most of her albums.) Joni is, by any metric, a genius. Her singular creative vision bridged folk, jazz, pop, rock, and literature. Some of her songs (“The Jungle Line”) still sound forward-thinking 40 years after their release. Others are timeless. She wrote with unflinching honesty about sex, about leaving lovers behind, about environmental conservation and adoption and all the places she saw in her life of traveling. Her greatest gift is her ability to convey human emotion in a way that makes her listeners believe she knows them intimately (this, of course, can be a double-edged sword for any artist, a woman artist in particular).
Nov. 7 – yesterday – was Joni’s birthday, so I’m taking this moment to reflect on her career, her art, and its influence on me. As I move through the world on my own, I keep returning to her music: retuning my guitar to learn her songs, writing down her lyrics, singing her melodies. Or just repeatedly listening to “Amelia” while staring out the window of a train. Like many others, women and men, musicians and not, I draw strength and inspiration from the music of Joni Mitchell. I listen to her songs, and I understand myself a bit better.