Road Warrior: ‘Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell’

Paul Wilner

There’s some grainy footage of a 1966 performance by Joni Mitchell on a show called “Let’s Sing Out” for students at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. When you first see Mitchell, she looks like “girl singer’’ furniture, a la Mary Travers, as the trio she’s playing with motor through a painfully corny tune that could be an outtake from A Mighty Wind, the documentary spoof about a folk music reunion concert. But wait.

When Mitchell steps forward to sing her deeply autobiographical tune, “Urge for Going,’’ you feel a collective breath going out, not just from the audience but from her sidemen, who look at her in wonder—and a bit of fear. Who, and what, is that? Good question.

Longtime music and cultural critic Ann Powers takes on—and deconstructs—the iconic stature that Mitchell has long since attained with the power of her words and often spiky, challenging persona in Powers’s new book, Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell. Wisely, Powers eschews any attempt to answer the riddle through conventional methods like interviewing the singer-songwriter and veteran shape-shifter.

David Yaffe has previously been down this road in his 2017 biography, Reckless Daughter, only to find himself exiled from main street (though ultimately reprieved) when Mitchell didn’t like a phrase he included in a profile of her for The New York Times.

Powers takes a different tack, admitting that when her editor first approached her about taking on the book, “my feelings about her were more abstract than ardent.’’ While respecting the “diamond shine of her voice,’’ Powers preferred the “messy” passion of Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and angry punk rockers, confessing to mixed feelings about Mitchell’s image as an unattainably blond, beautiful hippie goddess. In some ways, Traveling resembles a memoir, as Powers intersperses her lived experiences, including her adoption of a daughter, to explain why she doesn’t go deep into Mitchell’s private drama from her youth, when she gave up a daughter for adoption, addressed in her moving tune, “Little Green.’’ (“So you sign all the papers in the family name/ You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed/Little Green, have a happy ending.’’)

She even interrogates the name game, noting that “throughout her life, she would be ‘Joni’ in public, ‘Joan’ to close friends and ‘Joni’ when the textual or musical encounter was public but felt more private.’’ While deploring the potential trivialization, pointing out that no one (except the famed hipster comedian Lord Buckley) called Shakespeare “Willie the Shake,’’ she elects here to use “Joni’’ and “Mitchell’’ interchangeably “when it came to my slippery subject.

In the tradition of predecessors like pioneering rock journalist Ellen Willis, Powers is sensitive to racial dynamics, which she explored at length in her earlier book, the wonderfully titled Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music. She critiques Mitchell’s (admittedly questionable) decision to pose in black face as a pimp on the cover of her 1977 album, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Although certainly provocative—it would never fly today—it didn’t seem to have bothered Mitchell’s many Black collaborators, including Chaka Khan and Wayne Shorter (who both played on the album), Herbie Hancock, and famously, Charles Mingus. (Her work also came up recently in a right-wing rant from a now-former NPR staffer critical of the network’s alleged liberal bias, citing a 2021 NPR essay on the Beatles and the “band guy’’ syndrome as somehow vindicating his thesis. Get off my lawn, indeed.)

Powers takes an evenhanded look at Mitchell’s famous feuds with Rolling Stone, which once named her “Old Lady of the Year,’’ noting that the magazine’s Random Notes column was “always a gossip rag,’’ dissing performers of both genders.

To her credit, Powers devotes considerable space to Mitchell’s mid-career achievements, including the underrated Mingus album she wrote in collaboration with the great bassist. She’s deeply knowledgeable about the gear that cranks the machinery, in studios and boardrooms, of the music scene. There was certainly a lull of interest in Mitchell’s work in the ’80s, but that decade was a dead zone for many other musicians, including her frenemy Bob Dylan, and has more to do with commodity culture’s baked-in desire to move on to the next new thing than the quality of her work and relentlessly creative ambition.

Traveling reaches a crescendo in the author’s depiction of a rare close encounter with Mitchell, when the singer was receiving an honorary degree from McGill University in Montreal and attended a “meditation’’ Powers was giving on Blue, her inarguable masterpiece. No spoilers here, but suffice to say that an emotional connection was forged—fittingly, with a surprise ending.

Keeping things real, Powers also confesses to discomfort with the current genuflection about Mitchell’s post-stroke return to performance at last year’s Newport Folk Festival. The world watched, and wept—but Powers, though moved, found herself missing the tougher, more defiant singer as she witnessed the onstage woman basking in a sea of adoration. I get it—Mitchell has always been famously “difficult,’’ to her credit. But I’m not sure I agree. I see her smiling, and feeling the love—but there’s still a glint in her eye, and a warning. Joni is still Joni: mess with her at your peril. Ann Powers does her complex legacy justice, and then some, in this essential book.

Paul Wilner is a contributing editor at ZYZZYVA.

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