Many of us associate a certain piece of music, or a certain album, with a particular time in our lives or a particular time of year. The album I most closely associate with late winter is "Hejira" by Joni Mitchell.
Of all the pop/rock musicians who have come along during my lifetime, none has made a greater impression on me than Joni Mitchell. "Hejira," which was released at the end of 1976, was her last great work. I was exposed to it in early 1977, 40 years ago, and for that reason I remark on it now.
Those of us who love Joni's music can get lost in a discussion of which of her albums, and which of her songs, we love best, and de gustibus non disputandum, but my opinion is that "Hejira" was her greatest album ever, and one song on it, "Song For Sharon," was her masterpiece.
"Song For Sharon" is long - just under nine minutes - and almost epic in its scope. It's dedicated to Joni's best friend when she was growing up in Maidstone, Saskatchewan, in the 1950s, and it references the fact that Sharon had been planning a career as a professional singer, while Joni hoped to be a farm wife - but in adulthood, each realized the other's ambition. It starts with Joni recounting that she rode the ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island to visit a mandolin store, and on the way there the sight of a wedding dress in a store window triggered a long string of reminiscences: her longing for marriage and a family, years back; her failed romances; a friend's suicide. The sight of Manhattan's skyscrapers from the ferryboat made her think of the Native American construction workers who built them. The sight of the Statue of Liberty made her contemplate, eventually, the frivolity and aimlessness of her personal relationships and her longing for a conventional marriage.
The lyrics carry the song entirely. There's no chorus, no bridge, just verse after verse, telling a meandering but unified story. The instrumental accompaniment is just an elaborate vamp, by Joni on guitar, John Guerin on drums and Max Bennett on bass. The lyrics and the backing vocals carry the song entirely.
Oh, Lord, the backing vocals: They turn a great song into an incomparable experience. It's Joni's voice, overdubbed; it sounds distant, ethereal; at times it sounds like a chorus. I might call it an echo without an original sound. The story that the lyrics tell is interesting enough; the spectral background vocals emphasize that this is, in a way, a song about ghosts.
I got acquainted with this song, and with "Hejira," at an unhappy point in my life: I was 20, aimless, doing poorly in school, living in fairly squalid conditions of my own making, and I had just caused another young lady to run away in horror when she discovered that I had feelings for her. It was the dead of winter, that time of year when existential angst is felt all the more keenly and hope is just an abstract concept, if that. "Hejira" consists mostly of songs about frustration, wistfulness, uncertainty - about being in a state of uneasy, unstable transition. Thus, it was appropriate to my immediate situation.
"Song For Sharon" is, for the most part, a melancholy, almost fatalistic song: wryly humorous at times, but always conveying sadness above all. Like many great songs or poems, though, it's made great by the "volta": the little twist at the end that turns the listener's thoughts in another direction. In this case, a pessimistic, wistful song ends with a faint glimmer of consolation, and perhaps of promise:
But you still have your music
And I've still got my eyes on the land and the sky
You sing for your friends and your family
I'll walk green pastures by and by
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