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Joni Mitchell's Hejira: A Little Travelin' Music   Print

by Noel Coppage
Stereo Review
March 1977

A lady bug mysteriously appeared on the arm of my old ratty-green music-listening chair in the cold, raw throes of November, just as I was getting to know Joni Mitchell's new album. The lady bug is a friend of man; back when I had a garden and other trappings of a fixed address, I used to order them through the mail and they would arrive and presumably eat up some of my enemies. This one was in such a wrong place at such a wrong time that I looked at it more closely than I once would have. What it looked like was a tiny pre-Rabbit Volkswagen, down to and including the orange paint job that has been available on those for several years. Where it came from is still a mystery, but what I hope is that it came in the mail, in the packaging with Joni Mitchell's album, for it is fitting that this tiny little live reminder of an automobile should accompany Mitchell's latest searching examination of wanderlust.

When Mitchell wrote *Urge for Going* years ago, she wasn't kidding. She has dealt with travel again and again in her music, travel and love, travel because of love, travel to sort out love, and even travel to escape love. Here, though, she has refined or distilled certain aspects of this into a seemingly irreducible poetry; she's articulated this connection between love and travel as she sees it, and she has gently fostered an acceptance of the white-line fever in her soul, seeing the highway not as a place she is exiled to (as in "Hit the road, Jack, and don't you come back no more, no more") but as a place of refuge.

"Hejira," the word Mitchell chose as the name of the album and of an important song in it, is a word rich enough in connotation to suggest she is talking about running away *with* her troubles and faith instead of *from* them. Specifically, the word, usually spelled "hegira," means the start of the Mohammedan era, A.D. 622, when Mohammed, trying to escape persecution, migrated from Mecca to Medina. The word is applied more generally to emigrations of the faithful; the Koran calls such emigrants *Muhajirun* and tells them they are honored persons. The idea of there being honor and dignity in being a refugee from one's home - one's love-nest in the case of this album, one's Mecca you might call it if the one you're dealing with loves love as much as Joni Mitchell has told us she does - adds a certain distinction to the album. Mitchell's way of writing about travel as a person rather than as a performer is subtler than most of her colleagues can manage. Her lyrics are more direct and frontal than they've been recently and the lines are ear-catching. You may wonder what in blazes she's trying to do with *sound*, this time not because the melodies are difficult to track but because the arrangements seem so...well, unpremeditated. The instruments make sounds unlike themselves, almost random sometimes, except they do go together, and maybe this is what travelling music *should* sound like when the travel is for its own sake, rather than toward or away from something. We've been conditioned to think

of travelling music as having a bee-line quality, with eight-wheel drivers heard through rhythm guitars, train whistles in harmonicas, and so forth. Mitchell's travels in the album are meandering, and her goals lie not at the end but in the process: "I've gone coast to coast just to contemplate."

A couple of times she seems to be writing to friends, putting down what she thinks to capture it for herself (as writers do) in *Amelia* and *Song for Sharon*. And what she thinks about a lot is the old urge for going: "I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust...I dreamed of 747's over geometric farms...Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms."..."Sharon, I left my man at a North Dakota junction, and I came to the Big Apple here to face the dream's malfunction." She unburdens herself quite a lot to Sharon, in fact, even to the point of facing what a temptation it is to stop, to settle down with a husband and the kind of life Sharon appears to have. That song runs for eight and a half minutes and doesn't seem long at all, it deals so well with doubts and longings that go with this nomadic state. "There's a wide, wide world of noble causes," she says, "and lovely landscapes to discover...but all I really want to do right now is find another lover."

Images of herself travelling haunt every song in the album, in any case. Mitchell senses that movement symbolizes freedom down deep in the genes of the culture, and threatening freedom is one of the things love does. The culture, however, in its development, has conditioned and browbeaten us to put security ahead of both freedom *and* love, and this - since we also need security to *some* degree - has confused our contemplation of the old conflicting yens to be autonomous and yet to attach ourselves to others. One can have a little of all three, but the question is, what are the proportions that will work? Let us go and seek the answer, Mitchell says, not go *somewhere*, just go - which means, first of all, we have to think positively about the going. A hejira is a flight from something, but not a panic-driven mad rush with one's mind, one's faith, in a shambles; it is an emigration, a dignified process with hope in it. Most people, their security needs culturally inflated, don't do it. "...It made most people nervous," Joni says. "They just didn't want to know what I was seeing in the refuge in [sic] the roads."

Well, doing what makes other people nervous, being brave and seeing what she can learn from what ensues, is Joni Mitchell's job as she has defined it. She's stood up well to her own tough standards here, producing not answers or platitudes or advice but a way of grappling with the questions - and producing literature, poetry, and, in the bargain, pushing back the frontiers of the sound of travel music a little.

Which reminds me: I wonder what kind of car she drives (probably not a Volkswagen; "I'm rich and I'm fey," she tells the ghost of W.C. Handy, and if *I* were those I wouldn't drive a VW). And *that* reminds me that I haven't seen the out-of-season lady bug for a couple of days.

 

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