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ASCAP Founder's Award: Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

by Randall Grimmett
ASCAP website
May 17, 1999

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Songwriter-Artist Joni Mitchell Honored with the ASCAP Founders Award at the 16th Annual ASCAP Pop Music Awards

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Joni Mitchell, Madonna, Alanis Morissette, Jewel, Will Smith, Sean "Puffy" Combs, No Doubt, Diane Warren, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Shawn Colvin, Jermaine Dupri, Mase, Fiona Apple, Fastball, Natalie Merchant, The Beastie Boys, Usher, Next, Donna Lewis, and Edgar Bronfman, Jr. were among those honored May 17th at the 16th annual ASCAP Pop Music Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Over 700 leading songwriters, recording artists, and music industry notables gathered to salute the songwriters and publishers of ASCAP's most performed songs of the year at the black tie gala, hosted by Academy Award-winning songwriter, ASCAP President and Chairman Marilyn Bergman. The event featured special performances by Stevie Wonder, Brian McKnight and the songwriting team of Beth Neilsen Chapman and Annie Roboff. LeAnn Rimes and Janet Jackson were special presenters. Other music and entertainment luminaries in attendance included Warren G, Montel Jordan, Mase, Tia & Tamara Mowry, Jermaine Dupri, No Doubt and Wild Orchid.

A highlight of the evening was the presentation of the ASCAP Founders Award to legendary songwriter and recording artist Joni Mitchell for her singular achievements as a songwriter and as an influence on generations of music creators and performers. "This award recognizes a truly original talent in music, a woman whose classic songs have succeeded as works of art and as commercial successes," said Marilyn Bergman. "Joni Mitchell's influence has been incalculable, and she is most deserving of this award, the highest honor ASCAP bestows on a songwriter," Mitchell's songwriting credits include: "Both Sides Now;" "Big Yellow Taxi;" "The Circle Game;" "Help Me; " Chelsea Morning; " Urge for Going" and "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio," and "Free Man In Paris." Janet Jackson and Stevie Wonder participated in the tribute to Mitchell, which featured a special performance of Mitchell's "Woodstock" by Stevie Wonder.

The following text was written for the event by Randall Grimmett and appeared on the ASCAP website.

The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes lamented, "There is no new thing under the sun." The 20th Century poet, Ezra Pound, responded, "Make it new!" The artist's challenge has always been to make it new. With the exception of filmed arts (which are now over one hundred years old), the mediums have been much the same since the dawn of humankind; painting, textile, architecture, music and literature. What a challenge then to make something that is millions of years old, new.

And yet, each generation gives us artists who rise to meet that challenge. Not only do they meet it over their lifetime with their body of work, but a small few will meet the challenge within their body of work. Joni Mitchell is among less than a handful of 20th Century songwriters whose work both resonates with history and is surprising, enlightening and completely modern. And Joni Mitchell has been able to infuse all of her artistry with art's most necessary components; truth and beauty.

But, these are loaded words -- truth and beauty. Truth: It is the essence of the thing. Truth is a refining tool. It can come both hard and painful or subtly and as a revelation. Beauty: A delight of the senses and the mind. Beauty is always subject to the particular filter of the individual. Given their seeming malleability, to raise one's art through truth and beauty is particularly difficult.

For over thirty years, Joni Mitchell has endeavored to raise her art through truth and beauty. She has understood that all art has the potential to stand the test of time, and the body of work for which we honor her tonight will undoubtedly be some of the most revered and remembered work by generations to come. But this endeavor is not an easy one, nor one that is honored for its own sake. Joni has written:

We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone
Well I looked at the granite markers
Those tributes to finality-to eternity
And then I looked at myself here
Chicken scratching for my immortality.

What glorious chicken scratching it has been! Joni's description of her work is a subtle way in which her intellectual acuity is underplayed in her work. Few songwriters have engaged the intellect as deftly as Joni Mitchell has, and even fewer have done it through as many recurring themes or as varied a musical palette.

Joni has written of love, naturally, but has also written honestly and insightfully about travel, remembrance, culture, justice, civility, society, sexuality, nature, art, ever-present parents and longed-for children. She has done it acoustically, orchestrally, as rock songs, folk songs, jazz songs, blues songs, gospel songs, coloured by rhythm, world-beat, electronica and a capella. Most of these things long, long before they were vogue.

Throughout her career, Mitchell has embraced many musical idioms. She has made each of them her own by synthesizing each style through her particular magical musical artistry. On each of her twenty records, Joni's technical mastery and poetic proficiency result in profound achievement.

Joni has always been a poet. From her debut album to last year's Taming The Tiger, her lyrics have made her work inimitable. Each song has its compelling lyrics and each displays something that is quintessentially Joni: The marriage of common event and intellectual insight that is a hallmark of her music. The profundity that comes to her (and is memorialized in her work) comes in everyday ways, the way profound things often come in life; in bars, at parties, at friend's houses, over dinner, over drinks, over photo albums, while dancing, while taking a break from dancing, at stoplights, on long drives, on midways, at carnivals and through hearing an old favorite song.

But there is always more to the artistry that runs throughout Joni Mitchell's music. There is the complexity of the music itself, coupled with the visceral images that spring forth from all of Joni's lyrics. But, one also senses the painterly vision that is so integral to the music of Joni Mitchell.

She dreams "paprika plains and a turquoise river snaking." And with just the painter's finesse, she leaves the rest of the dreaming to the listener. A painting only captures one moment in time, but its resonance can be manifold. In her nearly seventeen minute long song, "Paprika Plains," the stage is set by the color of Joni' s lyrical description, but the dreaming is musical. There are no sung lyrics for nearly eleven minutes as the orchestra weaves through the dreaming landscape of both the artist's and the audiences' mind. And then.

Then the rain that has drawn out the memory and the dream "retreats like troops to fall on other fields and streets." And back on the dance floor, the night finds its rhythm again and lovers float back into each other' s arms. "Paprika Plains" is only one of Joni's songs and only one of many places in which she has put to use her prowess as a songwriter who is uniquely alone as a visionary poet, truth-teller and ruminating philosopher.

The tension that exists between the artist's desire to attain and their sometimes forced connection to enterprise has been a running theme in Joni's work. The balance that must be struck to tread the tightrope between art and commerce have resulted in some of her most insightful songs.

"In some office sits a poet/And he trembles as he sings/And he asks some guy/To circulate his soul around..." she sings on the title track to 1972's For The Roses. "For The Roses" speaks to a theme -- subjecting artistic integrity to the public's fancy and the corporate machinations -- that has recurred throughout her work. The ASCAP Founder's Award is most appropriately given to a songwriter who strives to create a body of work that is rich with artistry, who does not repeat herself and whose legacy is so like the legacy left by ASCAP's founders, among them Victor Herbert, Jerome Kern and John Philip Sousa.

But, back to truth and beauty for a moment. Joni has written ironically, "We can solve everything in science." But the artist knows that science is of little use to the eternal questions, the ones that are best dealt with by art and its magnification of truth and beauty.

Human history will have its milestones. Each successive generation will look back on the waves on which they rode to arrive at their moment in time and will almost always find the answers to the questions they ask in the arts. In 1994, Joni Mitchell said, "The arts are an important part of cultural justice, and truth and beauty are the essence of their greatness, so artists have big responsibility in every era to probe the rules by which we live, inquiring whether they serve us well."

Tonight, we recognize Joni Mitchell for honoring that responsibility through her words, music -- her immortal "chicken scratching" -- and the immeasurably deep artistic legacy that she has created.

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