Beware sentences that start “Never before, that I can remember have we seen…”
But really, I have to say this: Never before, that I can remember, have we seen such weepy, adoring, ecstatic love for a 78-year-old female performer, one who many remember as a high-voiced, golden-haired maiden singing about the complexities of our youth.
Nor do I remember such a moving, natural and infectious reverse-generational female-to-female mentorship coming into fullest fruition before our very eyes. We women do know that, especially today, younger members of our gender look up to the women who paved the way for them: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Sandra Day O’Connor, all the fabulous Black NASA workers in Hidden Figures….even (per the new movie) Marilyn Monroe.
But music carries a magic all its own—and to see such love and nurturance in the especially magical realm was something else. In the late afternoon of July 24th the iconic Newport Folk Festival gave it to us as Joni Mitchell played her first full-set concert in two decades. The last time she performed at the Newport Folk Festival was 53 years ago.
Back to Health…and the Stage
Brandi Carlile promised an event that she was calling “Brandi Carlile and Friends.” It was cheekily titled, indeed—for, the main friend Brandi presented was, clearly, Joni Mitchell, whom Brandi had nurtured back to musical health for five years, taking it upon herself to make sure Americans of all ages did not forget what this woman had done and could do.
Two years after Joni’s nearly life-ending brain aneurysm in 2015, Brandi, a bright musical star in her own right and a late-blooming mega-fan of Joni’s music (the woman whom Brandi married said they would have to break up if Brandi didn’t fall in love with Joni) became very close to Joni. She started regularly visiting Joni’s Bel Air home, where live-in nurses and a very tight, mindful staff, was helping the determined Joni get back to walking, talking, painting, and thinking after a disaster so intense NPR, for one, had prepared an obituary on her.
There was no way she was not going to teach herself to play her guitar and her dulcimer again.
The two—36 and 73 at the time—became deep friends. Brandi started bringing fellow musicians to Joni’s house for jam sessions, Joni’s extraordinary outlay of music being the material of choice. Joni was never not going to come back to musical life after the aneurysm. She had beaten polio as a child in Saskatoon; she had lived alone and broke in a Yorkville rooming house as a pregnant, unmarried young woman from a fiercely traditional family. As she started to write the songs that would earn her respect and adoration while subsisting on donuts, she was unafraid to show her advancing pregnancy as she played in the folk clubs nightly.
She had given up her baby for adoption with intense, complex ambivalence, and the song that most reflected that state of wrenching wistfulness was “Both Sides Now.” She had abandoned the familiar for the comfortable time after time—leaving adoring Graham Nash to travel to the Mediterranean, where she enjoyed the half-playful, rough treatment of “mean old Daddy Carey” (that’s Cary Raditz, whom I’m pictured with below in a photo from ten years ago); she wrote “Carey” and “California” for him. She picked up hitchhikers driving cross country in a wig and a false name as she composed Hejira.
She left the comfort and the fan base of confessional folk music, which she had utterly conquered, for the world of jazz, where cynical jazz snobs were knocked out by her brilliant mastery of the genre. She endured the outrageous sexism of Rolling Stone, which, upon the 1971 release of what would later be known as her masterpiece Blue snidely called her rock’s “Old Lady of the Year”—and threw a drink in Jann Wenner’s face to get back at him.
So there was no way she was not going to teach herself to play her guitar and her dulcimer again. She did so, by watching videos of her old performances.
Barely a Dry Eye
Beside the main friend on stage in Newport with Brandi Carlile, were Brandi’s bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth and Celisse Henderson, and guests Allison Russell, Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius; Blake Mills, Taylor Goldsmith, Marcus Mumford and Wynona Judd. When the group moved behind her to form a human stage-back, Joni, in a black cap and white satin shirt and deep-red-and-blue tie (her white hair dangling down to her waist in two braids), looked thrilled. Next to her, Brandi—in deeply flowered coat and pants—looked just as triumphant. Friends! Women friends! 41 and 78! Each had given so much to the other over five years.
Women friends! 41 and 78! Each had given so much to the other over five years.
If the horrible (and getting worse) news of the January 6th insurrection hearings crowded half of the news world, Joni singing the songs of Blue filled the other half of that space. Millions watching the You-Tube wept and cheered. When Brandi and Joni sang duet on “A Case of You,” people were reminded that only a few writers could produce its wit, love, and lyrical meshing of snark and earnestness (“I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet”). Same, the fabulous toughness. (“Constant in the darkness? Where’s that at? If you want me I’ll be in the bar.”) Yes, this was the dame who threw a drink in Jann Wenner’s face.
But it was “Both Sides Now” that truly killed. The lyrical gorgeousness of taking clouds as life; of daily changing her feelings about a supposedly fixed reality, of understanding with each passing day how beautifully unknowable and chimerical life was: The very young Joni, with the high pitched, golden maiden’s voice, had written the song that, more than 55 years later, the older and deeply lived Joni, recovering from near death with her slow, raspy voice, would turn into what it was meant to be. There was barely a dry eye.
Good for the Soul
It was Judy Collins who had first brought Joni to the Newport Folk Festival in 1969. Judy had used her enormous stature to insist, to the festival board, that this great new talent be given a spot in the star-making event. Judy had introduced Joni to her friend Leonard Cohen at the festival (Joni wrote “A Case of You” largely about Cohen), and, with her beautiful, harpsichord-filled version of “Both Sides Now,” Judy had made the song a hit—a proudly, unquestionably female work—and a life raft for young women changing their lives, taking on the elegant dignity of an unconventional, self-made feminist path, the very journey Joni detailed in “Chelsea Morning” and “Cactus Tree.”
In these dispiriting Roe v. Wade overthrow days, it was magical to see a female musical genius get kudos at 78.
In these dispiriting Roe v. Wade overthrow days, it was magical to see a musical genius who happened to be female and who wrote quintessentially female works get kudos at 78. It was magical to see the loving friendship between these two cross-generational musical women. It was magical to see the name of a third major woman—Judy Collins—mentioned in all the coverage. And it was wonderful, in a “fuck you!” way, to see the woman who’d been voted “Old Lady of the Year” in 1971 become acknowledged, through this event, as—surpassing Dylan—the greatest singer-songwriter of recent time.
“Blue. Songs are like tattoos.” Yes. They are.
Sheila Weller is the author of eight books (three of them New York Times Bestsellers), including Carrie Fisher: A Life on the Edge and Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation, which Billboard magazine recently named #19 of the best music books of all time. She has been writer of major features for Vanity Fair, a recent longtime senior contributing editor at Glamour, a has written for the New York Times Opinion, Styles and Book Review and for just about every women’s magazine in existence. She has won 10 major magazine awards.