Watch Joni Mitchell Perform George Gershwin’s “Summertime”

“I’ve been a painter all my life. I’ve been a musi­cian most of my life. If you can paint with a brush, you can paint with words.” — Joni Mitchell

There’s been a lot of love for Joni Mitchell cir­cu­lat­ing of late, the sort of heart­felt out­pour­ing that typ­i­cal­ly accom­pa­nies news of an artist’s death.

For­tu­nate­ly, the beloved singer-song­writer has shown her­self to be very much alive, despite a 2015 brain aneurysm that ini­tial­ly left her unable to speak, walk, or play music.

As she quipped in a recent inter­view with Librar­i­an of Con­gress Car­la Hay­den, “I’m hard to dis­cour­age and hard to kill.”

How won­der­ful, then to be so ful­ly alive as a wind­fall of tes­ti­mo­ni­als roll in, describ­ing the per­son­al sig­nif­i­cance of her work, from the famous friends fet­ing her last month with a con­cert of her own com­po­si­tions as she was award­ed the Library of Con­gress Gersh­win Prize for Pop­u­lar Song to ordi­nary cit­i­zens with fond mem­o­ries of singing “The Cir­cle Game” at camp.

Mitchell says that song, which you can hear her singing above, along with last month’s all-star line up, “kind of became like Old Mac­Don­ald Had a Farm” owing to its camp­fire pop­u­lar­i­ty, though she resist­ed Hayden’s invi­ta­tion to explain its time­less appeal:

I don’t know. Why was Old Mac­Don­ald Had a Farm so time­less?

This 79-year-old legend’s grow­ing ten­den­cy to goof her way through inter­views is endear­ing, but the Gersh­win Prize is seri­ous busi­ness, intend­ed to “cel­e­brate the work of an artist whose career reflects the influ­ence, impact and achieve­ment in pro­mot­ing song as a vehi­cle of musi­cal expres­sion and cul­tur­al under­stand­ing.”

Per­former Cyn­di Lau­per reflect­ed that Mitchell’s influ­ence is not con­fined to the realm of music:

When I was grow­ing up the land­scape of music was most­ly men. There were a few women — far and few from me — and Joni Mitchell was the first artist who real­ly spoke about what it was like to be a woman nav­i­gat­ing in a male world … You taught me that I could be a mul­ti­me­dia artist if I want­ed, because you paint­ed and you wrote and you played and that’s what I want­ed and I thought, “Well, if you could do it, maybe I can do it too.”

Mitchell trained as a com­mer­cial artist. Her paint­ings and self-por­traits are fea­tured on the cov­ers of sev­en­teen albums. When Hay­den asked whether she pri­mar­i­ly con­ceives of her­self as a musi­cian or  artist, Mitchell went with artist, “because it’s more gen­er­al.”

I think that, you know, my songs are kind of, they’re not folk music, they’re not chat. They’re kind of art songs and they embody clas­si­cal things and jazzy things and folky things, you know, long line poet­ry. So yeah, I forged my iden­ti­ty very ear­ly as an artist. I’ve always thought of myself as an artist, but not specif­i­cal­ly as a musi­cian. You know, in some ways I’m just not a nor­mal musi­cian because I play in open tun­ings. I nev­er learned the neck of my gui­tar well enough to jam with oth­er peo­ple. I can jam if I lead, but I can’t real­ly fol­low.

She believes her paint­ing prac­tice enrich­es her song­writ­ing, much as crop rota­tion helps a field to remain fer­tile.

Not every artist switch­es lanes so effort­less­ly.

When Geor­gia O’Keeffe — who once told ART­news she’d choose to be rein­car­nat­ed as a “blond sopra­no who could sing high, clear notes with­out fear” — con­fid­ed that she would have liked to be a musi­cian as well as an artist, “but you can’t do both”, Mitchell claims to have respond­ed, “Yeah, you can. You just have to give up TV.”

Song­writ­ers George and Ira Gersh­win, name­sakes of the Prize for Pop­u­lar Song, were clos­er to Mitchell in terms of cre­ative omniv­o­rous­ness. Their self-por­traits hang in the Nation­al Por­trait Gallery and the Library of Con­gress’ Gersh­win room.

Mitchell was thrilled when Library staff pre­sent­ed her with a copy of the hand­writ­ten orig­i­nal score for her favorite George Gersh­win tune, “Sum­mer­time,” which she record­ed for Her­bie Hancock’s 1998 album, Gershwin’s World, sev­en years after an Inter­view mag­a­zine piece in which she referred to her voice as “mid­dle-aged now…like an old cel­lo.”

Twen­ty-five years lat­er, singing “Sum­mer­time” at the end of the con­cert in her hon­or, that cel­lo’s tones are seasoned…and even more mel­low.

I love the melody of (Sum­mer­time) and I like the sim­plic­i­ty of it. And I don’t know, I just I real­ly get a kick out of singing it.

Stream Joni Mitchell: The Library of Con­gress Gersh­win Prize, an all-star con­cert fea­tur­ing Bran­di Carlile, Annie Lennox, James Tay­lor, Her­bie Han­cock, Cyn­di Lau­per, and oth­er lumi­nar­ies, includ­ing the Lady of the Canyon her­self, for free on PBS through April 28.

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (4)
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  • H. A. Sappho says:

    I dis­cov­ered Joni Mitchell late, very late, while lis­ten­ing to her in an 8th floor apart­ment when I was liv­ing in Hanoi. For the next week I walked around those fre­net­ic Hanoi streets in a Joni Mitchell daze, aston­ished at the poet­ic depth of those lyrics sung by that incred­i­ble voice. I con­sid­er “Heji­ra” the great­est singer-song­writer album ever made—more so even than “Blue,” which gen­er­al­ly gets the nod as her best album. But why even rank them? Just say “Joni Mitchell” the way you’d say “Shake­speare,” and leave it at that. Because we’re talk­ing about one of the artis­tic sum­mits of world civ­i­liza­tion.

  • Deb says:

    I agree! And of all her albums, Heji­ra is the one that real­ly speaks to me. I dis­cov­ered her ear­ly, in the 1960s. I have fol­lowed her work for all these years. She is remark­ably gift­ed. She is bril­liant.

  • Karen says:

    I have been a fan of Joni Mitchell for many many years, back in the 60’s also, and she is absolute­ly fab­u­lous. I love all her songs with that beau­ti­ful voice but I think “A case of you” is my favorite. I LOVE her music.

  • Dawne says:

    It’s a shame that we did­n’t get to hear the entire ren­di­tion because PBS cut her off.

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