Joni’s Lonely Road to Freedom

Two things I like to do when it rains too hard to do anything of political value: watch movies (when and if I can) and listen to Joni Mitchell.

Anticipating rain last week, I decided I would buy myself the DVD I have been agonizing to buy. It was a rare find: A two-disk DVD set (for the price of two DVDs, ugh…) featuring a documentary of Joni Mitchell’s life, and one of her last concerts before retiring from singing. Titled “Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind,” the documentary traces the life of Joni from childhood to her full maturity as an artist and musician. It’s a wonderful story of a very talented, passionate woman who poured her heart out into her songs.

In an interview, Joni says she often felt vulnerable and naked because of her songs that when someone even stares at her she would be close to bursting into tears.Can’t say I can relate to that, though I know the feeling of being vulnerable and wanting to hide from people. And who would not feel vulnerable, if you were writing lyrics like: “Hey blue, here is a song for you / Ink on a pin / Underneath the skin / An empty space to fill in / Well there’re so many sinking now / You’ve got to keep thinking / You can make it through these waves” (“Blue”).

But her songs are not always only heartwrenching. Sometimes they are funny, too, though still probably peppered with allegories of episodes in Joni’s life, like “Chelsea Morning,” or “Big Yellow Taxi.” Later in her career, like most artists, Joni sought to expand her music by venturing into country/rock, world music, and jazz.

To me, though, it is still the early Joni Mitchell that most beautifully captures her genius. Listening to the Blue album on a rainy afternoon, for instance, made me recall my own personal struggles: wanting independence but afraid of letting go of familiar things. After breaking up with fellow musician Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills, and Nash), Joni was said to have travelled across America and Canada alone, pondering upon the sacrifices she made and will be making (including love) in embarking upon a life of music, struggling with the contradictions between personal happiness and professional fulfillment.

As she sings “All I Want” (“I am on a lonely road and I am traveling / Looking for the key to set me free”), I thought about how difficult it is for many of us to let go of familiar things, things which we have been used to doing and having and which, ironically, continue to enslave us. Like sexism, which Joni struggled against all through her life. Like all the other oppressions that we face everyday, from our family, to our work, to our society.

It turns out that we only have to follow Joni Mitchell’s example of travelling that difficult, “lonely road” that leads to being free.


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