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From Leonard Cohen to Graham Nash: 9 Joni Mitchell songs about real people

Joni Mitchell was a writer unafraid to pry the darker corners of her experience to create her lyrics. Often times that meant acknowledging the events of her real life, whether they be failed romantic relationships or impactful platonic collaborations. A fairly accurate autobiography of Mitchell can be traced throughout her songs, but she was known to embellish and add her own take when it suited her desire as a lyricist.

Some of these stories have become well known. Everybody seems to know that ‘Coyote’ is about Sam Shepard, or that ‘My Old Man’ refers to Graham Nash, or even that ‘Talk to Me is about Bob Dylan, or that ‘The Circle Game’ was a response to Neil Young’s ‘Sugar Mountain’. 

So let’s look at some of the less obvious real-life inspirations from Mitchell’s catalogue. Here are nine songs from Mitchell’s discography that were inspired by actual people.

9 Joni Mitchell songs about real people

‘I Had a King’ – Chuck Mitchell

The ways that Joni has described her ex-husband Chuck have ranged from unkind to utterly contemptuous. Married for a little over a year, Joni was unable to reach her full potential with Chuck at her side, with the restrictions and put-downs he levelled on to her taking their toll until she finally left him. “If you make a good marriage, God bless you,” she would tell New York Magazine in 2015. “If you make a bad marriage, become a philosopher.’ So I became a philosopher.”

There’s a temptation to label lines like “I had a king in a salt-rusted carriage/Who carried me off to his country for marriage too soon” as “confessional” due to the way they mirror real life, but that remains a vaguely insulting term pinned almost exclusively to women, so perhaps “reflective” is a better descriptor. Either way, lines like “He’s cleaned with the tears of an actor/Who fears for the laughter’s sting” don’t exactly paint Chuck in the most sympathetic light.

‘Rainy Night House’ – Leonard Cohen

Mitchell’s brief relationship with fellow folk hero Leonard Cohen was brief enough to be a passing footnote in both’s respective histories, but was impactful enough to inspire one of Mitchell’s songs from Ladies of the Canyon, ‘Rainy Night House’.

Certain ways of describing Cohen makes it clear that the relationship was always doomed, as Mitchell was a fan first of the “holy man on the F.M. radio,” creating an off-putting dynamic. Still, she gives him a favourable assessment in the lines: “You are a refugee/From a wealthy family/You gave up all the golden factories/To see, who in the world you might be.”

‘Willy’ – Graham Nash

Most famous of all the famous figures with whom Mitchell had relationships is Graham Nash, the former Hollie and then-current CSNY member. Their fondness for writing songs about each other manifested itself in other Micthell material like ‘My Old Man’ and Nash responding in kind with songs like ‘Our House’.

Mitchell’s writing never had such open devotion or complete amorousness as when she was writing about Nash. “There are still more reasons why I love him,” she said. “I would be his lady all my life.” Nash at this time was uncertain to what extent he was willing to give himself to Mitchell, but she provides some sound reasoning for why it might be worth it. “You know it’s hard to tell/When you’re in the spell if it’s wrong or if it’s real/But you’re bound to lose/If you let the blues get you scared to feel.”

‘Little Green’ – Kilauren Gibb

Perhaps the most heartbreaking song in Mitchell’s catalogue, ‘Little Green’ contends with the decision to give up a young child for adoption. The scenario wasn’t poetic license either: Mitchell had given up her own daughter, whom she named Kelly Dale and was later raised as Kilauren Gibb, when she was just 21-years-old.

The context brings lines like “child with a child pretending” into stark detail and makes other lines such as “so you sign all the papers in the family name/You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed” painfully obvious in retrospect, although no one had known about Mitchell’s daughter when the song first appeared on Blue

‘Amelia’ – Amelia Earhart

Hejira is a travel-centred album, and although Mitchell had toured around America a number of times prior to its conception, she went on a few more trips around the US to gain inspiration. During those journeys, she felt a posthumous bond with legendary pilot Amelia Earhart: two women flying solo and exploring the unknown on their own terms.

Her connection with Earhart mainly acts as a conduit for Mitchell to reflect on the love that she’s lost over the years. She worries that her own ambitions will lead her to share Earhart’s fate. “A ghost of aviation/She was swallowed by the sky/Or by the sea like me she had a dream to fly/Like Icarus ascending/On beautiful foolish arms.” 

‘Free Man in Paris’ – David Geffen

The inspirations behind her songs don’t always have to be so weighty. While there are a long list of ex’s and fallen heroes in her wake, Mitchell does occasionally take time to make lighter, less tragic references, like the tale she spins about Asylum Records label head David Geffen in ‘Free Man in Paris’.

References towards “stoking the star maker machinery/Behind the popular song” make it fairly obvious who Mitchell is talking about, even if she never mentions Geffen by name. Mitchell attempts to paint Geffen sympathetically, which doesn’t always match up with his noted reputation, but who among us can’t relate with wanting to feel “unfettered and alive”?

‘Furry Sings the Blues’ – Furry Lewis

As Mitchell continued to mature in her musical writing, her predilections towards jazz and blues began to take over her once folk-heavy repertoire. Her open chord shapes began to solidify into more grounded harmony inspired by figures like Herbie Hancock and Larry Carlton, both of whom worked with Mitchell as she edged ever-closer to explicit jazz.

Furry Lewis was not a collaborator, nor was he a jazz musician. He was an original Delta blues musician active mainly in the 1920s. Mitchell visited him in his dilapidated apartment on Beale Street in 1976. Lewis was furious with his depiction and despised the song, given that it’s not a particularly kind portrait, but Mitchell admits to not being surprised, considering how her “limo is shining on his shanty street.”

‘God Must Be a Boogie Man’ – Charles Mingus

For the final project of his legendary career, bassist Charles Mingus chose Mitchell as his last collaborator, illustrating Mitchell’s acceptance in the world of jazz. Mitchell spent extended periods of time with Mingus, and just two days before his death, she began composing a song with lyrics that she imagined Mingus would have found “hilarious”.

‘God Must Be A Boogie Man’ finds Mitchell attempting to inhabit the mind of Mingus and paint a sardonic self-portrait. In the end, Mitchell winds up taking a philosophical approach to Mingus the man and his often volatile nature. “World opinion’s not a lot of help/When a man’s only trying to find out/How to feel about himself.”

‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ – Lester Young

‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ was already a Mingus standard dedicated to Lester Young, the saxophonist who was known to sport the titular lid. The song was recorded only a few months after Young’s death from internal haemorrhaging caused by alcohol abuse. 

When Mitchell decided to add lyrics to the song, she took both Mingus’ view of Young and her own understanding of him into account. The lyrics describe chitlin circuits and New York night life, plus Mingus’ reflections on Young when he sees a Pork Pie hat shop in Mexico. Ultimately, the song is a tribute to two genius minds of jazz.

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