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Music

The Bob Dylan song that inspired Joni Mitchell’s career

@TomTaylorFO

Joni Mitchell’s relationship with Bob Dylan is an interesting one, to say the least. In the past, she has called him a fraud, claimed she didn’t like singing with him on The Rolling Thunder Revue because his breath smelt, and also eulogised his songwriting as the force that opened up the second chapter of her career where wild new heights were reached. Much like Dylan’s love/hate anthem of ‘Just Like A Woman’, that is a list that proves positively bipartisan. 

For now, however, we will focus on the songwriting front. From his first paid gig at Gerde’s Folk City where a sign was mocked up calling him the “Son of Jack Elliott”, all the way up to ‘Murder Most Foul’ which Nick Cave described as sounding as though “it has travelled a great distance, through stretches of time, full of an earned integrity and stature that soothes in the way of a lullaby, a chant, or a prayer,” Dylan his simultaneously been a timeless connection to the past while illuminating the future. 

Along that timeless path that he has followed, his only guide seems to have been his own wandering muse—a muse that never adhered to the will of baying crowds but dared obey its own obfuscated set of wavering rules. With this profound sense of freedom to give license to the whims and wherewithal of creative meanderings and snatch a semblance of beauty and understanding from anywhere and everywhere, he has inspired generations of songwriters, and as Dylan said himself what can be greater than that: “The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?”

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And with one song, in particular, he inspired everything that has followed from Joni Mitchell. If there is a better break-up middle finger in music than the lambasting that Dylan offers up in ‘Positively 4thStreet’ then it needs to make itself known. Somehow, he coupled all the hysterical rage of stubbing your toe while completely emersed in flame, with the subdued air of superiority and above-it-all apathy.

The beauty of the track is the juxtaposition that Dylan offered, with an unbridled disdain which he parades on a sanguine soundscape to give the impression of pure hard-earned indifference. He tops it all off with a final verse that is high in the running for the greatest breakup verses ever penned, where he proves hell hath no fury like Dylan scorned by raging: “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes / And just for that one moment I could be you / Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes / You’d know what a drag it is to see you.”

The visceral fury that undercuts the barely bothered surface is one that Mitchell absorbed eagerly. “There came a point when I heard a Dylan song called ‘Positively Fourth Street’,” Mitchell opined when reflecting on her early songwriting change, “and I thought ‘oh my God, you can write about anything in songs’. It was like a revelation to me”. From that moment on, she dared to be bold, forgo the old folk standards and harness the power of unfettered individual sincerity. 

Speaking to Clive David she later reflected: “My early work is kind of fantasy, which is why I sort of rejected it”. Many of Mitchell’s early songs were takes on traditional folk pieces which go back to time immemorial. However, she quickly ditched the traditional for something a little closer to the heart, “I started scraping my own soul more and more and got more humanity in it. It scared the singer-songwriters around me; the men seemed to be nervous about it, almost like [Bob] Dylan plugging in and going electric. Like, ‘Does this mean we have to do this now?’ But over time, I think it did make an influence. It encouraged people to write more from their own experience.”

In its infancy the folk scene lived on covers and Mitchell was informed that nobody would cover her songs because they were too personal, “And yet, that’s not true, they’re getting a lot of covers,” Mitchell refuted. “It’s just humanness that I’m trying to describe. This generation is ready for what I had to say, I guess, and is not so nervous about it.” If Dylan held this door open, then Blue was the moment that Mitchell masterfully waltzed through it like she was walking onto a yacht.