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The Story Behind The Song: Joni Mitchell's classic 'Coyote'

“I suppose a lot of people could have written a lot of my other songs, but I feel the songs on Hejira could only have come from me.” – Joni Mitchell

Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell is one of the most influential and inspiring artists of the 20th century. An introspective individual, Mitchell’s works reflect on ideals and feelings that are at the same time personal to her, as well as pertinent to the world around her. She was greatly influenced by multiple cultures from around the globe and was one of the very few musicians who was able to translate that spirit into her songs — her writings are a balance between philosophy and reality. The profound ways in which she relates abstract feelings to reality, while also putting them into lyrics and song, is an approach difficult to master, yet Mitchell seems to do it so seamlessly. No better is this seen than on her album Hejira and her song ‘Coyote’.

Mitchell’s eighth studio album Hejira, released in 1977, was one that was pivotal to her identity as an individual, a musician and a performer. Hejira saw a steady shift from her pop records to a more freeform jazz and folk-inspired sound. The album was named after the word ‘Hegira’, which meant ‘departure’ or ‘migration’. It denoted the journey of Islamic Prophet Muhammed along with his followers from Mecca to Medina — an exodus, if you will. The album was written while Mitchell herself was on a series of road trips between the years 1975 and ’76, and the songs reflected her personal anecdotes as well as events that took place during that time.

‘Coyote’ is the opening song from the album, and with its rich texture and Mitchell’s stunning vocal, it really sets the tone for the rest of the songs to follow.

‘Coyote’ was written during a time when Mitchell was on tour to support the 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns. After the tour, she decided to take a road trip on her own, and it was during this jaunt that she wrote several songs, of which ‘Coyote’ was one. During this time Mitchell had joined Bob Dylan’s concert tour Rolling Thunder Revue. Here, she had met Sam Shepard, with whom she had a relationship that did not last very long, but enough for her to be inspired by it and write a song.

‘Coyote’, reportedly, was about Mitchell’s brief time with Sheppard, who Dylan had hired as a scriptwriter for the movie based on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Lyrically, ‘Coyote’ was somewhat metaphorical. It talked about an encounter that the narrator of the story had with the “coyote” – a ranch worker. These were two people from different backgrounds and struggled to find common ground. Their affair was a whirlwind of emotions, much of which the narrator put into words. 

In ‘Coyote’, there was both a send of arrival as well as a departure that was poignant throughout the song. It was an arrival to a place, the ways of which were new to Mitchell, a brief interlude – a halt in the course of the journey. It carried with it a sense of fleeting belongingness as well as an overbearing love to be free of all belongings and to live free.

The song did not feature a piano or keyboard and was simply composed with an accompanying acoustic and electric guitar, bass and percussions. At times, Mitchell’s soulful voice seemed to mesh with the sounds of the instruments, and at times, they were just a dramatic narration that had a certain melody to it, even though they were not sung to the tune. Multiple versions of ‘Coyote’ were recorded and released, almost similar, or perhaps with minor differences in sound here and there.

‘Coyote’, much like the rest of the album, Hejira, covered Mitchell’s life while on tour, her growth as an individual and as part of a collective. What made her all the more admirable was her ability to bring a very original twist to the song – sometimes in terms of music and sometimes in lyrics. Mitchell had the ability to leave her audience completely in awe with her mesmerising voice, and she had the ability to leave her accompanying instrumentalists perplexed with her unique style of playing the guitar and introduction of chords. She was as distinctive a singer-songwriter and musician as she was an individual, and that just made her all the more admirable as an artist.

Listen to Joni Mitchell’s enthralling performance in the studio version of ‘Coyote’, below.