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Music

What freedom means to Joni Mitchell

@SamWKemp

While the post-war generation loved to talk about freedom, very few of them had met its opposite, captivity. Joni Mitchell, however, had a pretty good understanding of what an absence of freedom felt like. Struck down at the age of eight with polio, Mitchell was bedridden for weeks on end. Locked away in her room, and haunted by the thought that she might never walk again, art was her only escape. Indeed, it was in the hospital a hundred miles from her home that she first decided she wanted to be a singer. Here lies one of the fascinating paradoxes about freedom: that its very existence as a concept is founded upon its absence. Onto those four white walls of her hospital room, Mitchell projected a life beyond them.

When she emerged from her isolation, Joni Mitchell began a journey that would see her become one of the most revered singer-songwriters of the hippie age. She herself became a poster child for that movement, coming to embody the feminine ideal of the day. But this, in her eyes, was just another kind of prison. With her 1971 album, Blue, she escaped the narrow parameters she’d been assigned by an industry dominated by men and demonstrated that she did indeed – contrary to what her male contemporaries might have believed – contain multitudes.

Mitchell’s understanding of freedom was bound up with her creativity, which, as she often implied, was a reflection of her growth as an individual – a diaristic rendering of a life in constant motion. “My growth has been slow, like a crescendo of growth, based on my dissatisfaction with the previous project, where I thought was weak, not what the critics thought,” she told Malka Marom.

Adding: “The critics dismissed a lot of what I thought was my growth and praised a lot of what I thought common about my work. I disagreed with most of them. So I had to rely a lot on my own opinions, not to say that I wasn’t constantly asking them for advice and mulling it around, not dismissing it.”

Blue is the perfect demonstration of Mitchell’s understanding of freedom. She used that album to capture her inner life in all its complexity. While it was quite the risk, in her eyes, there was no alternative: “Freedom to me is the luxury of being able to follow the path of the heart. I think that’s the only way that you maintain the magic in your life, that you keep your child alive. Freedom is necessary for me in order to create and if I cannot create I don’t feel alive.”

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