Joni Mitchell, en français dans le texte

Quelques jours après avoir lu un article du Monde sur la récente biographie Joni Mitchell, Songs Are Like Tattoos (Édouard Graham, Les Mots et le Reste, 2017), je me suis retrouvé en librairie, et, sérendipité, j’ai trouvé l’ouvrage. Petite fiche de lecture.

9782360542420FS[1]Joni Mitchell Never Lies

Tout d’abord, je viens à Mitchell en “néophyte”, moi qui ne connait, à part Hejira, que sa “période folk”, des œuvres “de jeunesse” dont elle n’aura de cesse de s’affranchir par la suite de sa carrière. Car c’est par mon premier prof de guitare que j’ai découvert la magie et la complexité de chansons comme Both Sides Now ou Chelsea Hotel. Ensuite, je me suis rendu compte qu’en bon enfant des années 90, j’avais évidemment entendu le sample de son Big Yellow Taxi sur une chanson de Janet Jackson dont le clip montre une jeune Mitchell sur un écran de télé et où l’on peut entendre “Joni Mitchell never lies.”

La biographie par Graham commence donc avant la naissance de Joni, dont les parents attendait un garçon. Elle s’achèvera sur l’hospitalisation de Mitchell et son issue, heureuse: Joni Mitchell apparaissant à un concert de Chick Corea en aout 2016. Au fil des albums, l’auteur effectue des flashbacks sur des moments de la vie de Mitchell qui ont inspiré telle ou telle chanson.

Car chaque album est présenté dans son détail, piste par piste. Riche en décorticage musical, ces descriptions permettent même aux illettrés musicaux tels que moi de comprendre un peu plus le talent de composition d’une femme qui n’a jamais fait de solfège. N’importe quel guitariste qui a tenté de joué Mitchell sait qu’elle affectionne les accordages alternatifs (plus d’une trentaine utilisés en fin de carrière), et l’auteur  nous montre qu’au-delà de cette particularité, Mitchell est tout aussi novatrice avec d’autres instruments (piano désaccordé, percussions africaines, latino-américaines, saxo jazzy, voix en contrepoint…) ou dans sa composition.

Les performances de Joni, en solo, avec un groupe, à la télévision ou lors d’évènements caritatifs sont aussi amplement détaillées autant dans les setlists que dans l’attitude de Joni à chacune d’entre elle. Cela laisse voir une personne de caractère, qui n’hésitera pas à répondre à un fan demandant un rappel que personne n’a osé demander à Van Gogh de peindre un deuxième Nuit Étoilée. Des années plus tard, elle répondra à une demande similaire qu’elle n’est pas un juke box.

L’engagement politique de l’artiste (pour l’écologie, en faveur des peuples natifs des US et du Canada, pour le droit des femmes) n’est pas en reste.

Tout cela donne un portait contrasté d’une artiste complète et complexe, et de son œuvre protéiforme; et fait du livre, grâce à sa structure très narrative, une belle entrée dans la carrière de Mitchell, ou un outil d’approfondissement pour ceux qui (comme moi) s’étaient limités à la période “folk” de l’artiste.

Comment ne pas parler d’une femme

Là où la biographie pèche le plus, c’est dans le traitement de la vie de Mitchell. Le Monde arguait que “Edouard Graham combine, par une écriture précise, l’analyse et le factuel.” Je ne peux malheureusement pas souscrire à cette description. Dans son analyse des textes et de leur portée autobiographique, Graham évite l’écueil de simplifier la portée des textes: il souligne en effet que ceux-ci dépasse la simple “confession” (qu’on attribue souvent aux auteures/interprètes féminines) pour devenir des œuvres d’arts ou des messages universels. Par contre, quand il s’agit de s’attaquer lui même à la vie de femme de Mitchell, il reste encore du travail.

J’ai trouvé plusieurs formules particulièrement… maladroites ? Ainsi pour décrire sa dernière performance vocale en direct, Graham nous explique que “c’est une jeune vieille dame un peu épaissie qui se lance dans un “Furry Sings The Blues”.” (p.372) L’oxymore n’excuse pas la description aussi inutile que déplacée sur la silhouette de l’autre/compositrice/musicienne/interprète. (Bon, on peut se “rassurer” en ce disant qu’une attention presque équitable aura été portée par l’auteur à la calvitie de James Taylor…)

3677[1]Pas mieux quand il s’agit d’aborder la vie amoureuse de Joni. Alors que l’auteur souligne que Mitchell a été ulcérée quand Rolling Stone a publié une cartographie de ses relations sentimentales, il ne se prive pas de placer des phrases telles que “rien moins que trois ex-amants ont été sollicités pour assurer les chœurs: David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor…” (p. 168)

Ces relations sont mises en scène par l’auteur avec une certaine théâtralité: Joni Mitchell participe en 1986 à un concert caritatif mais ne chante pas en solo lors du grand final “contrairement à ceux qui ont négocié leur tour au sein de cette foire d’empoigne: Joan Baez ou Jackson Brown, par exemple A quelques pas, la rivale historique et l’ex-amant méprisé accaparent des micros. Légèrement en retrait, enlacée par un Larry Klein protecteur, la Canadienne regarde ailleurs.” (p.269)

On en arrive ainsi au trope de la rivalité féminine. L’auteur oppose Mitchell à Baez en plusieurs endroit du livre, ou en supposant une rivalité entre Joni Mitchell et Judee Sill (p.109) Alors, certes, Mitchell s’en est prise à Baez dans la presse, mais bon, elle s’en est aussi prise à tout un tas d’autres musiciens homme ou femme (dont Dylan), sans que l’auteur ne le mentionne. La rivalité entre femmes est toujours plus vendeuse. Ainsi l’auteur ne peut pas s’empêcher de faire une petite référence à un “crêpage de chignon, diversement rapporté par la presse” (p. 324) entre Carly Simon et Chrissie Hynde lors d’un concert de Joni en 1995. Intérêt pour la description du concert en question ? Aucun.Bread & Roses IV

Ces défauts m’ont donc un peu fait grincer des dents à la lecture, mais la richesse des informations biographiques et musicales font de se livre une très bonne lecture pour quiconque aime la musique nord américaine en général, rockeur.se, folkeux.se, jazz.wo.man ou simple mélomane.

« Joni Mitchell, Songs Are Like Tattoos », d’Edouard Graham, éd. Le Mot et le reste, 24 €.

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Every goddam reason Joan Baez is Rock and Roll

Let’s face it, she DOES belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She’s never really gone electric, she got famous singing British ballads and the occasional country tune, and you can’t really compare her lifestyle to that of Janis Joplin. But if the definition of folk music is today elastic enough to accommodate acts like Mumford & Sons or First Aid Kit that rely more or less heavily on electric guitars, basses, drums and synths… then Rock & Roll can live with Baez as a high priestess.Baezprotest

1) Because she’s “a Secret Badass”

I mean, come on, when even Rolling Stones calls you Badass, you belong to any Rock and Roll pantheon.

In 2010, when she was invited to perform at a White House celebration of music from the civil-rights era, Baez refused a request, from Michelle Obama, to sing “If I Had a Hammer.” “That is the most annoying song,” Baez says. “I told them, ‘If I had a hammer – I’d hit myself on the head. Ain’t gonna do it.’ ”

The article goes on to prove (as if proof was needed) that Baez is as relevant today as she was back in the sixties, leading the way as a protest singer (for Civil Rights and against Vietnam War in the sixties, to Standing Rock and Women’s marches in the late 2010s through Sarajevo in the 1990s.


2) Because she “rocked the folk world”

She got her start in Boston, and the Boston Globe hasn’t forgotten it. Recalling those early days, the journalist writes:

Almost overnight, Baez was a sensation, attracting a following of motorcycle-riding Harvard boys. When she made her second appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960, she showed up in a hipster’s hearse, with a biker escort. She was the “Rebel Queen,” wrote Rooney and Von Schmidt.

Yup, before Dylan went electric at Newport, Baez went biker chick (chic?) The article of the Globe focuses on Baez’ rock and roll personality and style of performance, which belies the image she used to give.

3) Because she’s an “American Master”

A little older now (2009), this hour-long documentary follows Baez’ musical and militant career. Watching her walk to school with Black kids in Birmingham or walk among the ruins of eastern Europe, it’s hard to ignore the drive and the implication of Baez who’s sweet pristine soprano (in her early days) does little to hide her drive and iron determination to make the world a better, fairer place. And if going against the system for such reasons isn’t rock and roll, then nothing is.s

4) Because she wrote Diamonds and Rust:

Finally, the best proof that Baez is indeed Rock and Roll is perhaps her most famous song, Diamonds and Rust. Ironic and disenchanted, this tune written and composed by Baez has been covered by Judas Priest and Ritchie Blackmore’s band, thus proving that it belonged to the rock and roll canon. The way Baez sings it today, with her voice fully using its lower register, gives it even more grit.

5) Because Patti Smith said so:

If Patti Smith invites you to rock, you ARE rock.

She was suddenly among us, not claiming to lead but leading by example, guiding us towards a new path of creative expression synonymous with activism civil rights and the anti war movement. 16th century had their Joan of Arc, and we have our Joan Baez. – Patti Smith

Songbirds/jailbirds: the “tradition” of prison performance

A few days ago, all-around Goddess Rhiannon Giddens performed and gave a workshop in Sing Sing penitentiary, a maximum-security prison. A surprising and yet logical choice for the artiste whose sophomore solo-album was just released on Feb. 24th under the title of Freedom Highway. As explained in a New York Times article, Giddens had previously attended a concert at the facility, which inspired her to write a track that would be feature on her album: Better Get it Right The First Time, which has been presented in most reviews as a “Black Lives Matter Anthem.” The song, about police brutality, is replete with reference to “standing [one’s] ground” the infamous law used as a defense by George Zimmerman after he shot Trayvon Martin in 2012, being “shot anyway”, etc… What drove her to write the piece after this initial visit to Sing Sing is the realization of how skewed the penal system was in the US.  “I was struck by how black the population is. I knew that in my head, but seeing it just kind of hurt.” A perception that is confirmed by most statistics, as those of the NAACP. This disproportionate incarceration rate has far-reaching effects on African-Americans convicts during and after their incarceration, and on the families as well, as described in an analysis by the Washington Post. This issue could only affect Rhiannon Giddens, whose new album centers around self-penned songs based on slave narratives. Ironically, she couldn’t play Better Get it Right The First Time at Sing Sing due to its subject matter.

giddens-prison
Karsten Moran for the New York Times

Giddens is not the first roots artist to go down this road. Part of Johnny Cash’s legend is probably due to his 1968 Live At Folsom Prison and 1969 Live At Saint Quentin.

Cash had received letters from inmates after performing Folsom Prison Blues for the first time and decided to stage a concert a prison, bringing along his second wife, June Carter.

A few years later, in 1972, BB King and Joan Baez, among other, would take the stage at Sing Sing, setting a precedent for Giddens’ performance. In the clip below, Baez and her sister Mimi Fariña sing and banter with the inmates, with an interesting choice of songs: Dylan’s I Shall be Released and Viva Mi Patria Bolivia. The Baez sisters being of Mexican heritage on their father’s side, the choice to sing a Latin American song in Spanish could be interpreted along the lines drawn by Rhiannon Giddens in her observation on the make up of the prison’s population.The cheers they draw from the crowd as they begin the song seems to indicate that the latino population is also over-represented at the penitentiary. A problem that still persists into the 21st century.

Prisons and convicts have also often been a source of inspiration for root artists. But that’s another story, and shall be covered in another blog post. Stay tuned!

Rhiannon Giddens performed at Sing Sing thorugh the Musical Connection program of Carnegie Hall: https://www.carnegiehall.org/musicalconnections/singsing/
The late Mimi Fariña started her own foundation to bring music to people in various institutions: prisons, hospitals, nursing homes…. http://www.breadandroses.org/

Underwhelming Valentine’s day folk songs

Folk and roots music hasn’t never been the happiest, especially when love is concerned. I won’t even get into the murder ballads… but I couldn’t resist compiling a little playlist of songs of longing, lost love and absence. Enjoy (or not.)

The complaint of the forlorn lover

Once I had a sweetheart, and now I have none
He’s gone he’s left me me, to weep and to mourn.

This classic British folk song has been covered by Joan Baez, Pentangle, or Marianne Faithful, but my favorite version is by newcomer Pippa Day in the finals of Bath Folk Festival New Shoots competition.

My heart is sad I am lonely
For the only one I love
When shall I see him oh no never
‘Til we meet in heaven above

Crossing over the ocean, a classic among classics of American folk, Bury Me Beneath the Willow has been a favorite lament to sing during old-time jams. Simple an evocative, the narrator is penning his/her final words to a spouse-to-be who eloped with another. I may be partial to Rosanne Cash’s version as it was my first introduction to the song, but I find her velvet voice to carry just the right hue of resignation and acceptance, with a tinge of desperation.

 

Are you lonesome tonight, do you miss me, I say
Are you sorry we drifted apart

From the Carter Family to Elvis, everyone and their broken-hearted dog seems to have covered this song, so I just randomly picked Kacey Musgrave’s version.

Country heartbreak

Love is like a dyin’ ember
Only memories remain
Through the ages I’ll remember
Blue eyes cryin’ in the rain

Country music coming from a rural place, the niceties of love often had to face the hardships of life. Needless to say, happy endings rarely prevail.

 

“Go”, she said, “And work with haste
And bring the bales into the barn
Else the crop will go to waste
And the babe will wait till the work is done”

Although not country in its style, Anaïs Mitchell’s song Shepherd (adapted from a short story by her father) is definitely about love in rural America. A tragic tale of labor and loss, sung in the ever-delicate voice of Mitchell…

Lover’s blues

The only thing different
The only thing new
I’ve got these little things
She’s got you

So this is cheating as it was first a country song by Patsy Cline, but Giddens’ bluesy version really adds to the feeling of regret and lament of an abandoned woman looking back at her former relationship.

She said I don’t know if I’ll be back
Or if you’ll want me if I come
But if and when that happens, dear
You better let my sweet dream run
Oh, let my sweet dream run

Made famous by Emmylou Harris,  Broken Man’s Lament in its original version by Marc Germino is far bluesier. The lyrics tell of a man whose accepting wife can only be pushed so far before she leaves.

When I was a young girl
Well I had me a cowboy
It weren’t much to look at
Just a free ramblin’ man
But that was a long time
And no matter how I tried
Those years just flow by
Like a broken down dam

Perhaps even better know than the original by John Prine, Angel From Montgomery by Bonnie Raitt is one of the most heartbreaking songs that illustrates how in love and life, things sometimes don’t go according to plan.

Weekly roots review

First installment of a round-up of folk/roots/Americana related news. Which incidentally only features female artists (making my own Women’s March over the Digital Realm of Americana.)

“Kungfu-Appalachian Indie-folk-rock”
When you manage to gather three artists whose name all begin by W, it’s always worth starting a band. Especially when those artists can mix banjo, guitar, trumpet, piano and traditional Chinese stringed instruments like guzheng. That’s the idea behind the Wu Force, the trio made up by Abigail Washburn (banjo/cello banjo/cello), Kai Welch (piano, guitar, trumpet, looping station/vocals) and Wu Fei (guzheng). Their self-titled EP was released on January 27th and is available for preview on souncloud right here. Fans of Washburn have already seen her collaborating with Welch and, she’s already performed with Wu-Fei. Therefore, the Appalachian-Asian mix of the trio shouldn’t feel too surprising.

Banjo blues

Blues/folk artists Valerie June picks up her Gold Tone banjo to perform Got Soul, from the latest album The Order of Time on CBS. She also performed a few other tunes from the same album such as Astral Plane or Shakedown. But this blogger is always partial to the banjo.

Once a protest singer…

Recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Joan Baez gave an interview to Rolling Stone about her playing at the Women’s March of San Francisco. She isn’t apparently too fond of Madonna’s speech, as you can read here.

No beer no liquor for miles around

The genius of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings doesn’t need any form of introduction. After releasing a double album of bootlegs of their 1996 debut Revival, they’ve just dropped an adorably quirky stop-motion music video for a song they never released previously, the drinking song Dry Town.

Women and guitars

Although that could be the wet dream of many an Americana aficionado, it’s actually a feature by Acoustic Guitar about female artists, guitar players or luthiers that focuses on their relationship with the guitar.Aforementioned Valerie June and Gillian Welch are interviewed among other Americana leading figures like Rosanne Cash, Melissa Etheridge of Ani DiFranco, and a couple other female artists-luthiers or classical guitarists.  They discussed the challenges of making it into the industry and not being pigeonholed due to one’s gender.

Not one to mince her wordsmargo-price-2-1

If you’ve listened to Midwestern Farmer’s Daughter, you’ll not be surprised that Margo Price is as frank in her interviews as she is in songs like This Town Get Around or Hands of Time. A delightfully honest interview/album review is available on the Independent.

 

Buffy Sainte-Marie, the artist and the advocate.

buffyAlthough she got her break with the rest of the sixties New-York folk scene, the Cree singer-songwriter has always evolved in a class of her own. This year, she will receive the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award at Canada’s JUNO Awards.

In a recent interview with Acoustic Guitar, Sainte-Marie describes her entrance on the folk scene: a Cree native of Canada, brought up by foster parents in Massachusetts, she wasn’t really taken by the message of peace conveyed by folk-singers of the time: “They were singing “This land is your land, this land is my land.” They didn’t realize how offensive that is to Native-American people.” She would make sure they eventually did, as she penned several songs to describe the plight of Natives, such as Now That The Buffalo’s Gone, Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee, or My County ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying that she describes as “Indian 101 in six minutes” (tested in class: it works). The song covers everything from broken treaties to westerns to American Indian Boarding school, broken treaties and diseased blankets. A visibly shaken Sainte-Marie performed the song for Peete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest.

Still, Sainte-Marie isn’t a mere poster girl for Native Americans. She’s also passionately anti-war and one of the first song she ever wrote, The Universal Soldier, became a hit when covered by British singer Donovan (and was more recently covered and updated by First Aid Kit.) Singing the song as an anti-Vietnam war anthem, she got herself black-listed from radio by the Nixon administration. See below for her own words on how she wrote the song.

buffybwOther of Sainte-Marie’s songs attracted attention through covers. The biographical Cod’ine, which tells of her addiction to the substance, was covered by artists as diverse as Courtney Love, Janis Joplin or Donovan or Gram Parson. She also became the first Native-American woman to receive an Academy Award for co-writing Up Where We BelongOne of my favorite songs of hers, The Dream Tree, gained renewed attention through a cover by young Canadian fiddler Owen Pallett.

The Dream Tree is extracted of Sainte-Marie’s 1969 Illuminations album. This proved to be a turning point in her career: it completely tanked. Departing from her usual style, she produced it entirely electronically. Here voice is often altered, and the sounds all come from synthesizers. She kept on experimenting afterwards and elements of electronica are still present in her most recent albums. Many people now credit Illumination for paving the way to Freak Folk creations of Devendra Banhart or Joanna Newsom.

Native American music is also feature in several of her songs. Her the educator (she was trained as a teacher after her studies in theology), Sainte-Marie used her five-year role in Sesame Street to educate about mouth bows (which work a bit like a jaw harp.) Talking of badassery, here’s a clip of her breastfeeding on a kid’s show. Imagine the stir if it were to happen today…

She also wrote Starwalker, a song she defines herself as a “incendiary powwow rock”.

By now, you must have noticed and either hated or loved her distinct vibrato which is often considered her trademark. Sainte-Marie, a self-taught guitarist, is also famous for her personal tunings – she used more than a dozen- which inspired fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell to create her own. Mitchell credited Sainte-Marie for helping her launch her career: she covered The Circle Game and also introduced her to managers that helped Mitchell build a career.

Today, Sainte-Marie, an artist, singer-songwriter, educator, is all but retired, as her latest album shows. This Humanitarian award crowns decades of artistry and advocacy for an artist who escapes categorization.

Fantastic Beasts and In Which Songs To Find Them – Part I

Folk music, coming from (you guessed it) folk-lore, is replete with magical creatures. One just has to know where to look for them.

Nicholas Berchem (1620 - 1683) - A Goat and a Ram, Harvard Art Museum
Nicholas Berchem (1620 – 1683) – A Goat and a Ram, Harvard Art Museum

And it is perhaps easier to start looking for them in European folklore. Local legends and old mythology have peopled  European folk with a wide variety of creatures the tales of which made it into folk songs. Sometimes, these animals are not particularly fantastic, at least not in appearance…

The Darby (Derby) Ram is a fine example of this category. Collected in Roud’s Folk index, it dates back to at least 1867, as it appeared in Llewellynn Jewitt‘s Ballads and Songs of Derbyshire on this year. It tells of a ram so huge that his horns reach up to the moon, and the wool on his back reached so high that eagle made their nest there. Needless to say, the butcher and the tanning boy who tried to slaughter this wonder of nature were punished: one was drowned in blood, and the other one was carried by the flood. The Kossoy Sister (one hit album wonder in 1956) worked their twin-sister harmony magic on this tune while keeping it close to the text reported by Jewitt, with a banjo accompaniment from Erik Darling who would then go on to replace Pete Seeger in the Weavers (yes, I enjoy English tune sung by Americans.) A statue of the ram has actually graced the town of Derby since 1995.

Not all extraordinary animals are as benevolent as the placid ram. We have for instance known since the days of Calydon that having a bloodthirsty boar in the neighborhood isn’t usually a good omen. A similar image is to be found in the opening sequence of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, but that’s not our topic here. The quintessential folk singer Jean Ritchie had a song called Old Bangum about such a wild boar and how it was chased by Bangum (available on streaming services apparently, but I don’t have access to those myself.) The song is based off Sir Lionel, another of the Child Ballads in which the wild boar is a pet either to a not-so-jolly giant or to a hysterical old woman who attacks the knight for killing her “pretty spotted pig.” It has been adapted by several other folk artists, but the most original (meaning “less traditional”) is perhaps Breton harpist Cecil Corbel’s version, in which the boar “will eat you meat and suck your blood.” Charming little critter. (Notice that in both Ritchie’s and Corbel’s version, the boar has no owner.)

One doesn’t have to go too far back in time to hear of such legendary beasts. Cryptozoology (the search for fantastic animals) keeps many of those tales alive, from the Loch Ness Monster to El Chupacabra. The one that interests us here is the beast of Bodmin Moor, a large cat which is say to hunt on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. The region is keen on keeping the legend alive, for obvious touristic reasons. It inspired British folk trio Kadia to write a song about this “demon cat of monstrous scale” and the sad tale of a young couple who were only hoping  for a romantic night on the moor.

For a myriad of wondrous creatures, one has to leave the folk cannon and turn to newer compositions, such as Peter, Paul and Mary’s Autumn to May. Apparently written by the men of the trio, this gentle song takes the listener onto a magical journey to meet a dancing dog with legs fourteen yards long or a swan living on an oyster and hatching snails (not to mention the vest-wearing traveling frog and a flock of flying sheep kept in the music box.) The men’s guitars duet in the background as they take lead, with harmonies from the honey voice that is Mary Travers’ (R.I.P 😥  )

Now, a very similar song, Little Brown Dog, appeared on Judy Collins’ Golden Apples of the Sun, in which she mention is was compiled in Ruth Crawford’s Seeger Animal Folksongs for Children… which was released in 1950, thus 12 years before PPM. The version sung by Collins had already been released in 1957 by Peggy Seeger, Ruth’s daughter. Both PPM and Collins’ tracks were released in 1962. Collins sings what is to me one of the most oddly poetic lines of the folk revival…

I buyed me a little bull he was four inches high
Everybody feared him who ever heard him cry
When he began to bellow he made such melodious sound
That all the walls in London came tumblin’ to the ground

Well, I’m sure these critters have barely whetted you appetite… Perhaps you’d like to hear about shape-shifting animals? Very well then, but in a next article.