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The Circle of Life

27 February 2024

On February 4, 2024, after winning the Grammy for Best Folk Album of the Year (for Joni Mitchell at Newport – her first live set in 20 years), Joni Mitchell wowed the crowd with Both Sides Now, one of her many great songs – for her debut Grammy performance. She won her first Grammy in 1969. This year’s award makes 17 Grammys all told, and came all of 22 years after she was awarded one for Lifetime Achievement.

Joni Mitchell’s blonde hair is white, now. The voice, famously noted by a reviewer as marked by “astonishing highs and lows, and an attenuated middle,” has shrunk – the high notes are gone, only her alto range remains.

She is older – a long way from the 22-year-old singing to us from Laurel Canyon. But I hope I am still as vital as she is when I get to her age.

And her courage is something we can all admire, and work to emulate.

Joni Michell’s path hasn’t always been an easy one. She was hospitalized for weeks on end at age 9, with polio.

At 21, she found herself pregnant, with little money, abandoned by her boyfriend. All alone in a small apartment. She gave her daughter up for adoption. Mitchell’s Little Green sings about that experience. Birth-mother and daughter reunited, but only decades later.

More recently – about 9 years ago – Joni Michell suffered an aneurysm which left her unable to speak, unable to walk. She didn’t remember how to get out of a chair. She had to relearn everything – like a young child. But summoning all her courage, and doing the hard work required, she did relearn these things. Speech came back within a few months; the physical recovery took far longer, but she got there.

Have I mentioned the courage of this lady? It can’t be noted and admired too often, for me.

But she couldn’t sing, couldn’t play her guitar or her piano, and she missed music greatly.

In 2018, Joni Michell attended a tribute concert given for her 75th birthday. There, she met fellow musician Brandi Carlile, about half Mitchell’s age, who sang A Case of You as a duet with Kris Kristofferson. Carlile has performed whole concerts of Mitchell’s albums (as well as her own, original work); this time, she was actually performing for the woman who’d both inspired and influenced her.

Soon after the tribute concert, Joni Mitchell dined out with Brandi Carlile and her partner. Mitchell mentioned all the wonderful instruments lying around her house, unplayed. It wasn’t, she said, that she was sad for herself, it was for those silent instruments. She asked if Carlile would maybe want to gather people – musicians – to come to her house, drink wine and hang out, and play her instruments while she listened.

Taking this – rightly – as an invitation to friendship, Brandi Carlile said, “Yeah, absolutely.” Joni Michell laid a hand on her arm. “Really? Are you in?” Carlile has said she’ll never forget that moment.

Brandi Carlile reached out to musician friends, who eagerly agreed. The first jam session happened about two weeks later, and the “Joni Jams” continued. Over time, Paul McCartney stopped in, as did Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Herbie Hancock, and many more. Non-musicians, including Meryl Streep, came by to drink wine, hang out with Joni and the gang, and listen.

Gradually, Joni Mitchell began to participate – to play and sing, with her friends. Once, she was handed a beautiful guitar, and Brandi Carlile tried to take it to tune it for her. Mitchell swatted the helping hand away. She would tune it herself, to one of the special tunings she’d developed decades before, to compensate for the weakness in her left hand – a result of her childhood polio.

A few years later, Joni Mitchell, who had not appeared live since 2002, played at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival, with Carlile and a group of “Joni Jams” regulars backing her up. The session was recorded, and the album won Joni Mitchell her 17th Grammy.

But I really want to talk about a song I haven’t mentioned, which Joni sang as the final track on the album awarded the 2024 Best Folk Album Grammy, and the story of how she came to write it.

In the 1960s, a 20-year-old aspiring singer/songwriter, then-unknown Neil Young, playing gigs in the local Winnipeg folk club circuit, met a fellow Canadian singer/songwriter – Joni Mitchell – a couple of years his elder, playing at the same club he was. She already had gigs booked across Canada. He had a song he’d written recently, and played it for her.

That song was Sugar Mountain, one of Neil Young’s most famous and loved ballads. It’s a beautiful song, but a sad one – a young man realizing that his carefree days – the days as a child enjoys them – are behind him. He is, at the song’s end, looking toward a future which seems bleak in comparison with the balloons, the barkers, the cotton candy of Sugar Mountain and childhood.

Joni Mitchell was impressed with the song, and the talent behind it, and she was just a couple of years past 20 herself. But, though she had already suffered hardship and heartbreak, she didn’t think her path, or adulthood itself, had to be sad. She didn’t feel that way – she had hopes, she had dreams. She knew we can’t go backward in life, and looked ahead toward life’s hopeful possibilities.

So she wrote a song in response to Sugar MountainThe Circle Game. In the song, Mitchell acknowledges that we grow older, that being 20 is not the same as being 10, but she sees that life, for us all, at any and every age, will always have ups as well as downs – just like the painted ponies of the carousel. The 20-year-old at the end of her song, though he’s learned that dreams don’t always pan out exactly as we hope, still has dreams and hopes for his future.

No, we can never return to the past. We can look back on it, and perhaps learn from it, if we’re lucky. But we can also look ahead joyously – if we have the courage.

Because we can only keep ourselves fully alive if we remain open to hope, to dreams, to a future with promise. In short, we need to stay open to life.

Joni Mitchell, having survived polio and a debilitating aneurism, having been reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption and, with a little help from her friends, old and new, restored herself to her music, winning her 17th Grammy, making her debut performance at the awards show at the age of 80 – shows us we can keep that openness to life, that courage, that hope, those dreams, going. She does!

And if she can, so can we!

Joni Mitchell and Neil Young are still close friends, they talk on the phone frequently. And, I’m glad to say, Young’s outlook on adulthood is no longer what it was at 19 or 20 – two decades after he first recorded Sugar Mountain, he released his Harvest Moon album – and the title track reveals a very different mindset indeed.

Did Joni Mitchell, and perhaps The Circle Game, have anything to do with Neil Young’s vision changing toward a more hopeful, happier view? I don’t know, but I’d like to think so.

We can only hold onto the best of our youth by continuing a journey of openness, of growth, of hope – the way a child does – as we age. Because there’s nothing youthful about stagnating at any point – we need to grow, and hope, and dream, through all our years, to stay vital and engaged with our beautiful, brief mortal existence.

Sometimes we only need to slow down a little, take a moment to breathe, to open ourselves, and be grateful for all of life’s great, all-too-short journey.

When I listen to Joni Mitchell sing, I can feel her gratitude for her life, her embrace of all of it. For me, she captures the joy of being alive. It’s inspiring to me, and her music is one of the many things I’m grateful for.

Life’s journey offers us gifts, of so many kinds, at every step – but only if we are willing to accept those gifts on life’s terms. We can’t impose our own terms on life, and it’s futile – a waste of our limited time and energy here on earth – to try.

But we can enjoy the carousel ride, accepting both the highs and the lows, as the seasons of our lives go round and round.

How do you stay open to and engaged with life? What is The Circle Game, for you?

Click here to email me directly – I’d love to know your thoughts.

Until next time –



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