The Library wrapped up its tribute to Joni Mitchell on a high note last week with a conversation between the 2023 Gershwin Prize winner and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. In an exchange punctuated by laughter and ending in song, Mitchell detailed her unexpected evolution as a musical pathbreaker.
The March 2 event followed a joyous all-star concert in Constitution Hall the previous evening, which Mitchell likened to one of her “Joni Jams,” gatherings she hosts bringing together musicians across generations.
“The musical excitement of last night was very intense,” Mitchell said. “You have my beautiful band, which is my generation, and then all these young’uns, too. They’re playing with musicians that were their heroes. … It was beautiful.”
Now considered one of the most influential songwriters of our time, Mitchell didn’t dream of becoming a musician growing up. “I always wanted to be a painter,” she said. “I didn’t do air guitar in front of the mirror or any of that.”
When she was in sixth grade, a teacher noticed she liked painting. She remembered him telling her, “Well, if you can paint with a brush, you can paint with words.” In that act, she said, “he gave me permission to do both.”
Georgia O’Keeffe at one point tried to persuade her otherwise — Mitchell stayed with the famous modernist “for a while” — telling Mitchell that you can’t, in fact, do both.
Not true, Mitchell quipped, “You just have to give up TV.”
Trained as a commercial artist, Mitchell designed her own album covers, many featuring her own paintings, mostly self-portraits. She carried disposable cameras with her (after expensive models were stolen) and painted based on the photos. Her catalog now extends back decades.
When she started as a musician, she sang folk songs, “because they were easy. They didn’t take a lot of skill,” she said.
She was already a Miles Davis fan, however, and she became known for crossing and combining genres, drawing on jazz, classical and rock.
“My songs … they’re not folk music, they’re not jazz, they’re art songs. They embody classical things and jazzy things and folky things, long line poetry,” Mitchell said.
Despite receiving many, many accolades over her career, early on, she “got nothing but bad reviews.”
“It didn’t discourage you … all those reviews?” Hayden asked.
“[I’m] hard to discourage and hard to kill,” Mitchell responded to applause. In 2015, she suffered a devastating brain aneurysm and has since regained her voice.
As a special gift from the Library, Susan Vita, the Music Division’s chief, presented Mitchell with a facsimile of the original title page to George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and the score to the start of its iconic “Summertime” — the night before, Mitchell brought the audience to its feet with her rendition of the song, her favorite Gershwin composition.
“I love the melody of it. I like the simplicity of it,” Mitchell said. “I really get a kick out of singing it.”
Vita also presented Mitchell with a gold lapel pin modeled on the Gershwin Prize medal, which she attached to Mitchell’s signature beret — a beautiful deep purple on March 2.
Earlier in the day, Mitchell viewed treasures from the Library — folklife interviews and maps from Saskatchewan, Canada (Mitchell grew up in the province); a film clip of Ray Charles performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival (Mitchell attended her first concert when Charles played her hometown); an artist’s book inspired by the Charles Mingus’ composition “Pithecanthropus erectus” (Mitchell collaborated with the great jazz bassist); and original copyright applications for Mitchell’s works (she was presented with an official certified copy for “Big Yellow Taxi.”)
Mitchell also viewed the first edition of the “Star-Spangled Banner”; the manuscript of Mozart’s violin sonata, K. 379; and Gershwin’s autograph manuscript sketchbook, 1937, open to the page with his original sketch for “Love Is Here to Stay,” from which Mitchell sang a verse with music specialist Ray White.
In the Jefferson Building’s Gershwin gallery, Mitchell played on Gershwin’s piano and viewed self-portraits by George and Ira Gershwin — self-portraiture is another art Mitchell has in common with the brothers, Vita said.
One item presented to Mitchell on March 2 had special meaning: the unpublished manuscript copyright deposit for “Hammer Head” by Wayne Shorter. A dear friend and collaborator of Mitchell’s, he died earlier in the day.
“Wayne Shorter to me was the best saxophonist ever,” Mitchell said.
She has ideas for new songs, she said, but is kind of “stumped” on how to move forward.
“The world seems to have lost its way,” Mitchell said. “So, to write songs along those lines is a big responsibility.”
She a lot of ideas, however, about what to paint, first and foremost her new cat — she has painted all of her cats.
“My house is full of memories as I go around,” Mitchell said.
Subscribe to the blog— it’s free!