Clouds and Ferris Wheels

In the dark ages, there was no middle school. We had junior high, seventh through ninth grades. I still think it’s more sane than the current system (and my alma-mater school district agrees, as it’s never converted to middle school). So, entering seventh grade, I had all the usual changes:

  • A new school (one fortunately still a bike ride from my house; yes, parents, once upon a time elementary/junior high kids could actually get themselves to school).
  • A new format, six or seven different classes (it was nunya years ago, who remembers?) in different parts of the building instead of spending all day in one room.
  • Decisions.

The last one was the killer. There were no decisions in elementary; you did what the teacher said or else. (Yes, teachers, that actually used to be a thing.) You still had to do that last thing in junior high (which my posterior may or may not have had first hand knowledge of, so to speak), but now there were decisions. And the first decision was band or not. As in, do you want to be in band?

In my case, it wasn’t much of a big decision. I didn’t play an instrument and wasn’t interested in playing one, and certainly wasn’t interested in the extra-curricular activities that encompassed being a band nerd. (That may or may not have been what they were called back then.) Unfortunately, the alternative wasn’t a great alternative. It was what is known as the lesser of two evils. Barely.

The alternative was three twelve-week classes: one PE, one Spanish, and one “choir.” I (mercifully) have no memory of PE, the Spanish was the only twelve-weeks of non-English language I had in my time in school including college, and “choir” is in quotes because it wasn’t what most of us think of when we think of choir. There was no a cappella, there were no show tunes, there were no concerts, there was just a bunch of seventh graders who had no musical aptitude (otherwise we would have been in band) in a room for three months learning … contemporary pop songs. I have no recollection of the teacher’s name, but you should all pour out a glass (iced tea, of course) for her just the same.

By contemporary I mean contemporary—we sang stuff that was on the radio. “Bad Moon Rising.” Whatever three Simon and Garfunkel tunes were in the top-ten at the time.1 And some Judy Collins song about clouds and ferris wheels.

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air

I’ve always had an aptitude for memorizing things, especially song lyrics, and this one was no exception. The difference is that I knew even then that this song was different. Tommy James talking about his dog eating purple flowers (my first 45; look it up, kids) or Paul/Art saying they’d rather be a sparrow that a snail was one thing, but this Collins song was something else entirely.

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone

The song progressed from looking at clouds to love to life, and there was a melancholy undercurrent in spite of the mostly upbeat music. This wasn’t just another radio song, this had something to say, and what it had to say bordered on overwhelming for an eleven year old. One thing was sure: I never forgot the lyrics, even after leaving that twelve weeks of choir and long after the song was no longer on the radio.

Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day

It would be several years before I found out that the song we sang wasn’t actually a Judy Collins song. The songwriter was a young woman named Joni Mitchell; she had sung the song at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967, and Collins recorded it a few months later. Although Joni would later find fame for “Big Yellow Taxi” (covered by both Counting Crows and Amy Grant, which can’t be said of any other song I know of) and “Chelsea Morning” and “Free Man in Paris”, it is this song she is best known for, and rightfully so. Any lyric that can make an eleven-year old pay attention is a lyric to be reckoned with.

Joni has had a life. She contracted polio at age nine, and had to re-learn how to walk. (She says she also started smoking that year.) She had liaisons with several of the names you know from “classic rock,” and gave up a daughter for adoption a few years before she started recording. The most recent event was a brain aneurism in 2015 that almost killed her. She had to learn how to walk for the third time. She had to relearn how to play the guitar. And for the last two or three years, part of her rehab has included hosting “Joni Jams” with a group of musicians in her home.

Fifty-five years after she debuted “Both Sides Now” at Newport, one of those musicians decided it was time for the world to be re-introduced to Joni. Brandi Carlile spearheaded the drive to get Joni back to Newport, and last Sunday the internet melted down, or at least the small portion of the internet who knows who Joni Mitchell is, with the news that she did a complete set at this year’s festival.

Most of the recordings are from iPhones (still of remarkable quality), and most of the songs are more jam than Joni. But when it came time for “Both Sides Now,” everyone stepped aside and let Joni do her thing. And it is a thing of beauty. Joni re-recorded the song for her 2000 standards album, and it is that version, not the wispy 60’s version, that she does here. If you know who Joni is, you’ve probably already seen this. If you don’t, well, it’s high-time you did. (Blue is considered her masterwork, but I’m a Court and Spark man myself, if you want to delve further.)

Watch it because it’s Joni Mitchell and it’s fantastic. But also be reminded that all of us could use a little more looking at…

  1. But not “Cecilia.” I noticed the sheet music on the piano one day and asked the teacher why we didn’t sing that; it was extremely popular on the radio at the time. The teacher gave me a funny look and said it wasn’t “appropriate.” Which of course made me pick up the sheet music and read the lyrics (I said I could learn lyrics, I didn’t say I always did). Yep, you’re right, not appropriate; I put the sheet music back on the piano and went and sat down in my chair.

One thought on “Clouds and Ferris Wheels

  1. I’m not crying… she is an absolute treasure and a lyrical genius. Thank you for that. I had no idea this was out there. Love me some Joni!

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