Ode to “Hejira”

Joni Mitchell is nothing less than a musical goddess to me, and I’d venture that she sits high at the altar for legions of other fans, who, once immersed in her words and music, became lifelong devotees of this quintessential singer/songwriter. Difficult to believe, but Hejira, her landmark and unequaled album, is 35 years old this year. And like most timeless works of art, this is no relic. It remains as fresh and innovative as when it was first released in 1976.

The searingly personal Blue (1971) is usually cited by critics as her most influential, but it’s really Hejira that’s the summit of Mitchell’s singular synthesis of talents. Musically imaginative, lyrics exploratory and poetic, conceptually seamless, Hejira (from the Arabic word for “flight”) is about exactly that  —  and the inner journeys of the road. (It’s appropriate that the ethereal “Amelia” is named for the aviation pioneer, Amelia Earhart, and is a paean to the artist’s identification with her spirit: “Like me she had a dream to fly…”)

From the opening guitar strains of “Coyote” (not the canine, but an unruly lover), to the closing “Refuge of the Roads, Hejira shows a mind with few equals in creative musical intelligence, as well as consistent curiosity in extending the boundaries of the pop genre. What strikes me on every listen is that even though Mitchell was relatively young when she wrote it, the album expresses an emotional depth that could take many lifetimes to acquire, as in these lyrics from
the sublime title track:

Well I looked at the granite markers
Those tributes to finality – to eternity
And then I looked at myself here
Chicken-scratching for my immortality

“Furry Sings the Blues” is musical prose that could almost be a short story. A prismatic portrait of Memphis’ famous Beale Street and aging blues guitarist Furry Lewis, it’s Mitchell in full flower, words and voice creating visual images with vivid eloquence:

Pawn shops glitter like gold tooth caps
In the grey decay
They chew the last few dollars off
Old Beale Street’s carcass

The cheeky “Blue Motel Room” is all jazz and light; “Black Crow,” restless and zig-zaggy, is the darker side of the wayfaring experience. And “Song for Sharon” reiterates Mitchell’s intrinsic independence, as she tells a (married) childhood buddy: “You sing for your friends and your family, I’ll walk green pastures by and by.”

Legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius’s moody style is the undercurrent that drives the sonic wave of Hejira from start to finish, the perfect accompaniment to the songwriter’s vision, and in many ways defining its aural idiosyncrasy.

One can hope that new generations will join in discovering the wonders of this seminal album…and Mitchell, an artist for the ages.

[First published as Joni Mitchell’s Hejira: An Appreciation on its 35th Anniversary on Blogcritics.org.]
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