The Music of Joni Mitchell

The Music of Joni Mitchell

The Music of Joni Mitchell

The Music of Joni Mitchell


Joni Mitchell is one of the foremost singer-songwriters of the late twentieth century. Yet despite her reputation, influence, and cultural importance, a detailed appraisal of her musical achievement is still lacking. Whitesell presents a through exploration of Mitchell's musical style, sound, and structure in order to evaluate her songs from a musicological perspective. His analyses are conceived within a holistic framework that takes account of poetic nuance, cultural reference, and stylistic evolution over a long, adventurous career.

Mitchell's songs represent a complex, meticulously crafted body of work.The Music of Joni Mitchelloffers a comprehensive survey of her output, with many discussions of individual songs, organized by topic rather than chronology. Individual chapters each explore a different aspect of her craft, such as poetic voice, harmony, melody, and large-scale form. A separate chapter is devoted to the central theme of personal freedom, as expressed through diverse symbolic registers of the journey quest, bohemianism, creative license, and spiritual liberation.

Previous accounts of Mitchell's songwriting have tended to favor her poetic vision, expansive verse structures, and riveting vocal delivery. Whitesell fills out this account with special attention to musical technique, showing how such traits as complex or conflicting sonorities, dualities of harmonic mode, dialectical tensions of texture and register, intricately layered instrumental figuration, and a variable vocal persona are all essential to her distinctive identity as a songwriter.The Music of Joni Mitchelldevelops a set of conceptual tools geared specifically to Mitchell's songs, in order to demonstrate the extent of her technical innovation in the pop song genre, to give an account of the formal sophistication and rhetorical power characterizing her work as a whole, and to provide grounds for the recognition of her intellectual stature as a composer within her chosen field.


Joni Mitchell is now widely recognized as one of the foremost singer-songwriters of the late twentieth century. Since her career began in the 1960s she has produced fifteen original albums and a collaborative project with the great jazz musician Charles Mingus, as well as a number of concert albums and compilations. By the 1990s she began to be marketed as a “classic” and was confirmed in her classic status by a series of tribute concerts and awards for artistic achievement. Her songwriting, in its originality, creative integrity, stylistic adventurousness, and technical polish, has had great influence on musicians from many different backgrounds. Furthermore, her lyrical and musical output has acquired special cultural status as the representative voice of a self-exploratory intellectual bohemianism, shaped by the visionary ideals of the 1960s folksong revival, youth protest movements, and sexual revolution. In particular, her songs record a woman’s response to those struggles and the prospects they have opened up. Mitchell is also unique in her perspective on the North American cultural landscape, as projected through a symbolic triangulation of the urban poles of New York City and Los Angeles with the prairies of western Canada. These aspects of her writing, as well as her depth of thought as a lyricist, have received some treatment by critics in the popular press. Her musical craftsmanship, however, still lacks a full account.

This book is about music and poetry in the songs of Joni Mitchell. My subject is sound, syntax, design, and effect—how the songs are put together and how they work. I will not be judging the value of her music based on its influence, popularity, or exemplary nature as a chronicle of its times, though these are all topics worthy of consideration in their own right. Rather, I will be examining details of her craft, rummaging through her musical toolkit (her “box of paints,” as she might put it) to establish a basis for judgments about the quality of her . . .

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