Stiehm: ‘Chelsea Morning,’ ‘April Day,’ ‘Diamonds and Rust’: The 3 J’s inspired me
“Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning
And the first thing that I heard
Was a song outside my window”
And the songstress that wrote the words, Joni Mitchell.
Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus are blazing talents; nobody can take that away. And Madonna. Hard not to love her spirit, performance art and clever lyrics charting her life, which set up the sky for the younger stars.
But let’s look to the three Js, luminous songbirds that arose from the bountiful garden of ’60s folk and protest music: Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Judy Collins. All are alive and well. One still tours and writes new works.
Truly great news: Mitchell won the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The tribute ceremony and all-star concert premieres on PBS Friday.
What these three meant to me: everything. They broke new ground, telling their truths, singing solo (while the guys rocked out.)
Mitchell, Canada-born, wrote the wistful “Both Sides Now,” which Collins recorded with a harpsichord. It became a hit on the airwaves and reverberates in middle-aged minds.
Mitchell first sang it to Collins, who noted in a memoir, “She was a muse to me in many ways: her great beauty, the light in her eyes, the sadness I felt in her soul.”
Jagged puzzle pieces of poetry, painting scenes and characters in Los Angeles — “city of the fallen angels” — became a Mitchell signature.
Mitchell’s album “Court and Spark” cut a swath. The character, “Free Man in Paris,” reveled in feeling unfettered and alive. Those sparkling songs spoke straight to a 16-year-old girl in Michigan, Madonna.
Many enjoy the flirty, playful side of Mitchell that surfaces in “Carey”: “The wind is in from Africa / Last night I couldn’t sleep.” She’ll put on her finest silver for a night out over a bottle of wine.
“Big Yellow Taxi” was about as political as Mitchell got: “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot.”
In a circle of friends and lovers once upon a time and place, Mitchell lived in Laurel Canyon with British singer Graham Nash for a spell. She wrote the sweet ode, “My Old Man”; he hit the notes of “Our House” for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
But the rock masterpiece, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” stands alone in their repertoire. It traces the longing love affair of Stephen Stills and Collins. He sang it to her just as they broke up and gave her a restored guitar.
“I do (love you), that’s forever,” the song goes.
Baez and Bob Dylan made a more mercurial musical couple. She was the famous one, the “madonna” of the early ’60s who brought a scruffy young man from Minnesota onstage.
At age 22, the pair performed at the March on Washington in 1963, during the glorious last days of John F. Kennedy’s presidency.
Then Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” wowed the world.
The bard’s rough-hewn voice, next to Baez’s richly baked soprano, showed the intense magnet of opposites.
Baez became known for political anthems, anti-Vietnam war and civil rights pieces such as “We Shall Overcome.” Joan and Judy have sung “Amazing Grace” a thousand times (written by a wretched slave trader.)
But Baez and Collins sang traditional folk songs, too. I remember listening to “Silver Dagger,” about 11 and hearing Baez for the first time: “Don’t sing love songs/You’ll wake my mother.”
Collins sings “So Early, Early in the Spring,” an English folk melody. She composed “The Fallow Way”: “The sun will bring an April day.”
Over the years, Baez and Dylan addressed each other in a dialogue of songs that set a storied record for artists.
“Visions of Johanna” conquer his mind.
But Baez had the last laugh — or cry — in “Diamonds and Rust.” Striking a minor chord, it opens with a phone call from the Midwest, long after they parted.
In a vivid memory in Washington Square, with leaves falling, Baez sings, “Speaking strictly for me, we both could have died then and there.” Heartbreaking.
Loved her farewell concert, a cup running full.
Judy’s the J on the road — now in Tokyo. She’s singing new songs, like, “When I Was a Girl in Colorado.”
It’s beautiful, believe me.
Jamie Stiehm may be reached at JamieStiehm.com. Follow her on Twitter @JamieStiehm.