Joni Mitchell: Discussion of "Free Man in Paris" / by Sam Abelow

Photo credit: Jack Robinson/Getty

While reading about Joni Mitchell I was impressed by how prolific she has been. Her talent has been immense. Not only has she proven to be a superb instrumentalist and singer, but her techniques and aesthetics have remained uniquely her own.

There is a revealing story of her finishing up a self portrait, when a reporter asked what the title is and she realized that it should be a song as well. Then in a matter of hours, the reporter watched that song come to life.

California Dreaming

This effortless, constant stream of inspiration and execution was noticed early on in her career, when David Crosby brought her out to California in 1968. In an interview years later he recalled, “It was very difficult for me. I'd sit there and struggle over one song, like ‘Guinevere’ for a month, and she would have written five songs that week.”

Another curiosity regarding Joni Mitchell is the interplay between her personal life and her art, which proliferated as she became a central figure in the emerging singer-songwriter scene. The source of her inspiration came from romantic and social experiences, which she consistently portrayed honestly, as if in an oh-so-public, exceptionally poetic diary.

Joni Mitchell and David Crosby

An initial relationship with David Crosby inspired him to write “Guinevere;” a song with haunting, ethereal melodies and stunning lyrics. 

And when she moved onto Crosby’s fellow bandmate Graham Nash, further songs seemed to circulate between the triangle, as Nash wrote the lovely, chirpy, highly romantic “Our House” about his love for Joni.

Behind the Song

The key players of the early folk movement of the late sixties lead to high-status circles in California. Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Neil Young, Bob Dylan, among others, were a formidable roster for David Geffen, when he started his own label.

David Geffen and Joni Mitchell

David Geffen and Joni Mitchell

Robbie Robertson, of The Band, tells the story of a trip he took along with Joni and David Geffen to Paris.

It all seems innocent enough. But for David Geffen, as is made clear in the documentary “Inventing David Geffen,” this was a rare break for a man, who saw the artists he represented as friends, whom he took the responsibility of looking after in a dangerous business.

Geffen’s need to please people; his impulse to take care of everything; to baby the impulsive and elusive artists on his label, was the source material for “Free Man in Paris.” Joni Mitchell captured the psyche of a record man, a manager in the wild late 60s and early 70s.

The Story of Joni's Individual Style

The compelling story told in the lyrics are enhanced by the inventive and wildly unusual melody and chords in the song. A case of Polio as a child affected her fingers and diverted her form athletics to the arts. The affects of this disease compelled Joni Mitchell to discover open tunings on the guitar, which could be played more bluntly. This became “a tool to break free of standard approaches to harmony and structure.”

As she matured she integrated the rhythms of world music and jazz into her folk roots. Combined with her naturally gifted vocal range, which, in her prime, reached into the upper Soprano and down into the low Tenor, Joni Mitchell became known as a formidable musician — a virtuoso. 

"Free Man In Paris” exemplifies all of these qualities. Chords drift in and out of A Major, with use of the blues tones, as well as instrumental sections which break into odd time meters. The essential groove of the song and the way the vocal melody saunters and veers is unmistakable as a Joni Mitchell creation. The original recording featured David Crosby, Graham Nash on background vocals and Jose Feliciano on electric guitar.

A Legendary Musician

Joni Mitchell in 1972, the year before "Free Man in Paris" was released on the album "Court and Spark"

Joni Mitchell’s taste for a high level of musicianship is exemplified in many stories. When Robbie Robertson invited her to perform at the finale of The Band’s career, at a concert called The Last Waltz, she wasn’t sure they could back her songs.

The strange meters and rhythms, which she plays smoothly, proved hard for drummers to follow. Eventually The Band was able to come through with a performance of “Coyote.”

The quality of her playing, which exceeded most of the folk scene, lead her to play with members of the World Jazz group, Weather Report. Their collaboration on “Free Man in Paris” shows how much she enjoyed playing music.

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