Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira”

For many of us, songs were our first exposure to meaningful words.  The right music with any kind of lyric can bring about a strong emotional response.  But so many lyricist fall into cliché and generality.  Their words are predictable, held together by melody and rhyme.

Joni Mitchell, in my eyes, is the exception.  When my sister Peggy told me the meaning of Joni’s “Cold Blue Steel,” I was in awe of how someone could weave such clear images into a metaphor for the downside of drug use.  Years later I would experience the same awe for the words of the literary poets.  Still, when I go back to Joni Mitchell, I am impressed, as I am with her 1976 title song “Hejira.”

This is a song of a lover separating and trying to figure herself out.   One definition of Hejira is “to escape.”  But it’s also a song about “returning […] As snow gathers like bolts of lace/Waltzing on a ballroom girl.”  Then there’s the line that nails me: “We all come and go unknown/Each so deep and superficial/Between the forceps and the stone.”  I love how she moves from the abstract (deep/superficial) to the disparately concrete (forceps/stone).

Hejira

I’m traveling in some vehicle
I’m sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
That shell shock love away
There’s comfort in melancholy
When there’s no need to explain
It’s just as natural as the weather
In this moody sky today
In our possessive coupling
So much could not be expressed
So now I’m returning to myself
These things that you and I suppressed
I see something of myself in everyone
Just at this moment of the world
As snow gathers like bolts of lace
Waltzing on a ballroom girl

You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line
Now here’s a man and a woman sitting on a rock
They’re either going to thaw out or freeze
Listen…
Strains of Benny Goodman
Coming through the snow and the pinewood trees
I’m porous with travel fever
But you know I’m so glad to be on my own
Still somehow the slightest touch of a stranger
Can set up trembling in my bones
I know – no one’s going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone

Well I looked at the granite markers
Those tribute to finality – to eternity
And then I looked at myself here
Chicken scratching for my immortality
In the church they light the candles
And the wax rolls down like tears
There’s the hope and the hopelessness
I’ve witnessed thirty years
We’re only particles of change I know, I know
Orbiting around the sun
But how can I have that point of view
When I’m always bound and tied to someone
White flags of winter chimneys
Waving truce against the moon
In the mirrors of a modern bank
from the window of a hotel room

I’m traveling in some vehicle
I’m sitting in some cafe
A defector from the petty wars
Until love sucks me back that way

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