Nobel Prize: time for Bob Dylan to hand the baton to Joni Mitchell

Update: This article was published before the announcement of British author Kazuo Ishiguro being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. (None of his novels are set to music.)


These are the clouds of Michelangelo
Muscular with gods and sungold
Shine on your witness in the refuge of the roads.

Refuge of the Roads,  Joni Mitchell

A year ago the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan, thus sparking a bonfire of the vanities among critics, writers and commentators over what should be classified as literature.

The Swedish Academy, which decides the winner, said Dylan had won “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

And, with that, the parameters of the Nobel Prize were blown apart. No longer were words tied simply and purely to the page, stage or recitation hall. Now, after the Dylan decision, you could listen and go with the rhythm of the drums and the call of the singer. You could even go electric.

Now you can listen to a Nobel laureate sing to you. Of course, you can also read the lyrics, go deep into the words without the melody but, in essence, lyrics exist primarily to be sung.

Dylan in his Nobel speech wrote: “Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, ‘Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story’.”

But still is a word not a word for all that? Today (October 5), the academy will announce this year’s winner. The barricades may have come down last year, but the odds of a successive singer-songwriter winning are as likely as 10 people in a room agreeing that they understand a single word of Finnegans Wake. The times may have changed, but they haven’t changed that much.

Joni Mitchell, over a career almost as long as Bob Dylan’s, has forged a different path in words and music. A path that was not there before her.

But here’s the rub. Another singer-songwriter should win it, and not because it would balance gender equality, but because this woman richly deserves it. As equally so as Dylan did. Her name is Joni Mitchell.

Dylan is, rightly, the unchallenged iconoclast of the song’s shaping in rock to be more than froth and bubble, the one who takes no prisoners in delivering a deep knowledge of the past into the present. Mitchell, over a career almost as long as Dylan’s, has forged a different path in words and music. A path that was not there before her.

While Dylan was looking down the highway, indeed building a new highway, Mitchell was looking at the clouds and seeing in their form the imperfections of man and woman. She had the eye for giving shape to the shadows of lives. At first, this was labelled confessional writing. And she was the queen of her dominion, but over time this was a disservice to her art. She wrote of relationships, both biographical and fictional, with an honesty and a razor dissection that had no equal. The Last Time I Saw Richard is a finely cut gem of short-story writing. You could make it into a film.

The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68,
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café.

The album The Hissing of Summer Lawns is a torch into the American life, throwing light into the darkness of suburbia. Elvis Costello (no mean hand at a lyric himself) has said: “This is as good as any writing. That’s a whole book’s worth of writing”.

Mitchell’s strength is that of being able to analyse both the interior and exterior worlds. To only view her work through the prism of couplets such as those in The Circle Game (“And the seasons they go round and round/And the painted ponies go up and down”) pretty as they are, is to short change yourself and her.

Mitchell’s language can be clinical in its insight, such as in The Three Great Stimulants, which is based on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (she named her cat Nietzsche). “The three great stimulants of the exhausted ones are artifice, brutality and innocence. It should be corruption of innocence. The more decadent a culture gets, the more they have need for what you don’t have at all,” she told Vanity Fair.

It can be as close and soul-opening as driving across the desert, thinking of Amelia:

Maybe I’ve never really loved/I guess that is the truth/I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes/And looking down on everything/I crashed into his arms/Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

Her output through the ’70s is peerless: Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira. Mitchell has had popular success with The Circle Game, Big Yellow Taxi, Both Sides Now, Chelsea Morning and You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio, but their attainment is not the prime mover to her art. Indeed, she carries with Dylan, and fellow Canadian Neil Young a deep conviction to forge new paths. Thus it was Mitchell went into jazz, and to most of the mainstream music world, a fall from grace.

It was their loss. Still the words flowed, out onto Paprika Plains into Dreamland. But in this journey she found herself travelling more and more alone. The ’80s and ’90s were not kind to her, despite the quality of the work. “I was out of sync with the ’80s. Thank God. To be in sync with the times, in my opinion, was to be degenerating both morally and artistically,” she has said.

Of this point – the artist and the times – Mitchell created possibly the greatest paradox: Woodstock, her paean to a generation, and an event to which she did not go. It was adopted as a hippie anthem, but listen to Mitchell sing this solo on piano. It is meditation and yearning and concision. There are no loose words, every single one is doing a job. This is a common, and essential virtue of all writers in whatever field. And she borrows to create. Thus you will find Yeats or Kipling shaped into song.

But, after decades of fighting perceptions and demands of what she should be doing, she turned her back on the industry. “The business had just worn me down to where I couldn’t write and didn’t want to write. There was no public recognition for my work and none at my record company.”

Enter Starbucks, which in 2007 through its label Hear Music, put out Mitchell’s first album in 10 years Shine. And it did. It was as if she had never left, but in the beauty there was despair. Of the times that inspired the song If I Had a Heart she has said, “My heart is broken in the face of the stupidity of my species. I can’t cry about it. In a way I’m inoculated. I’ve suffered this pain for so long. The West has packed the whole world on a runaway train. We are on the road to extincting ourselves as a species”. It was her last studio album. It may be her last. Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015. She has been seen in public since, but rarely.

And so in her absence, tribute shows have flowered worldwide. Next Tuesday night (October 10) Melbourne singer-songwriter Rebecca Barnard is doing a show of Mitchell songs at the Drunken Poet in North Melbourne.

She says: “I was drawn to Joni Mitchell through an older friend in 1974. He was playing the album Clouds and it was my first experience with confessional love songs. I’d started playing guitar and was aware of chords but hearing her unique tunings was a whole new world.

“And her honesty in her lyrics knocked me out. Her voice was/is so unique. Beautiful tone and pitch and extraordinary phrasing that has influenced me as a singer. Hearing her doing jazz standards and her own songs arranged with orchestra was another revelation. She has an incredible jazz sensibility which I think is evident even in her folky period.

“As for favourite song or period. So hard but I guess the album Court and Spark, 1973 era, and the song Down to You had a huge impact on me. But then Hejira is an absolute masterpiece.”

Mitchell turns 74 next month. The likelihood of another of original album, given her health, seems remote. So we are left with the spark and light of a true original, and that being so, a body of work that is timeless. Surely, that is worth a Nobel.

Critics of all expression
Judges in Black and White
Saying it’s wrong
Saying it’s right
Compelled by prescribed standards
Of some ideals we fight.

Shadows and Light

Main image: Hejira album cover detail

16 responses to “Nobel Prize: time for Bob Dylan to hand the baton to Joni Mitchell

  1. I respect Joni greatly, and she is a great writer, though Dylan she is not. He had a strangeness that opened the way. Leonard Cohen can stand in this cohort with Joni and Bob, the rest just don’t even get close/

    1. If she were Dylan, she wouldn’t be Joni. She, like Dylan, is a FULLY formed artist. Same as Cohen was. That is the top of the mountain. Once one reaches it, and they can climb no higher. Saying Dylan is better than Joni is only an opinion, which you are entitled to. Just as saying Joni is better than Dylan or Cohen is opinion. But the FACT remains that all three are FULLY formed. They all reside at the same altitude. But it is an altitude very, very few ever reach. I could never do Dylan, Joni, or Cohen like that; pitting Truth against Truth against Truth. The goal of the artist is to become fully formed – for the Muse, or God, or the Universe, or just hard Work to fill their pitcher full. And the truth is that Dylan, Joni, or Leonard Cohen have never had a need for the Nobel Prize, only for the truth. Maybe that sounds hokey, but the truth can be hokey. The truth can be all things. Nothing but love for Dylan, Joni, and Cohen. ❤️❤️❤️

  2. Come senators, congressmen

    Please heed the call

    Don’t stand in the doorway

    Don’t block up the hall

    Hmmm not what I would give a Nobel Prize to. There were protest songs before Dylan, even in the US -think about black slaves and their music. The Nobel Prize is sexist AND racist.

    1. Go and read TS Eliot then read some of Dylan that Peter Paul and Mary did not sing. try the Chimes of Freedom. That is how I found out.

  3. The point of the article seems to be that the Nobel prize is sexist.
    Maybe it is racist?!Have you considered the thousands of non-English speaking talents out there?
    The light only shines on those who can afford the power bill, it seems!

  4. While I definitely love Joni and she is high up there in the ranking of great songwriters, her mastery of imagery, rhyme, metaphor, sheer imagination, and uninhibited creativity just don’t rise to the level of Bob Dylan, she would agree herself and would also say that like everyone else he was a massive influence on her as a songwriter and artist. His catalog of songs is massive, the varied styles and languages of his poetry is simply as though he is many different artists rolled into one. As Bono said “I love Bob Dylan, there are so many of them”. Don’t feel bad,Dylan is transcendent, the Shakespeare of popular music, there had never been and will never be another artist like him. Consider just two songs even, that he wrote at perhaps age 20 and 22, ” Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” and “Like A Rolling Stone” among hundreds and hundreds of others. His songs singlehandedly transformed the medium to a higher art form that previously just did not exist. No one has ever written songs like this, including Joni, his sheer unbridled imagination and mastery of the craft, the imagery, metaphors, characters, stream of consciousness writing, is simply unmatched. She could never write a song such as these, they blew the doors wide open and expanded people’s minds and social consciousness forever. No one has ever done that like Dylan and never will again. Joni is great but she is not the transformative artist, she has not the incredible imagination he has, she is not the poet he is, the that Bob is and most of their peers and contemporaries would agree, hence, the Nobel Prize. But then no one is, and Leonard Cohen has stated as much about him. Neil Young said all other artists are just B minus artists compared to Bob Dylan. George Harrison and John Lennon said as much, I don’t think they are wrong.

    1. It is not clear what your extended fan-rant is trying to say. The thing being discussed here is whether any other poet/lyricist/songwriter is worthy of the Nobel Prize. Many people believe there have been two contenders who stand head-and-shoulders above everyone else: the “other one” is Joni Mitchell.
      In the context of Kazuo Ishiguro being awarded the prize, I think this is even more stark. Not that Ishiguro isn’t as worthy as a dozen or more–or perhaps all–awardees of the past quarter century (the period during which Dylan & JM have been considered contenders) but I don’t rate KI’s output in anything like the same league as JM. Do you?

      Oh, and on purely musical terms (creativity wise, evolution, sheer inventiveness) JM is actually rated above Dylan. That only strengthens as time moves forward and more perspective is brought to bear. Indeed it was her constant evolution that “lost” her a bunch of rabid fans (which is why fandom is to be distrusted as a guide to these things). Dylan’s early work had huge impact because of the times and the socio-political revolutions underway–it is hard for those of us alive at that time to discount that factor, but JM’s is more universal and independent of those factors. I particularly recommend you download the Andrew Ford special on JM which had discussions with several experts on these things.

      1. For a popular songwriter to win the Nobel is extraordinary, it is a thing for the ages. I believe that because the totality of Dylan’s work and the quality, it is justified, despite the literati world and other naysayers such as George Will who argued otherwise. Again, Joni is great but simply is just not the artist that Dylan is poetically, but then no one is. Dylan was nominated for the Nobel 19 years in a row prior to receiving it. I don’t see how or where JM is rated above Dylan in any serious discussion by informed scholars, peers, fans perhaps. Dylan is universally recognized by his peers as the greatest artist, and most powerfully creative as well, of our time. JM herself if begrudgingly so would argue the same, and so would all his peers from every possible genre, the Beatles, Stones, Clapton, The Dead, Petty, Springsteen, Paul Simon, Baez, Van Morrison, The Band, U2, CSN, Neil Young, all the folkies, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kristofferson, Country rockers, Allman Bros., even people like Led Zeppelin,Hendrix who was a Dylan addict, Ozzy Osbourne, Jazz/rock artists like Steely Dan, gospel artists, etc. The list could go on and on. Is influence is incalculable because of how good his art is. Popular music would have been so boring if he had not raised it to a higher art form. Point it is ever a Nobel would be awarded to a pop songwriter, singer/artist, which is a leap out of tradition, he deserves it, for many reasons. JM is great but not that great to deserve it, does not have a large body of work. But she is great.

        1. Again, you are picking an argument on something no one, least of all me, is making. Bob has the prize. The question is whether any other musical-poet is worthy. Joni is definitely worthy and assuredly the one most worthy after BD. Even more, if you put it in the context of winners of the Literature Prize then it would be a travesty if she doesn’t win (soon because, as I said, she is not well).
          I said that JM’s musicality and technical virtuosity and evolution are all greater than Dylan’s, and its true (contrary to whatever criteria you are going on about, there are plenty of actual experts who say this and it has nothing to do with fandom or impact on popular culture). But that doesn’t mean I don’t recognise Dylan’s greater historical influence etc which is partly due to time-and-place.

  5. Couldn’t agree with you more. Unlike Bob,whom I admire so much, most of Joni’s lyrics are understandable , not obscure. I’ve spent as much time in my life defending and justifying Joni as I have Donovan . Both are still judged by so many people as sweet , fey , twee songwriters and singers. Don has the extra burden of being seen, even after more than 50 years, as an inferior Dylan . I’m so glad (Cream !) people like yourself whose opinions are respected and given credence are supporting Joni as the great artist she undoubtedly is. I saw her in concert here in Brisbane at the long gone Festival Hall , wonderful with the band, she played quit a bit of lead electric guitar, but for me the best part was when she played and sang alone at the piano. A night to treasure. Blue and Hissing Of Summer Lawns are still my favourites and the double live album, Miles Of Aisles. People who underestimate her should listen to these albums. Thank you so much. Do you like Donovan ?

  6. On 6 August, in response to Ben Neutz’s rather inadequate review and remarks on the musical Blue, I posted a fairly long comment that can be summed up by Warwick McFadyen’s piece above. Here is a bit:

    “Ben Neutz is clearly not someone who has listened at all attentively, or maybe not at all, to the music (and poetry) contained in these albums. But he could begin his education by listening to ABC-RN’s Andrew Ford’s excellent recent program which dedicated his whole show to expert analysis of her output; and likewise Michael Cathcart’s Books & Arts review of this theatrical production of Blue. Both are available as podcasts. There is also a wealth of books today (though not many worthy ones) including a technical musicological analysis by Lloyd Whitesell in his book “The Music of Joni Mitchell” (ISBN 978-0195307993):

    [blurb/review] “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. ….Mitchell’s songs represent a complex, meticulously crafted body of work.”

    “Then he [Ben Neutz] might come to realize that it isn’t any immature rabid fan base (least of all the folkies who abandoned her early on), but a very broad group of listeners, performers, songwriters, poets and musicologists who believe that JM is not just the equal (or the “female” version) of Bob Dylan, but that artistically, musically and lyrically she is ahead of them all. Incidentally if Bob Dylan deserved the Nobel (and he did) then assuredly so does JM. I just hope Sweden is more attentive and informed than Ben Neutz, because she is not well.”

    WRT: “None of his [Kazuo Ishiguro] novels are set to music.”
    Shoulda gone to specsavers or Wiki:

    “The Ice Hotel”, “”I Wish I Could Go Travelling Again”, “Breakfast on the Morning Tram” and “So Romantic” on Stacey Kent’s 2007 album Breakfast on the Morning Tram,[16] and “The Summer We Crossed Europe In the Rain”, “Waiter, Oh Waiter”, and “The Changing Lights” on Kent’s 2013 album The Changing Lights.[17]

  7. She seems to have an other-worldly, ethereal connection that inspires her lyrics, combined with an earthiness that gives her a profound range of expression. And though she is beautiful, one could love her simply by listening to her music, never even having laid eyes on her.

  8. One comment in the article is incorrect – that the 90s were not kind to her. Not true. She had a major resurgence during the 90s, especially with the release of Turbulent Indigo in 1994 – which won 2 Grammys – and the many accolades that followed.


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