Craig Cummings Music

Joni Mitchell – Why She Matters To Songwriters, Part IV
April 9, 2015, 9:36 am
Filed under: Musical Notes | Tags: , , ,

Craig at El Nopalito_rev

Everything comes and goes
Marked by lovers and styles of clothes
Things that you held high
And told yourself were true
Lost or changing as the days come down to you
Down to you
Constant stranger
You’re a kind person
You’re a cold person too
It’s down to you
It all comes down to you

Joni Mitchell – from Down To You

Age brings perspective, and this with this lyric, Joni brings a dose of reality and a message of encouragement. Keep in mind that this record (Court And Spark) was a huge departure from her previous 2 albums (Blue and For The Roses). While those 2 recordings were “confessional” albums that revealed Joni as a highly sensitive writer exploring the darker sides of relationships, Court and Spark was one of the first records to merge folk, jazz, and rock music while more often looking at the lighter side of life and love.

“Everything comes and goes, marked by lovers and styles of clothes. Things that you held high and told yourself were true, lost or changing as the days come down to you.” In this song, it seems that she is letting us into an internal conversation with her ego. Joni hints that she may be moving on from a more melancholy place, and trying on a more upbeat, positive approach. She admits to being a stranger…to others, to herself, or maybe both? Perhaps this stranger is her newer persona – a singer in a band, where she is just part of the show.

Great songs speak to universal truths. Listeners recognize these truths when they hear them, and they matter. They provide legitimacy to the song and help listeners relate to the message. In this song, Joni provides that universal truth – “It’s down to you,” – (i.e., it’s all up to you), that songwriters want to tell in the context of writing a memorable song. She tells listeners, its up to us – we can make the best of what life brings or we can wallow in the misery of what we lack, what we’ve lost, or what we’ve never had.

Most great songs address some universal truth…

  • ”I can’t make you love me, if you don’t.”
  • “I get by with a little help from my friends”
  • “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
  • “God bless the child that’s got his own…”

Songwriters are always trying to find new and interesting ways to share these universal truths with listeners. Joni shows us how to do it and make listeners want to sing along. Try listening to the choruses of Both Sides Now or The Circle Game and not singing along:

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all

Joni Mitchell – from Both Sides Now

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

Joni Mitchell — from The Circle Game


This is the last part of the series of posts discussing why Joni matters to songwriters. As I said at the outset, I could write a book. All one really has to do to know why Joni matters to songwriters is listen.

Peace And A Cold Beer,



Joni Mitchell – Why She Matters To Songwriters, Part III
April 8, 2015, 10:45 am
Filed under: Musical Notes | Tags: , , ,

Craig at El Nopalito_rev

In prior installments of this series I explored how Joni shows songwriters the way in providing the proper amount of details in songs so that they are authentic and resonate with the listener (Part I), and how her words have inspired artists to continue to create even when they feel no one is listening, or watching, or reading (Part II). Today, in Part III, the focus is on the importance of being economical with words – and how Joni could be a master at showing songwriters the way.

I went to see a friend tonight
Was very late when I walked in
My talking as it rambled
Revealed suspicious reasoning
The visit seemed to darken him
I came in as bright
As a neon light
And I burned out
Right there before him
I told him these things
I’m telling you now
Watched them buckle up
In his brow
When you dig down deep
You lose good sleep
And it makes you
Heavy company
I will always love you
Hands alike
Magnet and iron
The souls

Joni Mitchell – from Lesson In Survival

Although this lyric is coming from a particularly feminine point of view, as a man I’ve always loved how it portrays a scene in which one approaches a lover intending to bring a positive light, only to fall flat on one’s face during the attempt. That one act play is gender neutral – we’ve all done it. But what is most memorable about this verse is how the last 8 lines ring so true to anyone who has been in love, gone through a trying time, and come out on the other side…”When you dig down deep, you lose good sleep, and it makes you heavy company. I will always love you. Hands alike, magnet and iron the souls.” If there is a better way of telling that story, I’ve not heard it.

Songwriters are storytellers. But unlike griots and other raconteurs, who often use a rambling style of discourse to tell the tale, songwriters are always striving for economy, because most often, we have to tell the story within the confines of a 3-4 minute pop song. Joni told this last part of the story in 8 short lines – about 15 seconds. She shows us that as songwriters, we can tell our stories with an economy of words and the truth will not be diminished.

In Part IV of the series, I’ll discuss how well-written songs are built around some universal truth and how Joni shows songwriters how to do this while making everyone want to sing along.


Joni Mitchell – Why She Matters To Songwriters, Part II
April 7, 2015, 9:59 am
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Craig at El Nopalito_rev


Yesterday, in Part I of this series, I talked about how songwriters need to include just the right amount of “furniture” in the lyrics of a song to tell the story and make it real…furniture meaning details that allow the song to come alive for the listener. Today in Part II, I’m discussing how Joni speaks to songwriters through her lyrics about commitment and courage.

You’ve got to shake your fists at lightning now
You’ve got to roar like forest fire
You’ve got to spread your light like blazes
All across the sky
They’re going to aim the hoses on you
Show ’em you won’t expire
Not till you burn up every passion
Not even when you die
Come on now
You’ve got to try
If you’re feeling contempt
Well then you tell it
If you’re tired of the silent night
Jesus well then you yell it
Condemned to wires and hammers
Strike every chord that you feel
That broken trees
And elephant ivories conceal

Joni Mitchell – from Judgment Of The Moon And Stars

Another of my favorite Joni lyrics, from one of my favorite Joni albums (For The Roses), this particular lyric speaks to the part of us that needs to show the world that we won’t quit – that despite the odds being against us, we can persevere. “They’re going to aim the hoses on you, show ‘em you won’t expire. Not till you burn up every passion, not even when you die.” This line is a mantra for songwriters, who often toil for years, honing their craft, and never knowing if anyone outside of their closest circle of friends and fellow songwriters will ever hear the words and melodies they’ve written. And, the feeling of not backing down, of not giving up, is amplified by the associated imagery of the hoses that were aimed at civil rights protestors in the 1960s (this is not to say the challenges of the civil rights protestors and the challenges faced by songwriters are even remotely equal – they are not). For those looking for inspiration and the courage to carry on with their life’s work despite the odds, there is plenty of inspiration within the words of this song.

“Condemned to wires and hammers.” We songwriters, we’re condemned to our instruments – to our words, but in a good way. We’ll never escape them or give them up…but we’re OK with that, because we wouldn’t have it any other way. Joni matters to songwriters because she reminds us that challenging the odds and being committed to our craft are worthy endeavors. When we’re “feeling contempt” we can tell it. No need to feel guilty for committing to this life…for striking “every chord that [we] feel.”

Part III of this series will discuss how songwriters strive for economy with words and how Joni shows they way in some of her work.


Joni Mitchell – Why She Matters To Songwriters, Part I
April 6, 2015, 1:47 pm
Filed under: Musical Notes | Tags: , , ,

Joni Mitchell was recently admitted to a hospital in California after being found unconscious in her home. News of this unfortunate incident spread like wildfire across the internet and beyond, and there have been numerous articles posted, new and old, on internet sites, in newspapers, magazines, and anywhere music and culture are discussed and debated. Most of the writing focuses on her influences on popular music, her relationships with other famous musicians, and her refusal to march to the beat of any drummer but her own.

I am a member of a songwriters’ group whose members discuss all things related to songwriting. Recently, someone asked for opinions about the best female singer-songwriter alive. While there was great debate about this, I was pleased to see so many of our group mention Joni as the best. Our group is large and we represent many generations of writers. It wasn’t just those of us over the age of 50 that were typing in her name. So this got me to thinking about why (and how) Joni matters to songwriters.

I decided to write a series of posts that look at Joni’s importance to popular music through a songwriters’ lens. What are the things that we try to do as successful songwriters, and how has Joni shown us the way. I’ll be using snippets of her lyrics to help me illustrate my points. There is so much to choose from, that I could write a book…but I’ll settle for a series of shorter blog posts. I’d love to read your thoughts on my thoughts – especially if you are a songwriter. But even if you aren’t, I’m betting you know a lot about Joni’s music and have a well-informed opinion. So, here is Part I. Let me know what you think.

Just before our love got lost you said
“I am as constant as a northern star”
And I said, “Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar”

On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh Canada
With your face sketched on it twice
Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet

Oh I could drink a case of you darling
Still I’d be on my feet
oh I would still be on my feet

Joni Mitchell – from A Case Of You

Have you ever tried to decide which Joni Mitchell lyric is your favorite? Me too, except the more you try to narrow it down, the more options you consider. If you asked a random group of people familiar with Joni’s work to select their favorite song, I’m guessing a sizable number would pick A Case Of You, and I would be among that group. Much of the reason for this choice lies in the lyric, part of which is shared above. “…you’re in my blood like holy wine, you taste so bitter and so sweet.” Fourteen words that reveal how love can be equally wonderful and maddening. That one in love can feel, all at once, so ecstatic and so… conflicted.

Songwriters talk about needing just the right amount of “furniture” in the lyrics of a song to tell the story and make it real. “On the back of a cartoon coaster, in the blue TV screen light, I drew a map of Canada. Oh, Canada. With your face sketched on it twice.” I don’t even need to close my eyes to envision that scene. I’m sitting there with my lover in a bar, it’s dark, the TV lights the room. There is no conversation. I’m staring into the darkness of my glass, and she is drawing. I look over, see an outline drawing of my face. She loves me. I am smitten. It’s all there – every time I hear the song, the movie plays to my mind’s eye. This is what Joni can do. This is why she matters. She shows us how to put the furniture in the room.


Come back for Part II. I’ll be discussing how Joni reminds songwriters to be cool with facing long odds and committing to our craft.