Joni Mitchell: Courting blackness and sparking music

Review: Eric Lott explains Joni Mitchell's "Pimp Game" and more.

An icon of musicians, flower children and their children alike, Joni Mitchell has proven to be more than a product of 60s and 70s counterculture. Born Roberta Joan Anderson on Nov. 7, 1943 in Ft. Mcleod, Canada, her music has been sampled and covered by numerous artists from Prince to Crosby Stills and Nash. A Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Mitchell’s music never veered from politico and addressing the contradictions of human nature, and this year marks the 40th anniversary of her album Blue, which made Rolling Stone’s greatest albums of all-time list.

This and her poignant, poetic lyricism is what attracted University of Virginia English professor Eric Lott to use Mitchell as the subject of his lecture “Tar Baby and the Great White Wonder: Joni Mitchell’s Pimp Game.” The lecture took place in the Hall of Languages on October 7 at 3 p.m., and was presented by the English department and the Dikaia Foundation’s Stephen Crane Annual Lecture Series. The event was co-sponsored by the Center for Humanities, the Bleier Center for Television and Pop Culture and the Newhouse School.

Lott, with his brown, curly hair, black skinny jeans, blazer and large silver rings, looks like a retired Mitchell-era rock star. His critically acclaimed book Love and Theft: Black Face Minstrelsy and the American Working Class is one of his many works about race and mainstream culture. Bob Dylan allegedly named his 2007 album Love and Theft after Lott’s book without permission, an irony, considering Mitchell has called Dylan a plagiarist in several interviews.

Lott was drawn to Mitchell’s poetic lyricism when her album Hejira dropped in 1976, and his lecture was about what he calls a phase in Mitchell’s career where she was fascinated with finding out what it was like to be “the other.” Particularly this meant being black in a racist, white male-dominated society. She dressed in drag and blackface as what she called her alter ego Art Nouveau, a pimp. Mitchell designed all of her album art, and the advertisement for the lecture is of Joni, the folk singer, and Joni dressed as Art from her 1977 double album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.

The first part of the lecture title, “Tar Baby and the Great White Wonder,” is derived from lyrics in Mitchell’s song “Dreamland,” on Don Juan. The verse goes:


Tar baby and the Great White Wonder
Talking over a glass of rum
Burning on the inside
With the knowledge of things to come
There's gambling out on the terrace
And midnight ramblin' on the lawn
As they lead toward temptation
With dreamland coming on

The song is about Brazil at Carnival, and compares the experience of vacationing in the Caribbean to Christopher Columbus’ exploration— a sort of cultural theft, because once vacationers get back on the plane they can “push the recline buttons down with dreamland coming on,” and take what they want of the culture with them.

The latter part of the title “Joni Mitchell’s Pimp Game” comes from Lott’s suggestion that Mitchell knew that she was a whore to the music industry. She was expected to make hit records in the “pop-cash nexus,” as he calls it, and she elected to be both pimp and whore. Mitchell explores codependency in this pimp-whore relationship in “Edith and Kingpin” from her album The Hissing of Summer Lawns, though Lott played the Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner version in his lecture. He goes on to say that white women and black men are a threat to white masculinity, and that by being Art, Mitchell was both.

This fascination with blackness is not only reflected in dressing up as Art, but also in her musical collaborations with black musicians during this time in her career, including jazz greats Charles Mingus and Herbie Hancock.  Hancock won the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Album for River: The Joni Letters, an album composed of Mitchell’s music covered by songstresses including Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae. Mitchell’s 1979 album Mingus is a collaboration with Mingus, but he died before the album was done. Musically, Mingus was her most ambitious attempt at becoming both pimp and whore, black and white, but is her least successful album of the 1970s in sales and critical reception.

Some suggest Mitchell believed she was black. Dressing as Art was the essence of what Lott calls Mitchell’s contradiction — Art was a costume that she could take off, while black people, like the musicians she admired, cannot remove their skin. However, Mitchell acknowledges her contradictions, acting as an agent of consciousness for the black struggle, while having white privilege, which is perhaps what sustains her icon status and lends her authenticity.

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