Allow me to share what someone else had to say about that performance. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Yesterday’s newsletter was mostly about Elon Musk and Twitter. At the very end, however, I included video of Joni Mitchell’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival. Well, a lot more of you who emailed me yesterday wanted to talk about her performance than wanted to discuss Musk or Twitter or anything else.
Later in the day, I came across something that Ramona Grigg, who was one of the earliest outside contributors to Understandably and who publishes her work at Constant Commoner, had written about what the performance meant to her.
I had a feeling it would resonate with a lot of readers, so I asked if I could share it, and I held what I was originally going to share today for another time. With Ramona’s permission, you can find her thoughts below.
Joni Mitchell Left and Then She Came Back
by Ramona Grigg
It’s the Newport Folk Festival, July, 2022. After nine years away from the spotlight and 53 years after the last time she performed at the Festival, Joni Mitchell, in a surprise appearance, is back on stage.
She’s singing Both Sides Now, her signature piece, a grueling song not for the faint of heart, but she wrote it, after all, and it’s expected. She begins to sing, unsure and halting at first, as if this might not be a good idea.
She’s 78 years old now. She sits rather than stands, which compresses her chest and her diaphragm. It’ll be much harder to sing in that position and she knows it. She’s drumming her fingers on the chair arms, maybe to keep time with the music, maybe to ease her anxiety. I’m nervous just watching her.
As we age our voices change. They deepen and wobble. It’s rare that you can’t recognize an old person simply by hearing them speak. Our vocal cords lose elasticity and the smooth ride along them becomes bumpy and full of hazards. It’s especially hard for those who sing. The very act of singing abuses vocal cords. They wear out fast.
Singers who are famous understand and dread the irony: they’re accelerating the end of their careers by doing the very thing they’re compelled by their own creative juices to do. Many of them stop before their voices begin to quake and go off key, but, for some, stopping would be like cutting off a life source. Quitting is unthinkable.
I remember a middle-aged Frank Sinatra sneering at older singers, bragging that he’d know when to quit and he’d quit before he lost that easy style, that perfect pitch, whatever it was that made the magic. He didn’t quit. And he still made magic.
Glenn Campbell was a victim of Alzheimer’s, and it was painful to watch as his memory diminished, making him a sad imitation of himself. But something amazing happened: He didn’t lose his voice. He remembered the tune, knew when to breathe, knew how intonation would affect his audiences. He went on to give concerts until the very end.
The same thing is happening to Tony Bennett, also diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He still has that amazing voice. He still remembers the words. It’s as if their brains know to protect that one glorious part, preserving the last vestige of creative mastery, allowing that person to still stand out from all the others.
It’s not unusual for me to cry when I hear my favorite singers, old now, trying to bring back the magic, their breathless voices, trembling and off-key. The control may be gone but the fire still burns. They’re up there giving it their all. For me and for them.
Their dedication is so brave, their need so acute, it becomes an honor to watch them.
I heard about Joni Mitchell’s performance yesterday morning—an entire set, wowing and enchanting a lucky audience that was grateful to have been a part of it. I watched the video, blubbering through almost every minute, wondering why it affected me so viscerally.
I’m still not sure, but the rest of this is me trying to sort it out.
It was as if I were watching a rebirth; an unexpected, well-deserved milestone in a life lived long. But the real tears flowed as I watched the younger women up there, Brandi Carlile, Wynonna Judd and the others—hesitant at first and ready with their microphones in case Joni needed help—relax and revel in their friend’s triumph.
With each successful note they silently wept, they silently cheered, they filled the air with their own energy, mixing it with hers, and they were together, bonded forever in that moment.
Could she have done it alone on that stage? Maybe. But if she had been alone, I would have felt her vulnerability and every note would have made me anxious. My own worry for her would have ruined it. Will she get through it? I don’t want to look…
But she wasn’t alone. She was surrounded by friends, by love, by the comfort of knowing she couldn’t fail. Nobody, including the audience, cared about the perfection of it; she was the essence. She held the power. And, as you can see in the video, before long she was immersed and nothing else mattered but that she, Joni Mitchell, was up there and she was singing.
There’s a reason we cherish our national treasures in human form: It’s because, while their artistry, their talent, their awesome presence, is truly a gift they’re not required to share, they reward us by opening themselves up and letting us in.
We don’t know them. Not really. But they know us. It’s enough that we come away holding on to something they’ve decided to give. Our lives would be emptier without them.
7 other things worth knowing today
The Justice Department is investigating President Donald Trump’s actions as part of its criminal probe of efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, according to four people familiar with the matter, as reported by The Washington Post. (WashPost, free)
Millennials didn’t stray far from where they grew up, according to a new study by U.S. Census Bureau and Harvard University researchers. By age 26 more than 2/3 of young adults in the U.S. lived in the same area where they grew up, 80% had moved less than 100 miles away and 90% resided less than 500 miles away. (AP)
Buzz Aldrin’s jacket worn on his historic first mission to the moon’s surface in 1969 has been auctioned off to a bidder for nearly $2.8 million. It's the highest price paid for any American space-flown artifact sold at auction. (AP)
Descendants of women who were executed for witchcraft in Connecticut in the 1600s (predating the more famous witch trials in Salem, Mass.) are leading an effort to have the women formally exonerated, nearly 400 years later. (NBC Connecticut)
Disabled passengers are facing longer waits than they should in airports, especially clogged Heathrow in London, due to a viral "travel hack" on TikTok that has able bodied passengers claiming to need wheelchair assistance in order to skip lines. (Fortune)
Ice cream fans are mourning the loss of a longtime classic treat—Klondike has discontinued its Choco Taco, which it has sold since the 1980s. However, after making the announcement, Klondike now says it's considering bringing the ice cream treat back "in the coming years," leading some to wonder if it was all just a stunt to begin with. (Axios)
Four female rowers made history Tuesday morning when they arrived in Hawaii after rowing more than 2,400 nautical miles from California to Hawaii. The women started the Great Pacific Race in San Francisco in June and arrived in Honolulu after rowing for 34 days, 14 hours and 11 minutes. One rower: "I feel totally overwhelmed in the best way by love. And I'm also exhausted." (ABC7)
Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Fair use via YouTube. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.
Oh, how I enjoyed this glorious piece of writing, Ramona.
I also very much enjoyed Joni's performance. I loved how well surrounded and supported she was as she sang. The audience was mesmerized by it all. It was a perfectly imperfectly performance. I loved every minute of it.
Thank you Ramona, exactly what I needed to start my day (even though I too cried). Wynonna Judd still healing from losing her mom, Naomi, watching with tears this amazing woman sing. Joni Mitchell, a true legend in her own time.