Do people still see God’s face in their oatmeal or do we only worship money now? Either way, as corny and impossible as it might be, I wish I could reach out from these keystrokes, set my hands on your shoulders, gaze deep into your retinas and tell you that when Joni Mitchell sang George Gershwin’s “Summertime” at DAR Constitution Hall earlier this month, something like God entered in the room.
The circumstances were strange. Mitchell was in Washington to accept the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and in the moment I’m describing, to headline at a tribute concert being filmed by PBS. Accepting her award in a satiny frock the color of the ocean and a beret the color of gold bullion, the 79-year-old colossus of song seemed a little out of sorts. Was it the implicit awkwardness of a televised exaltation or something worse? Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015 that left her unable to speak or walk, and has since made an astonishing recovery, but as she sidled up next to the grand piano, the room held its breath.
Then, clutching a shiny golden microphone in her right hand, she exhaled that opening verse, her phrasing patient and exact, her tone heavy with color and feeling. “Hush little baby,” she sang with a finesse that can only be measured in metric tons. “Don’t cry, don’t cry.”
Failing to connect those words to the sopping wetness that had instantaneously materialized on my face, Mitchell was halfway through the song before I noticed that my lungs had also chosen to relocate to my throat, which technically qualifies as an out-of-body experience, which is where the whole God thing comes in. Cumulatively, this moment felt greater than life, greater than everyone in the room, maybe even greater than Joni Mitchell, unless she’s God, which I suppose is no longer out of the question.
Normally, I’d worry about sounding hyperbolic here (greatness feels cheap in the social media age), or even worse, sentimental (hooray for a fragile older person doing an incredibly powerful thing), but I’ve been too busy spending the past few weeks trying to figure out how a song so delicate managed to collide into my sensorium with such annihilating, tidal force. Maybe the secret of Mitchell’s entire songbook is tucked away in that paradox — all of those drumless ballads from “Clouds” and “Blue” crashing against our collective consciousness like rogue waves. Maybe we can trace it all back to Mitchell’s lifelong affinity for dancing. There’s a tremendous amount of movement in her music, even when the gestures feel stark and the mood feels serene.
And then there’s all of Mitchell’s unambiguous greatness: Her singular ability as a songwriter to speak to our experiences and imaginations through characters we may or may not know (Carey, Edith and the Kingpin) and settings we may or may not have visited (the autonomous Champs-Élysées, ex-paradise parking lots). Singing about all of this stuff with the intricacy and insistence of a pen scratching paper, she matches unexpected words with unexpected melodies, simultaneously possessing them in ways that feel deeply inventive and allergic to cliche.
But how all of this felt so abundantly clear as Mitchell gently moved another songwriter’s words around in time, as if placing them into their most perfect position, I’m still not sure about. Something profound, and complete, and deeply life-affirming had suddenly sprung into reality, and it was hard to understand exactly how or why.
“You had to be there” is a cruel phrase, isn’t it? We’re a storytelling species, and we spend our lives trying to share “there” with those who weren’t. We search for it in novels and “How was your day?” at dinnertime. But on a Joni Mitchell album, “there” feels like “here.” The visceral experience of hearing her most vivid songs always seems to supersede the detailed stories they’re recounting.
This is all to say that you can watch Mitchell sing “Summertime” in full on television tonight, and while I can’t promise God will visit your living room, try listening with all of your being and see who shows up.
Joni Mitchell: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song airs Friday at 9 p.m. on PBS stations. (Check local listings.)