“Playin’ Real Good, for Free”
An analysis of the work of Joni Mitchell in light of the Jann Wenner controversy
By: Ruby Voge
On September 15, Jann Wenner, the septuagenarian co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, made headlines with statements he made regarding his upcoming book, The Masters. The book, published on September 26, features interviews with seven rock icons: Bono, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, and Pete Townshend.
When Wenner was questioned by David Marchese of the New York Times as to why he had not included interviews with any women or Black musicians, he replied that they were insufficiently “articulate” to be deemed “masters.”
After receiving a healthy dose of backlash, including a rejection of his statements by Rolling Stone itself, Wenner quickly released a rote apology.
Instead of giving more (metaphorical) ink to Wenner’s ignorant words, it seemed timely to honor the work of one of the most influential, eclectic, and articulate singer-songwriters of all time, who also happens to be a groundbreaking female musician: Joni Mitchell.
“You know, Joni was not a philosopher of rock’ n’ roll. She didn’t, in my mind, meet that test. Not by her work, not by other interviews she did,” Wenner said in the Times interview. “The people I interviewed were the kind of philosophers of rock.”
A multi-instrumentalist with an extensive vocal range, Mitchell plays the piano, acoustic guitar, and the dulcimer, which is featured on many of her most famous songs, including “California.” Her albums have run the gamut from the traditional folk of Clouds to jazz with Hejira and have incorporated complex tunings, time signatures, and African beats.
She has collaborated with iconic jazz musicians like Herbie Hancock and Charles Mingus, and her songs have been covered by Sarah McLachlan, Madeleine Peyroux, Melody Gardot, and hundreds of others.
Ironically, her 1971 album Blue, widely understood to be her best work, ranked #30 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time list in 2003 and #3 on their 2020 reappraisal.
Two songs from Mitchell’s 1970 Ladies of the Canyon, her third studio album, exemplify her insightful observations about music at the time, making her more than worthy of the title “philosopher of rock.”
“For Free” is the second track on the album. At the time of its release, Mitchell was 26.
“Now me I play for fortunes
And those velvet curtain calls
I’ve got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good for free
Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their T.V.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good for free”
With a reflection on her own burgeoning career, Mitchell comments on the corporatization of the music industry and the devaluation of pure musical talent. Those who play “for free” go against the grain and operate outside of the expectations of modern society. For a song written in pre-internet, pre-social media 1970, these observations are chillingly prescient.
The 11th track on Ladies of the Canyon, “Woodstock,” is Mitchell’s iconic interpretation of the landmark 1969 music festival.
“Can I walk along beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel like I’m a part of something
Turning round and round
And maybe it’s the time of year
Maybe it’s the time of man
And I don’t know who I am
But life is for learning
We are stardust
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden”
Mitchell herself was supposed to attend the festival but was unable to and penned “Woodstock” from an attendee’s perspective after following the concert on television. The song is a beautiful example of Mitchell’s poetic lyricism and observations about the human experience. It reflects upon the tumultuous social and political change of the late 1960s that the three-day festival exemplified.
Along with fellow folk legend Neil Young, Mitchell took her music off of Spotify in 2022 to protest the streaming platform’s refusal to ban Joe Rogan’s podcast despite his spreading of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. Those lucky enough to have Apple Music can still enjoy Mitchell’s music on the go, leaving the rest of us stuck relying on YouTube.
Even so, her music is well worth the extra effort it may take to find and listen to. Those new to Joni Mitchell should start with Blue, while more seasoned fans may want to check out her collaborations and covers.