“All Romantics Meet the Same Fate Someday”: Joni Mitchell, Blue, and Romanticism

“The Last Time I Saw Richard”. . . is a Romantic tour-de-force with respect to lyrics, composition, and performance. In the folk song tradition, Mitchell sings to her own musical accompaniment, and there is no other instrument playing in the recording; yet, the melodic and harmonic complexity of the song makes for a performance far more sophisticated than usually expected within the folk song tradition.

Christopher R. Clason, Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, p. 83

Christopher R. Clason’s “‘All Romantics Meet the Same Fate Someday’: Joni Mitchell, Blue, and Romanticism,” chapter four of Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge 2022), examines Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue against the background of German Romanticism. He identifies characteristics of emotional vulnerability and subjectivity in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story “The Sandman” in the song “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” Romantic intoxication similar to that in Tristan and Isolde in Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” and the Romantic seascape and a life of longing in the title track in a way comparable to Novalis’s them of the blue flower, “Blaue Blume,” in the incomplete novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1800).

Check out the iTunes playlist for the book.

Clason’s readings of Mitchell’s music and lyrics are careful and sensitive to nuance. For example, he elaborates that in “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” “the impatience felt by the two former lovers is accentuated by the repeated delays in resolution of chord progressions, particularly of the suspended chords, by the long, breathless lyrical lines, and by the barmaid’s interruption” (p. 91). Mitchell’s song “River” samples “modified lines from ‘Jingle Bells’ at the beginning and very end of the song. . . In the last few bars, the returns to a transformed ‘Jingle Bells’ progression, but the scene turns bleaker, even uncanny, when the familiar major chords of the common Christmas carol are delivered in syncopated rhythm, carried through a minor series of modified chords to end on an unresolved Dm7” (p. 91).

Christopher R. Clason is a Professor Emeritus of German at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. His research areas include German Romanticism and the Middle Ages.

Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism

Women in Rock. Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022) is the first book-length work exploring the interrelationships among contemporary women rock musicians and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and literature, the literature of the Romantic era. LIMITED QUANTITIES ONLY available at a 37% discount.

$160.00

“Work Me, Lord”: Janis Joplin’s Kozmic Blues

Like the more traditional blues before her, Joplin’s soulful white blues, her “kozmic blues,” is similar to Romantic poetry, as it is charged with radical praxis; it is an unwaveringly personal music that conveys much about Joplin emotionally, and in turn, the sociocultural climate of the flower children in the mid- to late-1960s. The radical aspect here lies in her performances, because instead of merely using the language of electricity. . . Joplin embodies electric Romanticism, such that her spontaneous reaction to her audience is an essential aspect of her performances.

Sasha Tamar Strelitz, Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, p. 60

Reading Sasha Tamar Strelitz’s chapter on Janis Joplin taught me again everything I already knew about Janis: I knew it, but I didn’t know it. She made me see Janis in the same room, at the same time, wearing the same outfit, but from a different angle. Strelitz’s Joplin suffers empathy she feels so strongly she self-medicates to the point that it killed her. But like Keats’s chameleon poet, she turns that empathy into art, into performance. Strelitz also asks what it means for Romanticism, avant-garde in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century, to become electric in the twentieth. She developed her concept of “electric Romanticism” out of Thoreau’s description of the humming of telegraph wires, saying they sounded like electric Aeolian harps. In Strelitz’s words, “She reached her audiences with her embodiment of electric Romanticism; she was the conductor–the hippie Aeolian harp, if you will–for her audience’s emotions, which she amplified with her own emotions in that feedback loop” (p. 75).

Check out the iTunes playlist for the book.

Sasha Tamar Strelitz received her Ph.D. from the University of Denver, and her research explores the culture of spontaneity in Beat writers and rock musicians who fall in a category she calls “electric Romanticism.” She is from Hollywood, FL, has lived in NYC, Tel Aviv, and Orlando, and is presently living in Denver.

Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism

Women in Rock. Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022) is the first book-length work exploring the interrelationships among contemporary women rock musicians and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and literature, the literature of the Romantic era. LIMITED QUANTITIES ONLY available at a 37% discount.

$160.00

Aria Ligi’s Hymn to Equity

My endorsement video for Aria Ligi‘s new collection of poems Hymn to Equity, a poetic response and tribute to the poetry of William Wordsworth.

Jane Williams, Rolling Stone: Reconstructing British Romanticism’s Guitar God(dess)

A major prototype of the British rock icon or guitar God, I will contend, is British Romanticism’s most famous guitarist, Jan Williams (1798-1884). . .in 1822, Shelley bought her a guitar and presented it with a poem, “With a Guitar, to Jane”. . . that instrument’s connotations in early modern and Romantic-era Britain, now largely forgotten, eerily anticipates the early reception of rock.

Rebecca Nesvet, Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, pp. 43, 45.

In chapter two of Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, Rebecca Nesvet argues that Jane Williams, friend of Percy and Mary Shelley (the latter famous for being the author of Frankenstein), anticipates the modern figure of the rock guitarist. But perhaps that’s not the best way to say it. The modern figure of the rock guitarist wasn’t anticipated by early seventeenth- to nineteenth-century musicians. The modern figure of the rock guitarist, in his (typically, but not so much anymore) rebellious, transgressive, dangerous public persona is a continuation of the figure of the guitarist from previous centuries.

The education of aristocratic women always included music — just watch any good Jane Austen adaptation, even the most recent one, Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma. At some point competing young women will sit down and show their skills on the pianoforte. They’ll also demonstrate knowledge of French and German and have been taught to paint and draw. These forms of educated artistic expression all fell well within eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British politesse.

But the guitar was another matter. Nesvet documents how as early as 1624 the guitar was associated with Proteus, the “disruptive god of change” (p. 45). It was “often associated with wanderers, vagabonds, and musicians who challenge or transcend not only physical boundaries but social ones” (p. 45). Wanderers and vagabonds — the rolling stone. But my favorite bit of Nesvet’s cultural archaeology is this: “Peter d’Urfey (1623-1673) complains in his play The Intrigues at Versailles . . . about a noxious, noisy “guitar-thrasher” (p. 45) — seventeenth-century thrash guitar!

All of this means that Jane Williams taking on the role of the guitar player was highly transgressive. More than that, she took on the role of the vagabond as well.

Check out the iTunes playlist for the book.

Williams left an abusive husband, which was acceptable to her mother and brother, but then eloped to Continental Europe with Edward Williams while she was still legally married to another man, which was not acceptable to anyone. She took his name and the couple acted married, but they never were, at least legally. During their travels, Edward and Jane met the Shelleys; Percy gifted Jane poems for use as lyrics for her original compositions and then gifting her a guitar with a poem attached, which you can read below.

With A Guitar, To Jane

Ariel to Miranda:– Take
This slave of music, for the sake
Of him who is the slave of thee;
And teach it all the harmony
In which thou canst, and only thou,
Make the delighted spirit glow,
Till joy denies itself again
And, too intense, is turned to pain.
For by permission and command
Of thine own Prince Ferdinand,
Poor Ariel sends this silent token
Of more than ever can be spoken;
Your guardian spirit, Ariel, who
From life to life must still pursue
Your happiness,– for thus alone
Can Ariel ever find his own.
From Prospero’s enchanted cell,
As the mighty verses tell,
To the throne of Naples he
Lit you o’er the trackless sea,
Flitting on, your prow before,
Like a living meteor.
When you die, the silent Moon
In her interlunar swoon
Is not sadder in her cell
Than deserted Ariel.
When you live again on earth,
Like an unseen Star of birth
Ariel guides you o’er the sea
Of life from your nativity.
Many changes have been run
Since Ferdinand and you begun
Your course of love, and Ariel still
Has tracked your steps and served your will.
Now in humbler, happier lot,
This is all remembered not;
And now, alas! the poor sprite is
Imprisoned for some fault of his
In a body like a grave — 
From you he only dares to crave,
For his service and his sorrow,
A smile today, a song tomorrow.

The artist who this idol wrought
To echo all harmonious thought,
Felled a tree, while on the steep
The woods were in their winter sleep,
Rocked in that repose divine
On the wind-swept Apennine;
And dreaming, some of Autumn past,
And some of Spring approaching fast,
And some of April buds and showers,
And some of songs in July bowers,
And all of love; and so this tree,– 
O that such our death may be!– 
Died in sleep, and felt no pain,
To live in happier form again:
From which, beneath Heaven’s fairest star,
The artist wrought this loved Guitar;
And taught it justly to reply
To all who question skilfully
In language gentle as thine own;
Whispering in enamoured tone
Sweet oracles of woods and dells,
And summer winds in sylvan cells;
— For it had learnt all harmonies
Of the plains and of the skies,
Of the forests and the mountains,
And the many-voiced fountains;
The clearest echoes of the hills,
The softest notes of falling rills,
The melodies of birds and bees,
The murmuring of summer seas,
And pattering rain, and breathing dew,
And airs of evening; and it knew
That seldom-heard mysterious sound
Which, driven on its diurnal round,
As it floats through boundless day,
Our world enkindles on its way:
— All this it knows, but will not tell
To those who cannot question well
The Spirit that inhabits it;
It talks according to the wit
Of its companions; and no more
Is heard than has been felt before
By those who tempt it to betray
These secrets of an elder day.
But, sweetly as its answers will
Flatter hands of perfect skill,
It keeps its highest holiest tone
For one beloved Friend alone.

Needless to say, Percy was quite taken with Jane, and so was Mary after Percy’s untimely death at age 29. While until now Jane has largely been known as one of Shelley’s many muses, Nesvet’s chapter establishes Jane Williams as a key figure in preserving Percy’s legacy in his own time. Nesvet concludes by saying, “The critical tradition tends to reduce Jane Williams to a Shelley relic, but her biography, the history of the guitar in England, and the peculiar engineering of the Bottari guitar combine to suggest that we should recognize her as a very typical rolling stone; ergo, a Romantic cognate of British rock’s guitar gods” (p. 54).

On a side note, the engineering of the guitar is a special focus of Nesvet’s research, who is working with luthier Wes R. Schroeder and the Bodleian library to reconstruct a playable version of the original guitar, which is currently housed at the Bodleian. The original is a beautifully worked guitar: a leaf veneer surrounded by purfling (test photo to the left), a time-intensive process at the time requiring patience and multiple layers of glued wood.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She has published in journals including Nineteenth Century Studies, Victorian Popular Fictions Journal, Victorian Network, Notes and Queries, and others.

Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism

Women in Rock. Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022) is the first book-length work exploring the interrelationships among contemporary women rock musicians and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and literature, the literature of the Romantic era. LIMITED QUANTITIES ONLY available at a 37% discount.

$160.00

New Site Redesign

I’ve changed the title of this website to “The Philosophy of Contemporary Song” to better reflect site content over the next year. With a new title comes a new look. I’ll be blogging more soon about my latest book, Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, then about Bob Dylan’s The Philosophy of Modern Song and probably a post about ELP, and then about select contemporary musicians at the request of my daughter Grace.

More coming soon.

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