A Song For the Week: That Song About the Midway

Used with the kind permission of the artist, Maryellen Groundwater.

This will be the first of a fairly regular series of posts on songs that are on my mind, or in my heart at the time of writing.

Of late, I’ve been trying to revisit some albums that I’ve not listened too for some time. This week I’ve been listening to Joni Mitchell’s second album, Clouds.

It is easy to forget how good this album is, as all Joni Mitchell albums seem to be lost in the shadow of the monument that “Blue” has become. As unfair as this seems, it is a tribute to the remarkable heights Mitchell’s songwriting reached on the Blue album.

Clouds is a terrifc album in its own right, its songs groundbreaking in their complex structures and textured lyrics. There is a real painterly feel to the album, beyond the obvious markers such as Mitchell’s striking self-portrait on the album cover and the lovely track entitled “The Gallery”.

Each song on the album acts as a broad brush stroke of colour and light, some of extraordinary depth.

One in particular stands out for me above the rest.

“That Song About the Midway” was supposedly written about David Crosby, though I have yet to find any concrete confirmation of this. Crosby could certainly pass for the colourful and ephemeral rogue who passes through the song. If it is indeed him then he should (and I’m sure would) be honoured, for it is a masterpiece.

The imagery is breathtaking from the outset:

You stood out like a ruby in a black man’s ear
You were playing on the horses, you were playing on the guitar strings
You were playing like a devil wearing wings, wearing wings

You looked so grand wearing wings
Do you tape them to your shoulders just to sing

Mitchell’s protagonist cuts a fiery swathe through the carnivals and fairs that provide the setting for the song, he is all fire and colour, exuding life and passion.

He is also a gambler, and his gambles on love come at a price for him and his lovers, including the teller of the tale. While his flame still burns bright, hers is at a low ebb, and they drift apart. She catches glimpses of his flight while she begins to descend to a place of less certainty.

The haunting melody provides a contrast to his warmth, but also complements the sense of distance felt by the singer. Mitchell’s songs often evoke a sense of wistfulness and loss, but here there is an aching so palpable it almost hurts.

Enveloping all of this is Mitchell’s voice, soaring high when she sings “Can you fly
I heard you can! Can you fly”
then diving low to wash all that colour with the sepia tones of perspective and earned wisdom.

There is a lot here that presages Blue; in fact, the song would not have been out of place on that album. Regardless, it stands on its own as one of Joni Mitchell’s very best songs and I am certainly glad to have rediscovered it this week.

The link below is to a live performance of the song, from a concert in 1972. I also urge you to listen to the original album cut, which is still the best version I have heard. There is also a wonderful cover by Bonnie Raitt on her Streetlights album.

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