Joni Mitchell and Berry Gordy at the Kennedy Center

At the beginning of this month, I read a report in the news that Joni Mitchell was one of the recipients of a Kennedy Center Honor, along with Berry Gordy, a songwriter who was the founder of Motown Records in Detroit. Motown Records was a formative cultural encounter for many young poets in Southern California. Just ask Amy Uyematsu or Stephen Kessler, if you don’t believe me. So, too, back in the 1970s, Mitchell’s lyrics and musical experimentation caught the attention of poets in Los Angeles, many of whom thought of her as being part of our imaginary community of synchronized one-man bands, “playing real good for free.” If Dylan’s work intermittently faltered in that decade, Mitchell’s poetry set to music in contrast recalibrated the tensions in that dialogue of words and chords as classically as anything written by Thomas Campion. By including her lyrics, Stephen Axelrod’s anthology of postmodernist poetry, published by Rutgers University Press a couple years ago, serves as a rare instance of long overdue recognition by an academy other than that of “Recording Artists.” Axelrod and his co-editors deserve our smiles of complicity in their subversion of canonical keywords such as “tradition.”

About a half-dozen years ago, there were vague reports about her health that left her admirers wondering how much was unfounded rumor, or if the hints of a catastrophic malady had some truth to their widespread circulation. I gather that the occasion at the Kennedy Center was recorded and was broadcast on CBS last night, and though I didn’t watch it, it is gratifying to learn that Mitchell’s determination to regain a measure of personal equilibrium is still brimming over.

That Berry Gordy, who was responsible for a renaissance in African-American music that has yet to be fully recognized by the intellectual academy, was honored along with Mitchell made this tribute more than a retrospective honor. Instead, it proffers a legitimate indulgence in nostalgia that somehow reverts into a present tense event when their recordings release their cadenced fragrances.

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