The Goddess of Song: Sabbatical Postcard #5

I had a religious experience.

You’re supposed to have religious experiences on your sabbatical, right?

Mine was not in a chapel or a church or on a mountaintop, mine was at Constitution Hall at a concert dedicated to the Goddess of Song – Joni Mitchell. My musical idol received the Library of Congress’s distinguished Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, wrote in the program notes:

“Her melodies defined a generation and have defied time as they continue to find new audiences and even eclipse new music today. Her music has been described as passionate, personal, elegant and intimate…

Mitchell’s early music is often categorized as folk, her sound drew as much from jazz, classical and rock as crossed various musical genres. Her music often encompasses bespoke tunings and song structures that defy categorization. As a lyricist she delves deeply into both the personal and political, unafraid to explore the raw reality of living under societal norms and time-worn traditions.”

Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress

An LOC docent, I volunteered to be a “seat filler.” The concert was filmed March 1 and will air later on PBS March 31 — so, my job was literally to fill a seat that had not been taken — ensuring the theatre always appears sold out for the cameras. There was no guarantee of a seat, so, following instructions I arrived early before the doors opened to queue up for almost two hours to see if “seat fillers” would be needed at all.

Alleluia! They did need “seat fillers”! I got a seat in the orchestra section about half way back on the far right. Sort of like sliding into a pew – awaiting the celebration of a high and holy day.

To back up a bit, Joni Mitchell’s music is the music of my youth. The aging hippie that I am, I had her every album and know every word to every song of her early work. I remember the album covers as vividly as I do the music, how I wish I still had those cardboard covers and liner notes.

1969 – Clouds

1970 – Ladies of the Canyon

1971 – Blue

1972 – For the Roses

1974 – Court and Spark

1974 – Miles of Aisles

1975 – The Hissing of Summer Lawns

A visual artist, Mitchell masterfully paints her distinctive sound with color. “I am a painter first,” she said in 2014, “and I kind of apply painter principles to my music.”

At last night’s concert, all the company of heaven paid homage to the Goddess of Song — musical collaborators and compatriots she herself chose to play selections from her considerable body of work.

Pulling out all the stops — to use an overused metaphor — Mitchell’s musical disciples played on a stage decked out like an art gallery hung with some of her most iconic paintings.

Marcus Mumford sang “Carrie”.

Brandi Carlile sang “Shine”.

Cyndi Lauper sang “Blue”.

Annie Lennox sang “Both Sides Now”.

James Taylor sang “California”.

Graham Nash sang “I Could Drink a Case of You”.

Ledisi sang “Big Yellow Taxi” – a rousing audience participation rendition!

Herbie Hancock, Angelique Kidjo, and Diana Krall played too! Truly a communion of musical saints.

Swept up in the rapture of it all, I wept (silently, of course) through each performance and was thrilled as the audience rose in standing ovation to each and every song.

The Goddess herself sat in the front row throughout and when the performances were over, she stepped onto the stage to receive the prize. This is the Library of Congress, after all, and members of congress were on hand to participate in the ritual. A miracle, Carla Hayden, the Head Librarian, quipped: It was a miracle that Mitchell’s creative gift was able to bring together in one place both sides of the aisle. A rarity on Capitol Hill.😊

The bureaucrats then stepped aside and made way for the Goddess herself. Mitchell sang a Gershwin Song: “Summertime”, from Porgy & Bess — so soulful and so moving. And then Mitchell, rejoined by all of the company of heaven, sang “The Circle Game”.

This once in a lifetime concert was all the more miraculous because the Goddess of Song suffered a brain aneurysm eight years ago, robbing her of her mobility and her voice. Having recovered from polio in the 1960’s, she had fought this fight before. And so she fought all the more furiously – to learn how to walk and talk, and how to paint and sing again.

How wonderful this resurrection story is. How incredibly grateful I am to have been there to experience it in the flesh. There is nothing quite so healing, I believe, as music – the mystical marriage of melody, harmony, rhythm, and lyrics. Music revives the soul.

I had a religious experience on my sabbatical. Not in a chapel or a church or on a mountaintop – but in a concert hall. The divine permeates the universe, animates all of creation, and enlivens every little fiber of our being — with a love song.

I had a religious experience, and I know you have had your own religious experiences, and I would love to hear about them. Upon my return, I have a little project in mind to gather up the stories of your own mystical, blissful, spiritual, rapturous, humbling, and awestruck experiences, and publish them in a series right here on Emmanuel Voices.

What do you think? Would you be willing to share?

Stay tuned, I will be back in touch during Holy Week!

Soli Deo Gratias,


Music Spirituality The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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