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Monday, March 4, 2013

Both Sides Now/Joni Mitchell


Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now appeared on her 1969 album Clouds (though Judy Collins's hit recording of the song was released the previous year). Clouds provide the central image in the song, particularly in the line I've looked at clouds from both sides now.

The song has literary origins, but the exact nature of them is a little, well, cloudy.

In one version, the song was inspired by Henderson the Rain King, a 1959 novel by Saul Bellow. The protagonist is a successful middle-aged man, Eugene Henderson, who suffers a crisis of spirituality and travels to Africa in search of answers. Through a series of misadventures, he is named the Rain King of the Wariri tribe. Early in the novel, Henderson is on a plane flying to Africa when he looks out the window and muses about the clouds below him:

And I dreamed down at the clouds, and thought that when I was a kid I had dreamed up at them, and having dreamed at the clouds from both sides, as no other generation of men has done, one should be able to accept his death very easily.

In an interview conducted just days after she'd written the song in 1967 (excerpted on her website), Mitchell said:

I was reading a book, and I haven't finished it yet, called Henderson the Rain King. And there's a line in it that I especially got hung up on that was about when he was flying to Africa and searching for something, he said that in an age when people could look up and down at clouds, they shouldn't be afraid to die. And so I got this idea 'from both sides now.'

She repeated the story in a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times:

I was reading Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King on a plane and early in the book Henderson the Rain King is also up in a plane. He's on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds. I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song.


In 1967 Joni was an avowed fan of J.R.R. Tollkien's The Lord of the Rings, thanks to her then-husband, folk singer Chuck Mitchell. "Joni had picked up Chuck's ardor for The Lord of the Rings," writes Sheila Weller in Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon--and the Journey of a Generation. "Both were swept up in the world of Middle Earth." (In fact, reports Katherine Monk in her book Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell, "The two formed Gandalf Publishing together, a nod to their shared Lord of the Rings fascination; the name was formally approved by the famed author after the Mitchells made a request in writing.")

Weller writes that Mitchell "once said that 'Both Sides Now' was inspired by The Lord of the Rings (she'd begun to write a children's fantasy based upon it)." In an interview in 2000 with Hot Press, Mitchell elaborated on the fairy tale she was working on, and Tolkien's influence:

It was called Mythology, and focused on a place that had two kingdoms. It was kind of like childhood Zen. The kingdom of Fanta and the kingdom of Real. Fantasy, reality. And 'Both Sides Now' came out of that mythology, from Sequan, the queen of that mythology. It was a children's story! And yet people say it's narcissistic because I'm referring to myself. But it was the queen of the kingdom of Fanta singing. And the whole idea probably came from my reading Lord of The Rings. That was a direct influence.

So which author inspired the song--Bellow or Tolkien? Perhaps both did. In any case, we're glad to have given you the opportunity to consider the question from both sides now.

Friday, February 15, 2013

For Presidents Day 2013: A List of Songs That Mention U.S. Presidents

It's been two years since we first collected songs that feature U.S. presidents in honor of Presidents Day. Here is the list again, updated for Presidents Day 2013.

We're sure there are other songs we've missed that name check a past or current Commander in Chief. If you know of one, please feel free to suggest it using the Submit a Song feature on the left side of this page. Like the great experiment in democracy that is America, this list is a work in progress.

Abraham, Martin and John by Dion. The Abraham is Lincoln, the John is Kennedy (and the Martin is MLK).

Apollo by the Alan Parsons Project, an instrumental that includes a snippet of JFK's 1961 "Man on the Moon" speech.

Ballad of Ronald Reagan by the Austin Lounge Lizards. "They called him Ronald--Ronald Reagan..."

California (Rutherford Hayes in the Morning) by Darryl Purpose. In addition to Hayes, the song also mentions Chester A. Arthur.

Campaigner by Neil Young. "Even Richard Nixon has got soul..."

(A Child's View Of) The Eisenhower Years by Al Stewart. "Elvis on the television, G.I.s in Korea/It's a child's view of the Eisenhower years..."

Dear Mr. President by Pink. The President in question is not identified by name, but this is clearly addressed to George W. Bush.

Diary by Andrew McKnight, about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. "Jefferson writes, 'Dear Diary, what have I done...?'"

Do The Clinton by the Foremen, a dance based on Bill Clinton's moves ("Hustle free trade and stage a bombing raid/Everybody do the Clinton...")

Eisenhower Blues by Elvis Costello. "Oh oh oh I got the Eisenhower Blues/Thinking about me and you and what on earth are we gonna do?"

The End Of The Innocence by Don Henley. "They're beating plowshares into swords/For this tired old man that we elected king." The video for the song makes it clear that this is a reference to Ronald Reagan.

Franklin Pierce by the Two Man Gentlemen Band. "There ain't nothing funny 'bout the death of Franklin Pierce..."

George Washington by Andrew McKnight. "The sign says George Washington slept here/Now there's a guy who had a couple of good ideas..."

Gimme Some Truth by John Lennon. Features perhaps the most popular epithet for Richard Nixon: "No short-haired, yellow-bellied, son of Tricky Dicky/Is gonna Mother Hubbard soft soap me." *

Grandpa Was A Carpenter by John Prine. "...And voted for Eisenhower/'cause Lincoln won the war..."

Gush or Bore by David Roth. "I won't say who I voted for, or even if 'twas Gush or Bore..."

Hard to Find by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. "Johnny F and Jackie looked like they had it all..."

Here. In My Head by Tori Amos. "So maybe Thomas Jefferson/Wasn't born in your backyard."

Johnny Can't Read by Don Henley. A generic presidential reference: "Well, is it Teacher's fault? Oh no/Is it Mommie's fault? Oh no/Is it the President's fault? Oh no/Well, is it Johnny's fault? Oh No!"

I Do the Rock by Tim Curry. "Carter, Begin and Sadat/Brezhnev, Deng and Castro..."

Inaugural Blues by Loudon Wainwright III features Bill Clinton: "Bill and Hill are our first couple..."

I Saw It On T.V. by John Fogerty. You'll find two presidents in this song, only one of them mentioned by name:
1. "A man named Ike was in the White House/Big black limousine..."
2. "A young man from Boston set sail the new frontier/And we watched the dream dead-end in Dallas/We buried innocence that year..."

It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) by Bob Dylan. "Even the President of the United States has to stand naked..." Another generic reference, but we'll take it.

James K. Polk by They Might Be Giants. "And when the votes were cast the winner was/Mr. James K. Polk, Napoleon of the stump..."

League of Notions by Al Stewart."Woodrow Wilson waves his fourteen points around..."

Like William McKinley by Al Stewart. "I'll sit on my porch like William McKinley/And I'll let the world come to me..."

Lincoln's Man by Ben Bedford. "A lover's note, a mother's prayer, and a father's curse/But I'm Lincoln's man, I'm Lincoln's man for better or for worse."

Lindy Comes to Town by Al Stewart. "Mr. Coolidge he will say, it's a public holiday..."

Line 'Em Up by James Taylor. "I remember Richard Nixon back in '74 and the final scene at the White House door..."

Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation by Tom Paxton. "I got a letter from LBJ/It said 'This is your lucky day'..."

Mexico by Jefferson Airplane.Features an oblique reference to Richard Nixon: "But Mexico is under the thumb/Of a man we call Richard/And he's come to call himself king." *

Obama by Ridi. Because, you know, it's about Obama.

Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming..."

On To Victory Mr. Roosevelt by Loudon Wainwright III. Mostly about FDR, but the last couple of stanzas are about Obama.

Presidents Day by Loudon Wainwright III. "George was the first one--Abe was the best," Loudon sings, but he expresses some regret that "there's been more than one George, I'm sorry to say."

Postcards From Richard Nixon by Elton John. "We heard Richard Nixon say, welcome to the USA..."

Post World War Two Blues by Al Stewart. "Uncle Ike was our American pal/Nobody talked about the Suez Canal..."

Ray & Ron by Rod MacDonald. Compares the lives of Ray Charles and Ronald Reagan ("Ray was a musician/Ron was a president"), who died the same week.

Russians by Sting. "Mr. Reagan says we will protect you/I don't subscribe to this point of view..."

Semper Fi by John Gorka, which tells how Gorka's father met Eleanor Roosevelt. "Her husband was the President/Til he ran out of time/Her Franklin D. was history/And they'd put him on the dime..."

Summerfling by k.d. lang. "We ran on the beach with Kennedy flair."

Superbird by Country Joe and the Fish. "It's a bird it's a plane, it's a man insane, it's my President LBJ..."

Sympathy For The Devil by the Rolling Stones. "I shouted out/Who killed the Kennedys..."

Teddy Roosevelt's Guns by Silver Mt. Zion. "Shop and save/Beneath the western sun/Bought and paid for with Teddy Roosevelt's guns..."

Ten Cents A Coup by Phil Ochs. "Here's to Nixon and Agnew/They are the stars of the stage and screen..." (Lyndon Johnson appears too: "I thought that Johnson was the devil...")

Tricky Dicky by Country Joe and the Fish. Richard Nixon appears as "Tricky Dicky from Yorba Linda/The genuine plastic man..."

Two Men In The Building by Steve Gillette, describes learning of the John F. Kennedy assassination while in Paris in 1963 ("Came a knock on the door, said the word was on the wire/They wounded your president when he drove into the crossfire...").

Warren Harding by Al Stewart. "Warren Gamaliel Harding alone in the White House watching the sun come up on the morning of 1921..."

We Didn't Start The Fire by Billy Joel. Mentions Harry Truman, Richard Nixon (twice!), Eisenhower, Reagan, and "JFK blown away."

William Howard Taft by the Two Man Gentlemen Band. "William Howard Taft got himself stuck in a bath..."

Young Americans by David Bowie. "Do you remember your President  Nixon...?"

Honorable Mention to the band The Presidents of the United States.

*Submitted by Bill Gregg

With thanks to Greg Hughes.