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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.

However...

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.


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