Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Joni from Saskatoon

A lot of folks, especially on the right, are upset at Joni Mitchell for recently comparing Saskatoon to the US Deep South (i.e., in the early Sixties). For my part, I give artists special license. They live in the imagination, and are not sensitive to the jostling politics of everyday life. They are politically naive. This is, ultimately, to their credit: they are “in the world, but not of it,” just as a Christian is supposed to be. They are prepared to sacrifice everything to truth and beauty, and that is what we all should do.

There is no mistaking a general tendency to egotism among artists—at least, among highly successful artists. Such perhaps are the hazards of becoming rich and famous, and perhaps they are not entirely to blame for succumbing to temptations the rest of us have never had to face. The true and the beautiful—two out of three ain't so bad.

Besides, Joni Mitchell is one of the co-creators of Canada as a culture. She is part of a striking artistic movement that began in the early Sixties and transformed all art, world wide: the chanteur-chanteuse tradition that emerged from the “folk renaissance,” independent from but concurrent with rock and roll. Before these performers, songs and popular music were pure entertainment, a commodity, a craft. They transformed them into true art, but art of a uniquely popular nature—an art of the people, not of the elites. They changed what music was, and what singing meant.

I can identify ten major Canadian figures in this movement. Almost all are within a few years of the same age, all emerged at the same time, and all were, necessarily strikingly versatile. They had to be. The nature of the art required them to be proficient singers, composers, and poets, in addition to usually playing at least one musical instrument extremely well. Not surprisingly, most of them were also visual artists.

The ten, moving across the country from west to east, are: BC and Alberta's Ian Tyson; Saskatchewan's Joni Mitchell and Buffy Sainte-Marie; Manitoba's Neil Young; Ontario's Gordon Lightfoot and Robbie Robertson; Quebec's Leonard Cohen, Gilles Vigneault, and Robert Charlebois; and the East Coast's Stan Rogers.

Together, I think they surpass any other nation's artistic output in this particular genre, although one has to credit Bob Dylan with blazing the path that made it possible for the rest of them. Together, they even represent a great flowering of Canadian culture, comparable to the English Romantics. They are all getting to an age at which they will soon be gone—but for Rogers, who is gone already—and we will not soon see their like again.

For my money, and I suspect most people's, Leonard Cohen stands above the rest; but each one of them has touched the sublime many more times than once. And many of their songs have become part of Canada's sense of itself.

You run down Joni Mitchell, and, in the end, you are running down my country.

Besides, she has always looked and sounded eerily like my grandmother.

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