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For free


Joni Mitchell, 1970. The lyrics of her song For free still break my heart, as they did back when I was 18 years old:

I slept last night in a good hotel, I went shopping today for jewels 
The wind rushed around in the dirty town, and the children let out from the schools 
I was standing on a noisy corner, waiting for the walking green 
Across the street he stood and he played real good – on his clarinet, for free 

Now me I play for fortunes and those velvet curtain calls 
I’ve got a black limousine and two gen-tle-men, escorting me to the halls 
And I play if you have the money, or if you’re a friend to me 
But the one-man band by the quick-lunch stand, he was playing real good – for free

Nobody stopped to hear him, though he played so sweet and high 
They knew he had never been on their TV, so they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song, maybe put on a harmony
I heard his refrain as the signal changed – he was playing real good for free

Half a century later, Joni with her audible Saskatchewan accent remains my favourite singer-songwriter. And to my mind this song, from her third album Ladies of the canyon, comes as close as I can imagine to what she was always trying to tell us – as the free-for-all 1960s came to an end, Paris and Prague exploded in popular revolt on either side of Europe’s Iron Curtain and the Tet offensive struck American-dominated South Vietnam  – about where the world might be heading.

The omens weren’t good. The wealth-and-poverty divide was already widening again. She was a successful artiste, in a world of limousines, concert halls and gentlemen escorts, performing only for paying customers and her personal friends. But out on the chilly, dirty, noisy, traffic-ridden streets, an artiste of similar calibre was playing unheard, and unrewarded, to an indifferent, TV-addicted North American audience. Even Joni, who while out ‘shopping for jewels’ had thought of crossing the road to ‘put on a harmony’ with the lone clarinet-player, was distracted by the ‘changing signal’ (of the times?) and could do no more than write a haunting song about this missed opportunity to connect with a fellow human being. And all for free – no bottom line.

Half a century later, how bitterly her inklings have come true.


From → Economy, Media, Music, Politics

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