Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell on the red carpet to receive the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song; Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Over the past several years, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell has hosted what have come to be known as “Joni Jams,” monthly music sessions held at her Los Angeles home where friends—including Marcus Mumford, Herbie Hancock, and Brandi Carlile—would come by and play music. 

A Joni Jam of a different sort was held at DAR Constitution Hall last night, March 1, as Hancock, Mumford, and Carlile, along with artists including Annie Lennox, James Taylor, Graham Nash, and Cyndi Lauper paid tribute to Mitchell as she was awarded the Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, becoming the first Canadian and the third woman (after Carole King and Gloria Estefan) to do so. 

With staging that combined Mitchell’s work as a visual artist along with her 50-plus years of songwriting, the audience was able to realize Mitchell’s work as a whole. The set was filled with oversize paintings, self-portraits, and landscapes with an ever changing screen in the background allowing for a different palette with each song.

James Taylor, on the red carpet, later recalled his work on Mitchell’s Blue album as “one of the things that I’m proudest of.” Credit: Darrow Montgomery

As with any event like this, odes to the singer-songwriter were plentiful. But the tributes by each performing artist were different. Like Mitchell’s songs, they were incredibly heartfelt and personal, revealing not only Mitchell’s influence but how intimate connections can be revealed through art.

Lennox performed a desperately moving version of “Both Sides Now,” starting at the piano before dancing center stage. Multiple Grammy winner Angelique Kidjo sang “Help Me,” while dancing into the audience where Mitchell, seated in the front row next to Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, shimmied along.

Before launching into “California,” Taylor, who had a romantic relationship with Mitchell in the early 1970s, discussed working with her on Blue, describing it as “one of the things that I’m proudest of.” He recalled hearing the first versions of the songs that were originally written on a four-string dulcimer. “It left a lot of room for arrangement,” said Taylor. “I got to add in some colors on the guitar,” he explained, sounding lucky to do so.

Brandi Carlile on the red carpet before the celebration for Joni Mitchell; Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Carlile—who seems to be Mitchell’s head cheerleader and hell-bent on introducing her to a new generation—started her introduction of “Shine” saying, “all her disciples know that, in her own words, she sings her sorrow and paints her joy.” 

Last summer, Carlile fanned the flames of the current revival when Mitchell joined her for a surprise, 13-song appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. (Mitchell hadn’t performed publicly since suffered a brain aneurysm eight years ago, which initially took away her ability to walk and speak. After years of therapy, Mitchell has regained both.)

R&B singer Ledisi introduced “Big Yellow Taxi,” noting that Mitchell’s ability to sing about the environment was done in an “almost subversive way, wrapping the message in a universally easy to sing chorus.” With that, Ledisi, along with Lauper, Lennox, Kidjo, and Carlile traded lines, dancing over to Mitchell in the audience and having her sing the last line of the song. The crowd roared.

Angelique Kidjo on the red carpet before honoring Joni Mitchell; Credit: Darrow Montgomery

If that’s all Mitchell was willing to give, the crowd would have been happy. However, once she took the stage to accept the award (“This is so overwhelming,” she offered) and to thank her Joni Jam friends (“So many people that I care about are here tonight”), she revealed that, in honor of the prize, she would sing a Gershwin tune.

Leaning against the piano, Mitchell performed an impeccable rendition of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Once the initial cheers of hearing her voice again passed, you could hear a pin drop.

Closing with “The Circle Game,” Mitchell, joined by the evening’s performers, sang of seasons passing and dreams losing their grandeur, noting we can only look behind. 

Mitchell, in turn, only plans on looking ahead, as she will perform at Washington state’s Gorge Amphitheatre in June, a show Carlile has lovingly called “Joni Jam 2.”

PBS stations nationwide will air Joni Mitchell: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song at 9 p.m. on March 31.

Joni Mitchell; Credit: Darrow Montgomery
Herbie Hancock; Credit: Darrow Montgomery
Annie Lennox; Credit: Darrow Montgomery
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden; Credit: Darrow Montgomery
Marcus Mumford; Credit: Darrow Montgomery
Cyndi Lauper; Credit: Darrow Montgomery