Amelia - Joni Mitchell
A true griot, poet and storyteller in the tradition begun by Homer and Sappho 2,800 years ago, Joni Mitchell weaves together diverse themes and personal heartbreak to give us a rich flying carpet of a tapestry in her album "Hejira", and in the track "Amelia" in particular.
Hejira is defined by the Oxford Shorter English Dictionary 1983 as a word of Arabic origin meaning:
"departure from one's country and one's friends" specifically: :
"1. The flight of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina in AD 622; hence the Mohammedan era which is reckoned from that date
2. any exodus."
Most of the songs from the album were written by Mitchell as she drove across America home to California three times in a year in the aftermath of various professional and personal debacles including her break-up with ex Byrds drummer John Guerin. Much of the time, she was driving alone, long-distance through dessert terrain, and she had plenty of steering wheel hours to ruminate on where she was in her life.
During the 1918 pandemic, the 21 year old Amelia Earhart was working as a nurse in a military hospital in Toronto where she caught the Spanish flu, afterwards suffering long-term ill effects that included severe sinusitis which caused much discomfort in her subsequent flying career. Amongst her many achievements as a pioneering female pilot, Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic first as a passenger, and then, solo, as the pilot . In 1937, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan,disappeared over the Pacific while on her second attempt to be the first woman pilot to circumnavigate the world. She was on the 31st leg of 33 so she nearly made it, but neither of them were heard of again.
This is a breathtaking track in which, as she pauses to reconsider her life, Joni refers to the innocence of her youth - "I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitude" ("Both Sides Now") while planting a touchstone for her future reckoning in her 2002 retrospective "....your life becomes a travelogue...."
Beginning with the beautiful, almost too potent, metaphor of aeroplanes above her as the strings of her guitar, neatly matching her own wanderlust with that of her heroine Amelia Earhart:
"I was driving across the burning desert when I spotted six jet planes leaving six white vapour trails across the bleak terrain it was the hexagram of the heavens it was the strings of my guitar Amelia, it was just a false alarm"
The meticulous, slow-yet-graceful guitar picks out the rhythm of the song with its own internal melody like a small plane manoeuvering high in a blue sky in turn like the skywriter in "Mrs Dalloway". The guitar keeps changing key, pausing before chunky chord changes, giving the sense of ever-changing altitude, climbing and dropping,
"The drone of flying engines is a song so wild and blue it scrambles time and seasons if it gets through to you then your life becomes a travelogue of picture postcard charms oh, Amelia, it was just a false alarm"
As the song pays tribute to the courage of Earhart, on the parallel flights of their lives they both get lost
"People will tell you where they've gone they'll tell you where to go
but 'til you get there yourself you never really know where some have found their paradise others just come to harm oh, Amelia, it was just a false alarm"
and Mitchell ponders her recent break-up with Guerin and questions her own ability to love at all, comparing it with a desire for the realisation of a romantic dream:
"I wish that he was here tonight it's so hard to obey his sad request of me to kindly stay away so this is how I hide the hurt as the road leads cursed and charmed I tell Amelia, it was just a false alarm"
and in doing so, she invokes Ovid, the great Roman love poet, as both she and Amelia fly too close to the sun,
"A ghost of aviation she was swallowed by the sky or by the sea, like me, she had a dream to fly like Icarus ascending on beautiful foolish arms Amelia, it was just a false alarm"
and Joni gets as personal as you will find her
"Maybe I've never really loved I guess that is the truth I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitude and looking down on everything I crashed into his arms Amelia, it was just a false alarm"
the false alarm always being that this is the real thing, not the dreamed-of one, hence the continual wandering, searching, the moving on, the hejira. As I said, a true griot.