Happy Wednesday and welcome to another installment of Song Musings where I take a closer look at tunes I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all to date. Today’s pick is Amelia by Joni Mitchell.
My intro to the Canadian singer-songwriter happened some 40 years ago with her 11th studio album Wild Things Run Fast from 1982 and I instantly loved Chinese Café / Unchained Melody. That said, I didn’t start to further explore her music until a couple of years ago.
From Mitchell’s albums I’ve heard to date, Hejira has become a favorite. Amelia is the second cut on Side one (speaking in vinyl terms). Like all other tracks on the great record, it was solely written by her. Check out that beautiful and warm sound – I totally dig it!
Amelia was inspired by Mitchell’s breakup of a short relationship with John Guerin, the drummer of jazz fusion ensemble L.A. Express, her backing band from the mid to late ’70s. According to Wikipedia, The song interweaves a story of a desert journey (the “hejira within the hejira”) with the famous aviator Amelia Earhart who mysteriously vanished during a flight over the Pacific Ocean.
Mitchell has commented on the origins of the song: “I was thinking of Amelia Earhart and addressing it from one solo pilot to another… sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do.” Here’s a nice live version from 1983.
Hejira had some notable guests. Amelia featured prominent session guitarist Larry Carlton, who played on hundreds of albums by artists, such as Steely Dan, Linda Ronstadt, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and Sammy Davis, Jr. Vibraphone was provided by English jazz musician Victor Feldman, who has played with the likes of Cannonball Adderley, Gregg Allman, Johnny Cash and Rickie Lee Jones, among many others. Carlton and Feldman also appeared on various other albums by Mitchell.
Hejira, which captures Mitchell’s experiences during a period of frequent travel in late 1975 and early 1976, was received favorably when it appeared but neither matched sales nor chart performance of its predecessors. In Canada, it peaked at no. 22 and in the U.S. it climbed to no. 13. It did best in the UK where it reached no. 11.
But, as happens frequently in music, in the years since its release the album has been considered one of the gems in Mitchell’s recording catalog. The most recent revision of Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, published in September 2020, ranks Hejira at no. 133. It was also voted no. 776 in the third edition (2000) of Colin Larkin’s All Time Top 1000 Albums.
Following are some additional insights on Amelia by Songfacts:
Mitchell (from a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times): “I wrote the album while traveling cross-country by myself and there is this restless feeling throughout it… the sweet loneliness of solitary travel...“
Amelia Earhart vanished while flying over the Pacific Ocean in 1937. Mitchell alludes to this when she sings:
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
Icarus is a figure from Greek mythology whose father, Daedalus, crafted him a set of wings made of wax. Despite his father’s warnings, Icarus flew too close to the sun and his wings melted, sending him to his death in what is now called the Icarian Sea.
Joni Mitchell sings in the first verse about:
Six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor 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
She explained the lyric to Robert Hepburn for Mojo magazine in 1994. “Basically the false alarm was the end of a relationship. Two scorpios couldn’t let each other go. It was done, but we couldn’t let go; we belonged to each other. It was winding down and I am driving solo without a driver’s license across the country. I think of Amelia I think solo flight. I can’t remember how many hotel rooms later it was complete.”
The late David Crosby, who was in a brief relationship with Joni Mitchell in 1967 and remained a friend thereafter, covered Amelia on his sixth solo album Sky Trails, which came out in September 2017. Nice rendition!
Going back to Songfacts, here’s what Crosby reportedly told Uncut about the tune:
“I’ve always wanted to sing that song. I love that song! What a stunning piece of work she did, the two levels of it talking about Amelia Earhart and taking about her own love life at the same time, so eloquently, with such a beautiful set of words. Her version is quite ornate. I tried to sing it very simply.”
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube