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Why Joni Mitchell’s return at the Newport Folk Festival mattered to so many of us

The iconic singer-songwriter’s surprise performance was a reminder that even if you’ve been chalked up as lost, you can still be found.

Brandi Carlile introduces Joni Mitchell for a special Joni Jam at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival at Fort Adams State Park on July 24.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

She has long been Artist embodied.

Now, she is Resilience personified.

Joni Mitchell’s words have long hit upon universal human emotion: “I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad”; “I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints”; “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” It may seem like a cliche, but Mitchell’s “Blue” was probably played in every dorm room in the ‘70s.

For kids like me, now in our late 30s and 40s, Mitchell was the soundtrack of our childhoods. My mother singing “Circle Game” to 5-year-old me in the bathtub. Me singing, “the painted ponies go up and down,” while making my toy horses fly up and down in tub water.

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At 16, listening to “River” on my Walkman. The ultimate poetry-loving teenager’s fantasy: a river to skate away on.

At 22, realizing I don’t know clouds at all.

Mitchell has, for generations, built a cult of fans. But in recent years, she was a ghost.

After a brain aneurysm in 2015, we thought she was gone. Rumors flew: She died. Was dying. She’ll live but never speak again. Combined with her post-polio syndrome symptoms, how could anyone survive this?

Poor Joni, the world seemed to say with a sigh. Poor Joni.

But here’s the thing: We’ve all been counted out or chalked up as lost before.

Maybe it was your health. Maybe you lost your job, or flunked out of school. Maybe you were dumped, divorced, given up on, scratched from the roster.

But once you climb out of that hole — dirt under your fingernails, limbs aching — there is no other feeling.

That’s what it felt like to see Mitchell at 78, looking out at the crowd at the Newport Folk Festival on Sunday, laughing, blonde hair in pigtails, wearing sunglasses, a beret and red lipstick.

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Billed only as “Brandi Carlile and Friends,” Mitchell’s appearance — her first Newport Folk Fest appearance since 1969, her first full live set in decades — was a total shock that stole the show.

It was Carlile’s idea. Encircled by musicians including Carlile, Wynonna Judd, Allison Russell, Marcus Mumford, and Taylor Goldsmith, Mitchell delivered her hits, including “Both Sides Now,” “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Circle Game” along with songs like “Love Potion #9,” and “Summertime.”

There is a reason why Carlile couldn’t stop smiling. Why Judd wept. Why Twitter was in awe, and why the crowd seemed almost afraid to sing along and had to be prompted by Carlile to sing.

It’s because witnessing a fellow human being finding their voice again is a powerful thing.

“When I’m 78,” Judd said at one point, simply pointing to Mitchell.

“I got you, Wy,” Carlile said, understanding.

Because we do.

It was powerful to hear Mitchell’s new voice — now deeper, smokier, perhaps wiser — and to see her hands moving in time. Though she was sitting in her chair, she seemed to be almost dancing.

The one we counted out, chalked up as lost. The poor thing. The invalid.

She shattered those words with her song, and we smashed them along with her, stomping on the shards and whooping.

The first time I watched this clip of “Both Sides Now,” I was in awe of Mitchell. The second time, I focused on those around her.

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I watched Judd, who just lost her mother, sigh and hold back a sob. By the end of the clip, she is looking skyward, blinking back tears, just nodding. I watched Carlile wipe her eyes, then stop singing completely to listen to Mitchell, then grin as she stared at the ground.

Later, Carlile tweeted: “Joni’s looked at life from so many sides and she came out of the storm singing like a prophet.”

When Mitchell sang the last line, “I really don’t know life at all,” Carlile heaved a sigh of emotion, clutched her hand to her heart, laughed. And that says everything.

That’s how all of her fans felt watching the clip.

Mitchell’s performance is a universal story of human grit.

This is tenacity.

Because something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day — just look at Joni.


Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.