High days, holidays, hejiras: travelling through Divers

Sun 25 September 2016

Posted by Rufous Nightjar in Criticism   

This piece explores the theme of travel running throughout Divers, recently highlighted by a recent post at Blessing All the Birds and also explored by Michael Hicks. However, I want to introduce it by talking about the Joni Mitchell album, Hejira. Every song on that album relates to travelling or sight-seeing in one way or another — including mentions of New York City, aeroplane flights, and diving birds — yet Mitchell’s recounted travels are not often happy ones, hence the title, which is defined as an “exodus or departure” (OED).1

In one of my favourite songs from the album, “Amelia”, Mitchell waxes melancholy on aeroplanes, after seeing contrails up above that remind her of that object that took her all over the world, namely her acoustic guitar. The song is named after Amelia Earhart (1897-1937), the quintessential celebrity aviatrice, who was an icon for many women in her lifetime.2 Sadly, Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean during an attempted circumnavigation, becoming what the song describes as “a ghost of aviation”. At the end of each verse, Mitchell assures Earhart: “Amelia, it was just a false alarm.” But Mitchell is ill at ease with travelling, and this reassurance is just as much directed at herself. She’s worried that she has too much in common with Earhart, and, like a modern-day Icarus, will be “swallowed by the sky”.

(Looking back on this album today, the comparison seems even more apt. Each of these determined people was a pioneer in her time — as a woman — but was also hugely influential in her own right. Luckily, Mitchell has not yet disappeared somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.)

Despite this attitude, the album ends with Mitchell finding “refuge in the roads” (of which more later). This conclusion is foreshadowed in a verse of “Amelia” that exposes her curiosity even while she criticises those who succumb to theirs:

People will tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till 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

This tension, or ambiguity, between curiosity and ignorance, between the novel and the familiar, is also found, rarefied, in Divers.3

My last essay examined some of the nature of time and history in the album, and it is important not to forget the analogous theme of space and travel. For there are not just many geographical settings in the album, but also many acts of travelling. Some of these are tabulated below.

Track title Modes of transport
Anecdotes Horseback, flight*, wheel
Sapokanikan Foot, aeroplane*
Leaving the City Horseback, boat
Goose Eggs4 Bus, train, foot, aeroplane
Waltz of the 101st Lightborne Spaceship, foot
The Things I Say
Divers Swimming*, boat
Same Old Man Barrel, freefall* (leaf)
You Will Not Take My Heart Alive Flight*, train, foot
A Pin-Light, Bent Flight, freefall*
Time, As a Symptom Almost all of the above!

(*) = diving implied

The act is sometimes a hejira:5 think of the narrators of “Leaving the City” and “Same Old Man” making a new home away from New York City, or the subject of “Goose Eggs”, who is reminded, “You had somewhere that you had to go.” Within individual songs, we often get both sides of the coin: hejira against home. “Anecdotes” begins with a broken soldier slung over a horse’s back and ends with a daughter being called for supper. “Waltz“‘s infantryman realises his mistake in taking up arms and remembers being “lashed to the prow”; but the end of the song evokes a traditional shanty told by a woman waiting on the shore. The last observation of “A Pin-light, Bent“‘s free-falling air hostess is the “light from those funny homes”.

Other places, the journeys are akin to the travellers’ tales found in tracks from Hejira such as “Song for Sharon” and “Furry Sings the Blues” — breathless accounts illustrated by mementoes unstuck in time and space.6 “Waltz” has this, where Newsom boasts, “And you can barely tell, if I guard it well, / Where I have been, and seen, / Pristine, unfelled.” In “The Things I Say”, Newsom names, in a tourist-like manner, “Paris, France”, and reminds a subject of the time he framed a dancing girl with his hands — a sort of holiday snap. Mitchell rails against these fragmented memories in “Amelia”:

The drone of flying engines
Is a song so wild and blue
It scrambles time and seasons if it gets thru to you
Then your life becomes a travelogue
Of picture-postcard-charms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

Newsom, I feel, reveals a similar ambivalence; consider, for example, “Anecdotes”, where she tells us,

But what is this sample proving?
Anecdotes cannot say what Time may do.
Now hush, little babe.
You don’t want to be
down in the trenches
remembering with me.

The journeys seem to continue from track to track, too.

The diver of the title song leaves his wife on the pier while he traverses the “arid world”.7 Before leaving, he gave her a jewel, which his wife cruelly jests is “worth twice this woman’s life”. She hopes he’ll return with a pearl for a souvenir. In the meantime, she knows she must bide her time, questioning her travelling counterpart in his absence. “How do you choose your life?”, she wonders.

In the next track, “Same Old Man”, the narrator’s journey is over, and this one too stays where she is. A leaf falls from a tree — spring turns to autumn while she sings an elegy to reliability, in a cover version of a traditional folk song. That minimoog bassline starts up in the third verse, grounding the listener alongside words that rejoice over leaving the Apple: “New York City won’t see me again. […] I’m certainly glad to be at home,” says she, yet, 30 seconds hence, in “My Heart Alive”, the curiosity of the narrator begins anew. “And what do you remember most? / The line of the sea, seceding the coast?” She’s envious of this person who “severed all strings”.

In Hejira‘s penultimate track, “Blue Motel Room”, Mitchell initiates a futile bargain with her wayward lover: “You lay down your sneaking round the town, honey, / And I’ll lay down the highway.” — “You will not take my heart alive,” Newsom asserts, and it sounds just as shaky. Twice, her vocals and harp climb from a comfortable middle pitch to the highest reach of their ranges, before queueing and diving back down. Newsom is on the move. She goes into battle. Then, in counterpoint to her question in “Divers” (“How do you choose your form?”), she rises “to take [her] shape at last”. “I won’t come round this way again,” she tells us proudly, as her home moves further and further away.

The zooming-out from Earth conjured at the end of “My Heart Alive” (and the beginning of the following song, “A Pin-light, Bent”) matches the concluding lines of Hejira, from the song, “Refuge of the Roads”:

In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all
You couldn’t see these cold water restrooms
Or this baggage overload
Westbound and rolling
Taking refuge in the roads

This flight fulfills at last the desire, first expressed in “Anecdotes”, to go “where where the dew won’t dry / […] where the light won’t bend.” She is at lofty heights, in the perfect place for the philosophising heard throughout the final two tracks. Like Mitchell says in her concluding song: “And it made most people nervous / They just didn’t want to know / What I was seeing in the refuge of the roads.”[^8]

And like that, I think we see clearly how beautifully the themes of each song on Divers dovetail. Look at the questions posed in “The Things I Say”: “What happened to the man you were[…]? Did he die, or does that man endure, somewhere far away?” By the ending of the album, Newsom is that man: as flight attendant, she plunges to her death; yet she stands brave, and holds on through Divers‘ freewheeling finale, until the cycle begins again.

  1. This meaning comes from the word’s primary definition: “The flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D.” 

  2. There’s a detailed biography of Earhart as an annotation to the song’s lyrics on Mitchell’s website 

  3. It is interesting to note that Mitchell had just turned 33 when the album was released in 1972: the same age as Newsom at the release of Divers

  4. “taking a bus, to take a train and just plain vamoose” cf. “I took a ferry to the highway / Then I drove to a pontoon plane / I took a plane to a taxi / And a taxi to a train” (“Black Crow”) 

  5. Newsom has often said in interviews how she dislikes touring and is happiest at home. One example 

  6. For more on this, see my previous essay: “Unstuck in Time”: Narratives of War in Divers 

  7. I struggle here to understand what is meant exactly by “to count your way across the depths”. Perhaps he counts the waves, or pearls, as he walks. Or perhaps he tells stories. One definition of “to count” is “to esteem, account, reckon, regard, hold (a thing) to be (so and so)” (OED)