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Author discusses race, culture in relation to Joni Mitchell

The race and American culture of Los Angeles in the ‘60s and ‘70s was the topic of Eric Lott’s discussion at the Stephen Crane Lecture series on Friday.

Lott, a social historian, author and professor at the University of Virginia, focused his lecture around singer Joni Mitchell, the subject of his upcoming book. The question of sexual dominance and its emotional fallout and the attractions of male power, particularly black male power and money, were issues in LA at the time as well as themes in Mitchell’s music, Lott said.

‘I learned a lot about Joni Mitchell that I previously didn’t know,’ said Patricia Roylance, assistant professor of English at SU. Roylance said it was interesting to learn about the culture of LA in the ‘70s and how Mitchell’s music was inspired by that culture.

Lott’s analysis of Mitchell, a white woman, included her infatuation with black culture and her relationship to it. He explained that Mitchell ‘undermined whiteness’ through her music.

Mitchell’s employment of prominent black musicians, her famous songs such as ‘The Jungle Line’ and ‘Dreamland,’ the clothing she wore and the frequent relationships she had with black men formed a revealing chapter in ‘70s pop life and the cultural history of LA, Lott said.

Similarly, like the rest of America at the time, LA faced racism and segregation, Lott said. As the music industry was moving westward from New York to LA, Lott said, the city became ‘a racially segmented scene.’

He also said the Los Angeles Police Department was significantly shaped by white southern ‘sensibilities.’

Mitchell’s album ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ addressed issues such as racial difference, blackness and her ‘privileged whiteness.’ The album gained significant recognition and was a turning point because of its ‘social dissections’ and genre jumping from pop to jazz, he said.

Black artists such as Prince, Q-Tip and Janet Jackson have been inspired by Mitchell’s work, he said. In 2007, jazz musician Herbie Hancock’s album ‘River: The Joni Letters,’ featuring Mitchell compositions, won two Grammy Awards.

Yet even during the high point of Mitchell’s career, not everyone was a fan. Lott said that she was criticized for the black authenticity she tried to convey.

Lott discussed one moment in particular when Mitchell performed for Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, the promising African-American boxer who was convicted of murder. During the performance, held at Carter’s prison, Mitchell was booed off stage because the black prisoners thought her music was a ‘whitewashed version’ of jazz and blues, he said. Out of anger, Mitchell publicly called Carter the N-word.

That was not the first time Mitchell was controversial regarding black culture, Lott said. On the cover of her 1977 album, ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter,’ Mitchell appears in blackface drag.

Lott explained that Mitchell’s fantasy of being a black man was apparent in both her music and the relationships she had with men. Having a relationship with a black man came satisfyingly close to being one, Lott said.

‘Joni thought she inhibited blackness,’ Lott said. ‘That’s why she didn’t see a problem with her wearing blackface or using the N-word.’

mhnewman@syr.edu

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