The Big Bend: Joni Mitchell, “Court And Spark” (1974)

“Looking for a woman to court and . . . spa – ark.” That was an upward bend of a whole step, from A to B in this case.

“Court And Spark” bend

The move occurs all over Court and Spark: in “Help Me” (“lo – oving”), in “Free Man In Paris” at the end of every line in the chorus, in “People’s Parties” (“sty – yle”), in “Same Situation” (“sex appea – eal”), in “Car On The Hill” (“waiting for his car on the hi – ill”), in “Down to You” (“sometimes you’re not so choo – oosy”), in “Just Like This Train” (“everybody wai – aiting”), in a sardonic variation in “Raised On Robbery” (heavily drawn-out half-step upward bends throughout), and in “Trouble Child” at the ends of the verse lines. It’s as important as the Tom Scott wind orchestration in giving this album its own signature.

The gesture sticks way out because it doesn’t belong in the genre of pop. It alludes to some other (but which other?) genre so strongly that there’s a kinesthetic effect like pulling one of your feet up and making you wonder where you can put it down. Maybe you can imagine Billie Holliday singing those notes (though Holliday is more a downward-bender). Maybe Charles Mingus would write a moaning part like that. What I hear is Nashville, as though she’s emulating a pedal steel guitar.

Maybe I’m right, for the whole-step upward bend peeks out on her preceding album, For the Roses, in “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio,” right after she sings “Oh honey you turn me on/I’m a radio/I’m a country station/I’m a little bit corny”—here it comes—“I’m a wi – ild wood flower/waving for you . . .”

“You Turn Me On” bend

That’s as explicit a reference as you could wish for, and a joke. (Compare her emulation of a saxophone’s poignant half-step upward bending of many high notes in “Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire” on the same album, a jazz noir effect—“You can come now/or you – ou can come later.” And compare how, several albums later, she deliciously splits the difference between a whole-step and half-step upward bend on the word “specia – al” in “Cotton Avenue.”)

On Court and Spark, there’s nothing jokey about the whole-step upward bends. They are strong, purposeful, integral to the melodic language. Mitchell is defining her own genre more than drawing an effect from a previously known genre. She makes you lift your foot and then put it down again in her world on her terms.

The big bend on the word “spark” in “Court And Spark” is the most admirable of all the convincing note bends on this album, partly because it bravely comes first and heralds all the bends to come and partly because it’s so musico-poetically improbable. For “spark” is hardly a piece of rubber to be stretched in this fashion. Sparks are brilliant and momentary. Can a person really be that dogged about love? Can the spark of love be an escalator? This note starts you wondering.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Big Bend: Joni Mitchell, “Court And Spark” (1974)

  1. Chris says:

    I am loving this site, almost immediately. Went looking at lyrics after an umpteenth listen to Don’t Let Up The Sorrow, found myself here, then on the Gimme Shelter take (and I am a huge Stones guy, as well), and back to this. Those bends, why had I not noticed them?

    Rock on. Great take, right or wrong. Nice piece. Joni Mitchell is the best damn singer songwriter, I do believe. Best all arounder (musician, writer, singer, producer…even paints the album covers). Throw in all her actual and real integrity and honesty and I just don’t see who beats her.

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