The Battle: Joni Mitchell, “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” (1975)

Gladiators 2
It is the ancient wisdom of birds that battles are best fought with song.
—Richard Nelson [1]

Rock music is full of acknowledged great battles in all modes, at all levels—within performances, between players like Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton; at album level, between songwriters like Lennon vs. McCartney or Partridge vs. Moulding; in the big arena, between movements like Mods and Rockers or Punk and Disco.

A no less compelling battle can take place inside one soul and even inside one musical gesture. I see a good model for this possibility spreading its wings and bobbing up and down outside my window as I write. Feistiest of all the birds I live with, the mockingbird is known for capturing song material from other birds and singing songs that sound like battles with itself. When you hear a singer carrying on the great battle that way, you could feel apprehensive—has the singer been infected, possessed, “colonized”?—or, more likely, you could be encouraged by the singer’s mastery. Taking everything on in this way could be the royal road.

Considering human musicians, I don’t know who better exhibits mockingbird fluency and internal melodic drama than Joni Mitchell. But the Mitchell song I want to connect to the battle idea is not one you would pick as one of her melodic tours de force like “Chelsea Morning,” say. In this one it’s the lyrical content that matters most of all.

For many years I’ve wondered what makes “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” (on The Hissing of Summer Lawns) more than a passing happy hook-up of poetry to pop form and jazzy playing. This song hits the jackpot. How so? Today I have an idea, under the mockingbird’s eye.

The key to the song is the strength of mind enacted by a fierce and complicated battle of perspectives that we know will go on and on. The real battle inside the singer is embedded in a conversational battle with an obnoxious man about “women’s lib.” Call this the battle-within-a-battle device, where the interior battle is the bigger one. But notice how Mitchell snags bits of thought and language like a mockingbird using portions of other birds’ songs.

Don’t interrupt the sorrow
Darn right

In flames our prophet witches
Be polite
A room full of glasses
He says, “Your notches liberation doll
”[2]
And he chains me with that serpent
To that Ethiopian wall

Anima rising
Queen of Queens
Wash my guilt of Eden

Wash and balance me
Anima rising

Uprising in me tonight
She’s a vengeful little goddess

With an ancient crown to fight

Truth goes up in vapors
The steeples lean
Winds of change patriarchs
Snug in your bible belt dreams
God goes up the chimney

Like childhood Santa Claus
The good slaves love the good book
A rebel loves a cause

I’m leaving on the 1:15
You’re darn right
Since I was seventeen
I’ve had no one over me
He says “Anima rising—

So what—

Petrified wood process
Tall timber down to rock!”

Don’t interrupt the sorrow
Darn right

He says, “We walked on the moon
You be polite.

Don’t let up the sorrow
Death and birth and death and birth and death and birth
He says, “Bring that bottle kindly

And I’ll pad your purse 

I’ve got a head full of quandary
And a mighty, mighty, thirst.”

Seventeen glasses
Rhine wine
Milk of the Madonna
Clandestine
He don’t let up the sorrow
He lies and he cheats

It takes a heart like Mary’s these days

When your man gets weak

She practically chirps “death and birth and death and birth and death and birth,” making the whole shebang of samsara sound like just another bit of song thrown into the battle.

At the end, however, when she comes back from her personal and cosmic “Anima rising” to feel the suffering of real women in their mothering enslavement to men, she’s asking you to have enough heart to encompass it all. Isn’t this a great Roman Catholic theme (and object of feminist misgiving), that Mary is the prototype of responsible human life in holding inside her heart all that’s hardest to bear? It’s also a theme of traditional romance: while men run around performing exploits and risking their lives and prestige, women put their hearts at risk in the complex and precarious economy of authentic caring. And now we struggle with that very notion, and women more than men need “a heart like Mary’s” to hold their own in that battle of sex.  A heart like Mary’s, and mockingbird moxie.

______________________________________________________________________

[1] Richard Nelson, The Island Within (San Francisco: North Point, 1989). I found the quotation online and haven’t confirmed it yet.

[2] For interpretation of this enigmatic line see Comments below.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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17 Responses to The Battle: Joni Mitchell, “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” (1975)

  1. Vick Miles says:

    My theory about [2] agrees for the most part with Andrew – http://www.mail-archive.com/joni@jmdl.com/msg24127.html

    • Steve Smith says:

      I don’t think we can emend the line, because it’s written that way on the original album cover and it still appears that way on jonimitchell.com (but with a comma added after “notches”). I’d prefer “You’re not just liberation, doll.” Maybe the guy means to say this but is already slurring his speech; maybe he has notches on his mind and makes a Freudian slip. But none of these possibilities fits well with the stanza or the song. It should relate to the witches or glasses we just heard about, or lead to the serpent and Africa, i.e. the garden of Eden framing of Eve.

  2. recon77john says:

    It could also be that Joni and her liberationists are simply wrong. As Francis Schaeffer accurately said great art with a false message is the most dangerous of all. I love Joni Mitchell’s music NOT necessarily her truly false messages. I’m so sorry she is so conflicted but she certainly typifies the modern egalitarian feminist living in an eternal man’s world.

    • Jason Marcel (@moviejay) says:

      “Joni and her liberationists”? Where the heck are you getting that from? Apparently you’re not aware of the fact that Joni has always been a Groucho Marx type: She refuses to belong to any club that would have her as a member. And by club in this context, I mean “way of thinking”.

      She saw right through the whole “free love” thing and has never considered herself a feminist. “I prefer to deal with men one-on-one and not as part of some group”. She has said one variation of that after another her entire career.

      The only one hearing “false messages” is you, since much of her beautiful music isn’t about a message as much as its about being human.

      • Chris says:

        Thanks for saying most of what I was going to say–Many a Feminist has had her heart broken when it comes to pass they learn Joni Mitchell, who surely must be a sister, is point of fact NOT a feminist.

        And FWIW, Feminists don’t strike me as egalitarian–they aren’t much for quieting or castigating the overboard aspects and sayings and doings of their members, if you will. Nor are they at all concerned with true equality, rather a leg up at the expense of men. Now, since the last batch or two didn’t do much in the way of procreating, i.e. not enough little indoctrinated children, they ironically are turning to young Harry Potter franchise actor Emma Watson, is it, to speechify at the U.N. and attempt to recruit males to do their bidding.

        Part of what Mitchell had to say about feminism in a recent year or so ago CBC interview that got cut (think it made a radio version) went further than just the to the bone and humorous point you paraphrase (the, “Because I don’t believe in forming posses to hunt down men–I’d rather go toe to toe with them myself”, with a smile) went on to say there wasn’t much feminINE about feminism, and if it were a cause in some African country, say, sure, she could get with that, but it is borrowing or wearing a masculine energy or tone, etc.

        Joni is too cool for most fools, though.

        PEACE

  3. vick2sky says:

    Maybe that’s what Joni heard too. She didn’t quite understand what he was saying either 🙂

  4. Pingback: Hooks examines Joni Mitchell’s Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow | The Troubadour Tribune

  5. Sue Tierney says:

    My take on 2 is that this is a story of a fight after a long night of drinking and the man is saying to the woman “Your notches, liberation doll” or “those bottle are the ones you killed” referring back to the old cowboy reference to notches on your belt. That also plays with the dialect of “I’ve got a head full of quandry …” Joni watched a lot of old cowboy movies as a kid.

    • Mary says:

      This is exactly how I heard the line many years ago & still think it rings true. You can almost hear it in his voice as he gestures towards the bottles.

  6. Steve Smith says:

    This is as good a reading as there can be, perhaps. But what justifies the line for me is how great it sings, as semi-glossalalia.

  7. Chris says:

    This song is easy to listen to over and over, and for so many reasons, the least of which not being that cool bass.

  8. Paul says:

    That line has been analyzed quite a bit on the Joni Mitchell Discussion List. My best guess is that it should read: “You’re notches, liberation doll,” as though the male speaker is saying women may think more of themselves, but they are merely conquests for men, notches on their belt.

  9. Gill says:

    Your notch is liberation

    NOT ‘your notches liberation’

  10. Paul Parrish says:

    On the cd insert I have it reads “Your notches liberation doll”.

  11. Kevin Kraft says:

    This is one of Joni’s best songs on one of her best albums.
    Unfortunately, her critics and many of her fans didn’t get it. Her lyrical style changed so dramatically and became so sophisticated on “Hissing of Summer Lawns” that I think she lost some people who wanted her to stay in the more easily accessible “Court and Spark” style, or even to go back to the kind of work she did on “Blue”.
    The lines,
    “Truth goes up in vapors
    The steeples lean
    Winds of change patriarchs
    Snug in your bible belt dreams
    God goes up the chimney
    Like childhood Santa Claus
    The good slaves love the good book
    A rebel loves a cause”
    are so masterfully written. Larry Carlton’s volume-pedal guitar work is stunning throughout.
    I think there should be a comma inserted between “Your notches” and “liberation doll”. It seems to me that many of the lyrics in this song are about men and women keeping score as to which gender claims to be more accomplished and worthy and which should be subservient. People often keep score by cutting notches into something. (Maybe petrified rock?) It’s an ancient generational ritualistic battle that plays out over and over.
    Joni’s grammar isn’t always perfect. For example, I don’t think anyone would argue that there shouldn’t be a comma between “Both Sides” and “Now”, but there isn’t.

  12. I wonder what Joni’d think reading all of this; probably laughing, like Dylan did with Baez, as she said, when in a hotel room writing stream of consciousness, they agreed, “20 years from now people are gonna be contemplating what this means!” : )

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