Word today that Joni Mitchell was hospitalized after being found unconscious in her home made me realize, with a thud, that it’s high time for her to be included in the New American Songbook. (Fortunately, she seems to be recovering.) But which song? Among her most covered and familiar compositions are “Both Sides Now,” “The Circle Game,” “Woodstock,” “Free Man in Paris” (wow, there are a lot of them), “River,” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” all of which I’ll hold off on, partly because they are so familiar (and, in the case of the first two, have the verse and refrain folk-tune structure that I’m generally avoiding in this project).
So I circled in on the following: “Carey,” “A Case of You,” “Help Me,” and “Coyote,” all great, absolutely original, indelible songs. A couple of things led me to “Help Me.”
- It’s from what (to me) is her greatest album, 1974’s Court and Spark.
- It was her most successful single, peaking at number 7 on the charts.
- It was name-checked in Prince’s song “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” (“Mind if I turn on the radio?”/”Oh, my favorite song,” she said/An’ it was Joni singin’/’Help me I think I’m falling’).
Most of all, it’s such a great pop song, filtered through the Joni’s idiosyncratic genius. It starts out “Help me, I think I’m fallin’/In love again,” and the first two notes themselves take a steep leap. Then the melody goes up and down in vertiginous syncopated swoops. She’s got it right: “When I get that crazy feeling/I know I’m in trouble again.”
Here’s a 1974 live version, with some extra vocal swoops, and backed by the great band that played on Court and Spark, Tom Scott and the L.A. Express. (Get well soon, Ms. Joni Mitchell.)