Canadian Music Legend Joni Mitchell Receives Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song
Joni Mitchell poses on the red carpet at the 2023 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for American Song on Wednesday in Washington, DC. Photo: Shannon Finney/Getty Images
Alberta-born folk legend Joni Mitchell became the first Canadian to collect the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song on Wednesday.
The ceremony, which took place at DAR Constitution Hall, a historic venue just down the street from the White House, saw fellow musical luminaries, including Marcus Mumford, Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper and Brandi Carlile, gather to honour the music legend.
According to the Library of Congress website, the honour celebrates “an artist’s impact and achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of musical expression and cultural understanding.”
“The recipient-whether composer, singer/songwriter, or interpreter is recognized for entertaining and informing audiences, for drawing upon the acknowledged foundations of popular song, and for inspiring new generations of performers on their own professional journeys.”
“Tonight it’s all about Joni,” Mumford, lead singer of the British group Mumford & Sons, said as he introduced Mitchell. “Joni, it has been one of the great privileges of my life to get to play in your band, to play songs at your house. I love you very much,” he added before kicking off the tribute concert with a performance of “Carey,” from Mitchell’s 1971 album, Blue.
Mitchell, 79, sitting in the front row, wearing her signature beret and sunglasses, sang along to each performance and even took to the stage to join in a performance of “The Circle Game.”
Midway through the show, Carlile, Kidjo, Lauper and Lennox teamed up with New Orleans jazz singer Ledisi and indie pop stars Lucius for a rendition of the iconic Mitchell hit “Big Yellow Taxi.”
The performance moved the audience to a standing ovation, with Carlile handing the mic over to Mitchell to deliver the song’s iconic, final line: “They paved paradise/Put up a parking lot.”
Wednesday’s lineup also included some familiar faces from Mitchell’s past, former beaus Graham Nash and James Taylor, both of whom spoke fondly of her ahead of the show.
“I think that Joni is finally going to realize that people really do love her,” Nash said. “She spent a few years not knowing whether she was appreciated enough, but now she knows that she is loved,”
Meanwhile, Taylor said the tribute felt “right.”
“She deserves to be recognized and acknowledged and validated and for us to remember and realize what a contribution she’s made and what it gives us, and to music, to all of us.”
As a Gershwin prize winner, Mitchell joins an elite group of legendary singer-songwriters including Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder and Carole King.
While Mitchell has limited her public appearances since recovering from a brain aneurysm in 2015, the music icon isn’t ready for her curtain call just yet.
This past summer, she dazzled fans alongside Carlile at the Newport Folk Festival. The “Joni Jam,” as Carlile called it, was her first full-length public performance in more than two decades.
And this June, she’ll hop on stage with Carlile again for “Joni Jam 2” at Gorge Amphitheatre, an outdoor venue two hours east of Seattle.
On the red carpet, Carlile spoke of how Mitchell had influenced her as a songwriter.
“My own songwriting, if I’m really honest with you, its become a lot less prolific since meeting Joni Mitchell, because I’m really not willing to write anything that I wouldn’t feel comfortable driving up the street to Joni’s house and playing it for her, you know?” she said. “So I write less things, but I mean what I say more. And she raises the bar uncomfortably high.”
On Thursday night, in keeping with long-standing tradition for the award’s recipients, Mitchell will sit down for an hour-long conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in the library’s Great Hall inside the Thomas Jefferson Building.
Wednesday’s Gershwin tribute concert is scheduled to air March 31 on PBS.