The two songs Joni Mitchell wrote about David Crosby

Emerging from Southern California’s 1960s folk scene, Joni Mitchell became one of music’s most influential figures, known for her deeply personal lyricism and beautiful compositions. The musician was known for writing about those close to her, both friends and lovers. She engaged in many deeply affecting relationships with other artists, whose time with her was subsequently immortalised in song.

Mitchell dated some of music’s most enduring figures, including Leonard Cohen and Graham Nash. One of her most significant relationships during the late 1960s was with David Crosby, shortly before she began dating Nash. Crosby told the Tampa Bay Times about his first meeting with Mitchell: “I walked into a coffeehouse in Coconut Grove, and she was standing there singing those songs, and I just was gobsmacked. I fell for her. Immediately. It’s a little like falling into a cement mixer. She’s kind of a turbulent girl.”

Following Crosby’s departure from The Byrds, he helped Mitchell record her debut album, Song to a Seagull, released in 1968. Until then, Mitchell primarily played live shows or wrote songs that were performed by other musicians, such as ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘Chelsea Morning’. However, with the help of Crosby, Mitchell was able to showcase her skills to a broader audience, putting her on the map as one of folk’s most essential voices.

Talking to Howard Stern, Crosby described Mitchell as being “as good a poet as Bob [Dylan], and she’s ten times the musician and singer than he is. I care about him, but the truth is she’s much better as a musician and much better as a singer.” The true nature of the pair’s relationship remains uncertain, as Mitchell once told David Yaffe in Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, “it was a summer affair.”

Still, that didn’t stop Mitchell from penning multiple tracks about Crosby, including one that appeared on Song to a Seagull. ‘The Dawntreader’, the second track on side two of the album, is sprinkled with natural sea imagery and details a hopeful relationship. She sings, “City satins left at home I will not need them/ I believe him when he tells of loving me” and “Leave behind your streets he said and come to me/ Come down from the neon nights.” The track culminates in Mitchell’s beautiful voice, singing, “Children laughing out to sea/ All his seadreams come to me.”

Jimi Hendrix was a big fan of Mitchell’s music, once writing in his diary that she was a “fantastic girl with heaven words.” Thus, he recorded one of the musician’s live performances of ‘The Dawntreader’, which was lost for almost 50 years. In his diary, he wrote, “Talked with Joni Mitchell on the phone. I think I’ll record her tonight with my excellent tape recorder (knock on wood)…hmmm… can’t find any wood… everything’s plastic.”

The gentle piece reflects the short period Mitchell and Crosby enjoyed a happy relationship. However, it wouldn’t be long before Crosby’s infidelity ruined their pairing, with Mitchell finding out he had moved in with an old flame. She decided to exact her revenge carefully, using her strongest skill set – her music. While attending a house party hosted by The Monkees’ Peter Tork, Mitchell asked everyone to gather around the living room, where she performed ‘The Song About the Midway’.

Crosby told Stern, “She’s like, ‘I’ve got a new song,’ and we were all there, and we all said, ‘Oh, fantastic, a new Joni song!’ And she starts to sing it, and it’s plainly a goodbye to me. And then she sang it again in case I didn’t get it the first time – unbelievable! Everybody in the room was going, ‘Oh.’ Everybody. … It’s hysterically funny.”

On the track, Mitchell boldly took down the unfaithful Crosby with the words, “You were betting on some lover, you were shaking up the dice/ And I thought I saw you cheating once or twice, once or twice.” Crosby couldn’t be mad at Mitchell for the song after everything he put her through. Even though the pair did not remain friends after they parted ways, Crosby harnessed great respect for Mitchell until his death, telling Stern, “I don’t get along with her that well anymore, but I do love her with my whole heart for what she’s given us.”

The songs Joni Mitchell wrote about David Crosby:

  • ‘The Dawntreader’
  • ‘The Song About the Midway’
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