Depending on what source you read, a hejira is defined as a “migration” or “flight from danger”. Both can be similarly described as “escape”, which itself can be taken as running for one’s life or just getting away from it all. Much conjecture has been made of what exactly inspired this collection of weary road songs; the facts are that she had spent some time on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, she’d done a brief tour supporting her last album, she started and ended a variety of love affairs, and she took a cross-country car trip.
That feeling of movement, of being conveyed somewhere is apparent throughout Hejira. Some of the L.A. Express are still here, but there’s more Larry Carlton on lead guitar in the mix (a counter to Joni’s own electric rhythm, still in tunings of her own design). The biggest contribution comes from Jaco Pastorius on bass, giving the album as a whole—and particularly the phenomenal title track—a distinct ECM feel.
“Coyote” might be most familiar to people who’ve seen her perform it in The Last Waltz, a teasing tribute to another rugged man who’s stolen her heart. It takes a few listens before understanding that “Amelia” celebrates Amelia Earhart, another female pioneer who left a trail few could attempt to follow. Next stop is Memphis, where an encounter with a blues musician inspires “Furry Sings The Blues” and Neil Young adds an atonal harmonica. Yet she still finds herself drawn to “A Strange Boy”, despite his immaturity. The title track, again, is an absolute masterpiece, ringing with her retuned guitar and Jaco’s bass wandering this way and that.
An open letter to a childhood friend who supposedly has the life Joni thought she’d lead provides the basis for “Song For Sharon”, a lengthy, time-hopping reflection. The most experimental track is “Black Crow”, with very jagged rhythm guitar providing the rhythm while Jaco and Larry Carlton dance amid her vocal. With “Blue Motel Room” she’s finally written her own Annie Ross torch song. Listen for how her voice perfectly imitates a group of muted trumpets on the instrumental break. “Refuge Of The Roads” is a wonderful conclusion, wherein she almost seems to accept her position, if not her fate.
Throughout the album she sounds more tired than ever, and that’s much of the point of Hejira. As stated so perfectly in “All I Want”, she is, after all, always going to be on a lonely road, traveling, traveling, traveling.
Joni Mitchell Hejira (1976)—4