Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan’s relationship is a fractured and complicated mess. Still, their admiration for one another on a solely artistic level will never waver, despite the barrage of insults that have been aired in public view over the decades.
The two folk troubadours learned their craft during the cultural uprising of the ’60s, and their paths eventually crossed as Joni Mitchell progressed from an aficionado of Dylan to his undoubted peer. If you were to name the two most influential singer-songwriter’s of all time, you needn’t look any further Mitchell and Dylan.
When Dylan made his breakthrough, his originality was his most captivating asset, and every song he wrote was unpredictable. His stubbornness remains his finest trait and his greatest hindrance. Nothing has ever been out of bounds for Dylan when it comes to songwriting. If there’s something that intrigues his creative juices enough, then he’ll drink that thought until it’s dry, and more often than not, create something beautiful out of a feeling most artists would discard.
This particular mercurial skill of Dylan’s is what enamoured Mitchell to him, and she later admitted that this was something that she adopted into her own writing.
After her ascendance to counter-culture icon, she got to know Dylan on a more personal level, despite never really connecting. However, it wasn’t until throughout 1975 into 1976, when the duo travelled around North America together on Dylan’s infamous Rolling Thunder Revue Tour, that she understood him as a human. It would be in this period where Mitchell got to see an unfiltered, up-close perspective of what Dylan was like and it is where she started to separate her adoration for him as an artist from him as a person. “We are like night and day, [Dylan] and I,” Mitchell scathingly said to the LA Times in 2010. “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception.”
Even though she probably wouldn’t invite him out for a drink, in 2005, Mitchell took part in the series Artist’s Choice and handpicked 18 songs that occupy a special place in her heart, including Dylan’s enigmatic track ‘Sweetheart Like You’.
Despite picking that track, Mitchell revealed in the liner notes: “It was another Dylan song, ‘Positively 4th St.’ that had the most influence on me. I remember thinking as I heard it for the first time, ‘I guess we can write about anything now — any feeling.’ As I reviewed it for this collection, though, I found it a little too grumpy for my current state of mind, and so I chose this one, more in keeping with the spirit of this collection — for its Damon Runyon style of storytelling.”
That comment shows the high esteem that Mitchell holds Dylan in as an artist, making later remarks about him even more challenging to comprehend.
‘Positively on 4th St.’ arrived at a poignant moment in Mitchell’s life in 1965. It was released just a few months after she waved goodbye to her life in Canada and went to California with her guitar and a dream. However, her fairytale was no overnight success story, and initially, nothing happened for the ‘A Case of You’ singer. Then this Dylan song forced her to reevaluate her songwriting.
The song wasn’t exactly like flicking a switch, though, and it was far from an instantaneous rise to fame for Mitchell. It would take a handful more painstaking years of playing shows to empty bars and giving her best songs to other performers before she began to reap the rewards that her cosmic talent deserved.
Mitchell would likely have reached the same conclusion without that Dylan song. Yet, it steered her into that train of thought and made her realise songwriting didn’t need to fit into a box, and there were no boundaries in place preventing her from exploring whatever thought or feeling she sought.