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Folk Face-Off: Joni Mitchell vs. Bob Dylan

Yesterday, the folk world was rocked by Joni Mitchell. Apparently she has a giant grudge against Bob Dylan and, as Matt Diehl found out when interviewing  Mitchell for the LA Times, she does not like being compared to him. Indeed, when Diehl intimated that the two were similar because they both “changed” their names (from Roberta Joan Anderson to Joni Mitchell and Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan) to create a persona, Joni uttered these venom-laced words: “Bob is not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist, and his name and voice are fake. Everything about Bob is a deception. We are like night and day, he and I.”

plagiarist? Them’s fighting words. And although the accusation itself is startling, we found ourselves asking a different question: How long has she felt this way? We decided to do some digging to find out exactly what is going on here.

Since Mitchell and Dylan first met in 1969, they toured and performed together on several occasions (1975’s Rolling Thunder Revue, The Band’s 1976 The Last Waltz, at the 1994 UNESCO concert in Japan, and in 1998 when she co-headlined a tour with Dylan and Van Morrison), but it seems as if they never really got along. From what we’ve gleaned, Mitchell and Dylan have always had a tenuous relationship that is rooted in respect, but manifests itself through ridicule — kind of like in elementary school when everyone was mean to the person they had a crush on.

Despite the fact that she rarely grants interviews, Mitchell has been very vocal about her feelings for Dylan.

“I was what was known as a ‘late Dylan fan.’ At one time I was almost anti-Dylan, and I made a lot of enemies… I thought he was putting me on, I couldn’t accept him. The thing was, I shared no experience with Dylan at the time, I thought a lot of his stuff was ambiguous, and not written honestly. It’s like I always thought Shakespeare was real wordy and weird, right until I went to Stratford and saw a man who recited Shakespeare like it was really 20th century. It lost all of that super-drama stuff that really turned me off, and it flowed, and I understood it. So it’s the same thing with Dylan; now every time I listen to him, the things I thought were just words for words’ sake make sense to me.” – Mitchell in Brian Hinton’s Both Sides Now

So far things seem very complimentary. So what went wrong?  There is a notorious story of Dylan pretending to fall asleep and then obnoxiously “snoring” when previewing Mitchell’s album Court and Spark with David Geffen while Mitchell was present. We can see how that would rub her the wrong way and it seems that she never got over Dylan’s jab, even decades later.

After they performed together at the 1994 UNESCO Project in Japan, and Mitchell had this to say about the experience:

“On the third night they stuck Bob at the mic with me and that’s the one that went out on tape. And if you look closely at it, you can see the little brat, he’s up in my face — and he never brushes his teeth, so his breath was like… right in my face — and he’s mouthing the words at me like a prompter, and he’s pushing me off the mic. lt’s like he’s basically dipping my pigtail in ink.” – Barney Hoskyn’s 1994 interview with Mitchell

Now for the plagiarism accusation — from what we can tell, Dylan has been accused of borrowing liberally from Civil War poet Henry Timrod on his 2006 album Modern Times. When the Independent compared lyrics from Modern Times with the work of Timrod, and found several instances where the words or the sentiment are similar. A few years earlier, Dylan faced similar allegations when he “borrowed” several lines from a Japanese writer, without accreditation, on the rather ironically-titled Love and Theft.

Since we’ve compiled some evidence, we can’t help but be on Team Bob. It sounds to us like Mitchell is bitter and jealous of his esteem which is weird since many consider Mitchell to be the female Dylan. In addition to her jabs at Dylan, she’s also made incendiary comments about Joan Baez, and in the same article that called out Dylan yesterday, describes Janis Joplin and Grace Slick as drunken whores. Then she compared Madonna to Nero. We just can’t defend her after reading that. Plus, for someone with such an ax to grind, she sure loves covering Bobby.

Listen:

Joni Mitchell covering “Mr Tambourine Man”
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Joni Mitchell covering “Girl of the North Country” with Johnny Cash
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Joni Mitchell covering “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”
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