Winter’s clouds hang dense and low; true spring is weeks away here in the industrial Midwest. I sit pensively by the gas-log fire, “Both Sides Now” soars and dives through my headphones. I’ve decided to listen to as many different versions of Joni Mitchell’s delicate pop classic as my heart can bear.
Mind you, there are reportedly over 1500 recorded versions of “Both Sides Now.” Since it was first recorded in 1967, many artists have explored the song’s facets, but most fail to go much beyond the surface to find its heart. This is a wisdom song, written from the perspective of expanding consciousness, filled with revelations about the complexity and contradictions of the human condition. Interpretations that attempt to grasp the depth and contemplation expressed in its poetry draw me close and enfold me in life’s truth.
But honestly, I’ve looked at “Both Sides Now” from so many sides now, and still I really don’t know this song at all. I’ve heard it countless times, but it became a cliché at a certain point and I never truly appreciated the poetry of the lyrics.
Joni has offered explanations regarding her inspiration for this song. Most often she attributes “Both Sides Now” to a passage in Henderson the Rain King, a 1959 novel by Saul Bellow.
“I was reading … Henderson the Rain King on a plane and early in the book Henderson … is also up in a plane. He’s on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds. I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song. I had no idea that the song would become as popular as it did.”
Joni reportedly never finished reading Bellow’s novel. Well, I certainly didn’t finish listening to all the recorded versions of “Both Sides Now.” But I did hear some gorgeous interpretations from artists who seem to have contemplated the poetry of its lyric. Here are ten that stood out.
Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival, 1970
Joni recorded her own version in 1969 for her album Clouds. This clip, taken from the Isle of Wight canon of films, showcases Joni’s unique approach to acoustic guitar. She recorded the song in open-D tuning, with a capo at the 4th fret (as she does in the clip). This makes the song in F# major, an unusual guitar key. Her use of different tunings, open-string voicings and capos, suggest that she experimented with the instrument to find the right accompaniment to her wide vocal range, and to avoid playing barre chords.
from her 1967 album Wildflowers
This is the song’s first commercial recording, and likely its most familiar. Collins made a career of it, as her version peaked at #8 on the Billboard singles chart and it landed her a Grammy in ’69 for Best Folk Performance. The production is a bit schmaltzy with the harpsichord, and Collins plays it fragile rather than contemplative. Joni reportedly disliked Collins’s recording, despite the publicity that it generated for Joni’s own career.
2018 live capture
Rufus’s version of any standard is usually one of my favorites. This cabaret-style performance reduces the instrumentation to simple voice and piano, and Rufus stands and delivers with power and sensitivity. His 2018 tour featured “Both Sides Now,” although he did, once again, skip Detroit. Boo.
from the 2021 film CODA
In the film, Jones’s character auditions for the Berklee College of Music. She signs the lyrics in American Sign Language to her watching family, all of whom are deaf. I didn’t see the film, so I have no idea the context, but I was moved to tears just the same. Spoiler alert: Judging from the end of this clip, I think she gets in.
Clannad and Paul Young
This is a lovely version, with Paul Young joining Moya Brennan of the Irish band Clannad for some wide, stirring harmonies. Although “Both Sides Now” is less often performed as a duet, it makes sense this way – you take that side, I’ll take the other. Then come together in the chorus. This pixelly video belies the fact that their version was used in the Blake Edwards film Switch starring Ellen Barkin. It even charted a bit back then.
from the 1990 Elektra compilation Rubáiyát: Elektra’s 40th Anniversary
All right, this version spreads on some of the old schmaltz, but it’s Feinstein. His tender, vulnerable version reacquainted me with the song after many years. This compilation celebrated Elektra records’ four decades, with current Elektra artists performing covers of Elektra catalog songs. An outstanding CD with great liner notes – definitely worth looking for.
Fairport Convention, featuring Judy Dyble
Unreleased Demo, 1967
This is some of the earliest vintage Fairport Convention, featuring singer Judy Dyble. Joni Mitchell and other American folk artists inspired this pioneering British folk rock group. Judy Dyble only sang on Fairport Convention, the group’s debut album (she was replaced by Sandy Denny). That album featured two Joni compositions, but this version of “Both Sides, Now” was not released at the time. A hooky, upbeat rendition.
from her 2017 album Story Songs
This is my favorite. I was introduced to Betty Buckley on the late ’70s TV dramedy Eight is Enough. When I saw her in the mid-’90s on Broadway as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, I realized Ms. Buckley had been truly slumming on American network television. Her version of “Both Sides Now” highlights the familiar melody, but I really like that she seems to connect with the imagery, and her cadence feels organic. “They say I’VE changed?” Bravo, Betty! I hope to see you again before it’s all said and done.
from Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration, recorded 7 November 2018
This comes from a live tribute to Joni on her 75th birthday. Seal takes his time and effortlessly owns the song, and the crowd. His nimble performance and rapport with the band make for a truly ensemble performance. It starts essentially a capella and adds musicians as the song builds. Gorgeous.
from his 1974 The Tonight Show appearance
OK, so it’s not just the words. Thanks, Chet.
from the 2000 album Both Sides Now
Joni re-recorded the song in 2000 for her orchestrated album Both Sides Now. Her smoky contralto makes peace with the orchestration for which this acoustic-guitar composition seems to beg. This version appeared in the 2003 film Love Actually, and the album won a Grammy for arranger Vince Mendoza. A delightful montage of still photographs of Joni accompanies.
“Both Sides Now” is filled with imagery that Joni leaves us to work out on our own. While it suggests a binary state – that a thing can only be in one of two states – it also mashes both sides together in the present. This state of inhabiting opposite sides simultaneously, blurs the stark distinctions of dualistic thinking. It inhabits the uneven ground of mystery, and the capricious nature of mood and feelings that often defy logic. Life’s illusions are dynamic, like the endless sky with its parade of clouds. I wonder if Henderson saw ice cream castles and feather canyons as he looked out the window of his airplane.
Check out jonimitchell.com. A rich and informative site.