Joni Mitchell sang Gershwin. I think I heard divine intervention.
Do people still see God’s face in their oatmeal or do we only worship money now? Either way, as corny and impossible as it might be, I wish I could reach out from these keystrokes, set my hands on your shoulders,
gaze deep into your retinas and tell you that when Joni Mitchell sang George Gershwin’s “Summertime” at DAR Constitution Hall earlier this month, something like God entered in the room.
The circumstances were strange. Mitchell was in Washington to accept the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and in the moment I’m describing, to headline at a tribute concert being filmed by PBS.
Accepting her award in a satiny frock the color of the ocean and a beret the color of gold bullion, the 79-year-old colossus of song seemed a little out of sorts. Was it the implicit awkwardness of a televised exaltation or something worse?
Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015 that left her unable to speak or walk, and has since made an astonishing recovery, but as she sidled up next to the grand piano, the room held its breath.
Then, clutching a shiny golden microphone in her right hand, she exhaled that opening verse, her phrasing patient and exact, her tone heavy with color and feeling. “Hush little baby,” she sang with a finesse that can only be measured in metric tons. “Don’t cry, don’t cry.”
Failing to connect those words to the sopping wetness that had instantaneously materialized on my face, Mitchell was halfway through the song before I noticed that my lungs had also chosen to relocate to my throat,
which technically qualifies as an out-of-body experience, which is where the whole God thing comes in. Cumulatively, this moment felt greater than life, greater than everyone in the room, maybe even greater than Joni Mitchell, unless she’s God, which I suppose is no longer out of the question.
Normally, I’d worry about sounding hyperbolic here (greatness feels cheap in the social media age), or even worse, sentimental (hooray for a fragile older person doing an incredibly powerful thing), but I’ve been too busy spending the past few weeks trying to figure out how a song so delicate managed to collide into my sensorium with such annihilating, tidal force