Greatest Songs of My Lifetime: Ecclesiastes in Song

Greatest Songs of My Lifetime: Ecclesiastes in Song

Some of the best songs in my lifetime contain lyrics that seem impossibly wise before their time. I think of Jackson Browne writing “These Days” at age 16. How can such profound thoughts about loss and regret emanate from the pen of a teenager? It was only when I heard Glen Campbell’s adaptation in 2011 that I truly heard it as the weathered autumnal sigh that it is.

And so it is with what I consider to be the greatest example of young wisdom in American folk and popular music — Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Though written when Mitchell was in her mid-20s, it somehow expresses a lifetime of experience and perspective. I consider it the “Ecclesiastes” of popular music.

I first heard “Both Sides Now,” as many of us did, through Judy Collins’s sunny single on my AM radio. The song obviously expressed profound thoughts, but they were wrapped in an arrangement that belied their depth.

Mitchell’s own early rendition of the song (as you’ll see below) hinted at the song’s sagacity — after all, Joni has always been a true poet. However, it wasn’t until I heard her orchestral-backed arrangement of “Both Sides Now” in 2000 that I could begin to plumb its depths. The slower tempo, surging strings, and Mitchell’s time-worn voice convey the wisdom of Solomon.

Here are two recordings by Joni herself, thirty years apart. How much she must have learned in that time! How much this song has grown! How much better I understand both sides now.

Both Sides Now (1969)

Both Sides Now (2000)

25 thoughts on “Greatest Songs of My Lifetime: Ecclesiastes in Song

  1. Strange. I can get the audio on my laptop but not the desktop. Other youtube videos sounded fine on the desktop, but not these Joni recordings.

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  2. I still pop Ladies of the Canyon into the player now and again.
    Even after all these years, Woodstock is still one of the most hauntingly beautiful song-stories I’ve ever heard.

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  3. David Greene, just saw this, my wife thinks I am losing it, this does not help, but at least I caught it. In a way for a lot of weddings It Only Make Believe would be brutally honest. Just for follow up, most of guest at the wedding did not like my choice, it was too low brow. I still love it. Never thought I would be an “elderly: guy being deeply touched by J. Mitchell 1970 that I usually just hummed to. Time changes a lot. It was great to see the Dick Clark flashback, part of American music for boomers for sure. Thanks for the smiley face thing , I need it.

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  4. And I was in love with Michele Phillips…. even though at the time when they were in their hey day (mid sixties) I was about 4.

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  5. Example of Judy Collins’ later work: Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” positively transfigured. Some discussion by Judy, and the music starts about 45 seconds in.

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  6. Yup Ted… I blame the technology too…. but then my daughters tell me they can hear it just fine…….

    Loved Joni’s Coyote song too…..

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  7. Both Joni and Judy improved with age, perhaps Judy more so. Their voices lowered, they lost some range, they slowed the tempo, but oh, what control, and what subtleties in their later work. Great to hear re-makes of earlier songs.

    Neither of the videos had sound on my computer. I went over to youtube and tried them there, but no better. But the commercials blasted me out. I don’t know why this happens sometimes. But I can hear the music in my head. Great.

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  8. Good! I was wondering about that… I mean who the heck would have “It’s Only Make Believe” for a wedding song 🙂

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  9. Yeah Joni got a lot of criticism when she moved away from the folkie confessional stuff and moved to jazzier realms but I thought ‘Hejira’ was terrific.

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  10. Here is a beautiful video of Jackson Browne and Gregg Allman talking about and playing These Dayslive. So poignant now that Gregg has been gone for almost 3 years.

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  11. I only recently discovered that 2000 revisit album of her early songs. The whole thing is just stunning! It’s amazing how life experience will color your perspective on things you did 30 years ago.

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  12. Joni is superlative!

    IMO she hit her stride around 1980 when she was backed by Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius. However, the 2000 rendition of Both Sides brought tears the first time I heard it.

    “I can’t get over her intonation….so incredibly perfect, each note is like a pearl in an endless chain. If you question the existence of a higher power you haven’t listened to enough Joni Mitchell.”

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  13. Mistake ! So glad I came back to read my post . What a non tech boob I am. Here is the song I was trying to link too but somehow the Conway Twitty song I sent. The Only Make Believe song would have really stunned the wedding guest. I cannot wait to show my wife the comments above and the song I linked. I apologize for comment while being tired and 2 glasses of wine. I think it is funny . I hope this is the right link.

    Well, at least I am laughing at myself but I am not a government bond. I guess I wanted to prove my simple statement.

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  14. CM,, thanks for unearthing another gem. Liked the 1970 version as you aptly described as the AM version. 1970 to 2000 to 2019 how fast. Hearing 2000 version is like hearing it for first time as now I am on the other side of the both.
    Old joke , what is the difference between government bonds and men———–bonds mature. I appreciate your music selections you share.

    When I got married my wife let me pick our wedding song and she did not know what it was til the wedding. We had a big wedding , her family money not mine, so it was really the only input I had. I thought it was great and still do. Now that we are elderly I still would pick the song again.

    I told my wife it was like me,simple and true. Summed it up for me. Got a local guy out of a Holiday Inn bar to do and he was great . I told m wife my first choice was Traveling Man by Ricky Nelson but decided use discretion.
    I tell my wife the song still applies and luckily for me it does. Music does play a part of our lives.

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  15. –> “Some of the best songs in my lifetime contain lyrics that seem impossibly wise before their time. I think of Jackson Browne writing “These Days” at age 16. How can such profound thoughts about loss and regret emanate from the pen of a teenager?”

    Good question. And far too often, those that write such profound things at such a young age struggle with “demons” that cause them to die far too young. Fortunately, Browne wasn’t such a case.

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