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)