The confessional singer/songwriters of the ’70s took their clan name and their rulebook from the confessional poets of the ’50s and ’60s. But, like hipsters and grunge rockers, few confessional poets would ever actually call themselves by that name. It was a critics’ term, first used to describe the radically intimate voice and content of Robert Lowell’s 1959 volume Life Studies and later used to yoke Lowell into a school (for poets move in schools, like crows in murders and owls in parliaments) with such eventual icons as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and such disparate poets’ poets as W. D. Snodgrass (Heart’s Needle) and John Berryman (Dream Songs), all of whom shared in the moment’s spirit of self-disclosure and reflection but who otherwise had little in common.
The confessional poets were not born free; they broke free in the classic manner of revolutionaries: by turning the skills that they learned in prestigious institutions against the stodgy and repressive codes of the establishment that trained them. Most made their names as tricky academic poets, descendents of Modernists like T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. They were insiders, the cream-of-the-crop in the increasingly unpopular, rarefied profession of 20th-century poetry. Even the biggest rock star that confessional poetry produced, Sylvia Plath, was a formal and relatively decorous poet in the only collection that she published in her lifetime: The Colossus and Other Poems. That advanced technical skill is still very much in evidence in Ariel as well.
To the ritualized disappointment of generations of undergrads, most landmark confessional poetry is hardly the unadorned, risqué, primal and artless venting that the label would seem to suggest – hardly the antidote to a semester of Milton. It is virtuosic and demanding verse in its own way. Of all the confessional singer/songwriters of the ’70s – the James Taylors and Jackson Brownes, Carly Simons and Carole Kings of the pop landscape – the one who worked most in the tradition of Plath and Lowell was Joni Mitchell, not because she was the most candid and revealing but because she was – by a mile – the most skilled, advanced, complex and difficult.
The confessionalists can claim Blue as their own: her most personal, intimate and influential album, and my favorite as well (though when I was young it was all about the West Coast, jazzy sophistication of Court and Spark and The Hissing of Summer Lawns). But the rest of Joni’s dazzlingly diverse and adventurous catalogue really seems to belong to players now. She is the official, preferred singer/songwriter of players everywhere: a writer of such formidable musical substance that top-tier jazz and fusion cats with solo careers like Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny, Larry Carlton, Tom Scott and on and on all but lined up and begged to be her sidemen.
It is thus no surprise that when the Bearsville Theater presents “Shadows and Light: An Evening of Joni Mitchell Songs” on Saturday, August 9, there will be a lot of formidable instrumentalists on the tribute’s bill. Singers and songwriters are certainly represented as well, in the persons of Leslie Ritter, Julie Last (who has worked with Mitchell), Amy Fradon, Adrien Reju and others; but on the top line you will also find players’ players like Scott Petito, A-list session and tour musicians like drummer Zachary Alford (David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, B-52s) and world-class jazz heavies like the master composer, interpreter and reed-player Don Byron. It is not just that players love Joni as they love few others in the pop sphere; it’s that, in some cases, these are the only people who can actually cut this stuff.
Shadows and Light: An Evening of Joni Mitchell Songs, Saturday, August 9, 9 p.m., $20 advance/$25 door, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-4406, www.bearsvilletheater.com.