The desire to fly is an inescapable part of our experience, and so is the desire to be grounded. Some of my favourite songs explore the pain of this ambivalence. Sometimes it is a sweet pain, as in Joni Mitchell’s Amelia from her Hejira album. The song is addressed to the famous aviator Amelia Earhart, who vanished on a solo cross-Atlantic flight. Mitchell said later that she wrote it “from one solo pilot to another”, and in fact at the time she wrote it Mitchell was traveling alone across America back to her home in Los Angeles.
The song moves dreamily between two key centres, and this turns out to be appropriate given the mixed feelings it expresses: on the one hand Amelia offers up a fantasy of flying: “The drone of flying engines / Is a song so wild and new / It scrambles time and seasons when it gets through to you …” But commitment to such a dream is risky and solitary, and so the desire to fall is almost as strong: “I guess I never really loved / I guess that is the truth / I spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes / And looking down on everything / I crashed into his arms / I tell Amelia, it’s just a false alarm …”
Mitchell identifies with Earhart: “The ghost of aviation / She was swallowed by the sky / Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly …”, she senses dangers the aviator apparently does not see, but instead of warning her, the singer reassures her (and herself) repeatedly: “So this is how I hide the hurt / As the road leads cursed and charmed / I tell Amelia, it’s just a false alarm …”
Mitchell’s persona seems to choose the freedom of solitude, but she immediately qualifies this as well: “People will tell you where they’ve gone / They’ll tell you where to go / But till you get there yourself you’ll never really know / How some have found their paradise / Others just come to harm / I tell Amelia, it’s just a false alarm …”
Townes van Zandt’s Flyin’ Shoes, from his 1978 album of the same name is another ambivalent song about gravity. Its message seems clear enough: death is the only way out of the repetition gravity implies: “Days full of rain / Skies comin’ down again / I get so tired of these same old blues / Same old song / O baby, it won’t be long / Till I be tyin’ on my flyin’ shoes / Flyin’ shoes / Till I be tyin’ on my flyin’ shoes …”
Unlike Amelia, this song stays rooted in the same key, repeating the same words and notes as if the song itself is pulled down by gravity. In the second verse it catalogues the inescapable succession of the seasons, and concedes: “Maybe stay / To watch a winter day / Turn the green water white and blue” …Then, with a stroke of genius, it moves away from him and on to other goodbyes: “The mountain moon / Forever sets too soon / Bein’ alone is all the hills can do / Alone, and then / Her silver sails again / And they will follow in their flyin’ shoes …”
It doesn’t much matter what you choose, the song seems to say. There will be joy and sorrow regardless – particularly sorrow. Paradoxically, the accompaniment lifts it at least twice, far above the voice, and you would swear that flight was possible. And something in the way the lyric lingers over seasons and elements makes you think van Zandt wanted the goodbye to go on forever.