The Art of Song Interpretation: “Both Sides Now” From Four Sides

Although I lack data to support this assumption, I would bet money on a natural human inclination that among songs we are drawn to upon first hearing, that is the version we will prefer for the rest of our lives, no matter how many cover versions follow as other artists explore a great song’s nearly inexhaustible interpretive possibilities.

That said, sometimes we experience a huge “Wow!” as we listen to a cover version of an old favorite.

Sometimes the “Wow!” occurs because an artist brings a different musical genre altogether to a song. Jimi Hendrix’s take on the “Star-Spangled Banner” may be the most dramatic example there, but “Wow!” can also happen when a female covers a male’s original song (or vice versa), or a young artist covers an old artist’s song (once again, vice versa), or any artist goes louder or softer, faster or slower, or emphasizes lyrics that open up another dimension to a song we hadn’t considered in the original.

But sometimes, instead of “Wow!,” we respond “Euwww!” to a cover version that seems to violate an original version that we love, even though we may not be able to specify exactly what we object to.

Perhaps 20-somethings, as both Collins and Mitchell were when they recorded the song, should more realistically limit themselves to “I’ve looked at clouds from 1.1 sides now…”

I alluded to some of the travesties (and triumphs) in this matter in a two-part, 2015 series here and here, entitled “Imperfect Interpretations: When the Song Sung Isn’t What the Song Said.” But for our purposes here, I will focus only on triumph.

One song: Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Three artists: Mitchell, Judy Collins, who released the first version of the song, which Mitchell later “covered” (I put that in quotes only to note the strangeness of a writer covering her own song), and Annie Lennox.

Four versions—the Collins original, Mitchell twice (one young, one older), and Lennox, quite recent, in her maturity. The latter’s was the big “Wow!” for me that inspired this post after beholding it in last month’s PBS documentary, “Joni Mitchell: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize.”

So, let’s get started.


Joni, then & now…


It could be said that Judy Collins launched her career to the great heights it has attained on the back of her part-friend, part-rival Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” True, Collins is more than four years older than Mitchell and was far better established when Mitchell presented the song to her in what was most likely early 1968 or a bit earlier.

Collins recorded it later that fall on her “Wildflowers” album, the single vaulting to No. 8 on the U.S. charts, winning her a Grammy Award for “Best Folk Song,” and putting Collins onto millions of turntables around the world.

Yes, turntables have become scarce since then, but Collins is still going strong at age 84.

Last year, she told British magazine “Far Out” about her first encounter with the song:

“After hearing Joni Mitchell sing ‘Both Sides Now’ over the phone, of course, I was just blown away. It was the middle of the night when she called. I was probably drunk. I was definitely passed out. I woke up to the phone ringing, and when I heard her sing it, I just thought, ‘This is it.'”

Collins is a classically beautiful singer, her crystalline soprano voice bespeaking both innocence and sincerity. She brings those qualities nicely to bear in her rendition of “Both Sides Now,” which Mitchell reportedly didn’t care for. No surprise there—Mitchell, at least in her younger days, was well-known to be averse to others’ treatment of her songs, though we can assume she felt just fine with the royalties flowing her way.

That said, as we shall hear below, the Collins and Mitchell original versions are more similar than not, distinguished more by the arrangements than their vocal textures. For my tastes, the Collins version clips along a little too jauntily, with slightly annoying percussive accompaniment that competes with rather than complements her voice.

But at base, the song’s sheer beauty and poetry make it hard to turn away.

This despite the fact of the singers being two youngish women giving their most ardent expression to lyrics perhaps better projected by older women who have lived long enough and endured the twists, turns and travails that life visits upon virtually everyone who has managed to survive the more innocent days of their youth.

So, with the caveat that perhaps 20-somethings, as both Collins and Mitchell were when they first recorded the song, should more realistically limit themselves to “I’ve looked at clouds from 1.1 sides now…”, let’s play the young Judy and Joni versions before fast-forwarding to appreciate the dramatically different interpretations the mature Joni and Annie bring to the fore a few decades hence.



As you’ll hear now, Mitchell avoided coming anywhere within shouting distance of the Collins version’s accompaniment, Joni using only her guitar and a slightly more tremulous and vulnerable voice to distinguish her version in this live performance from 1970. It differs only in minor vocal emphases from the studio version a year earlier. Live concert footage being otherwise clearly preferable, let’s listen as the second of two lovely, not terribly dissimilar soprano voices carry the song to the treasured status it enjoys in the pop lexicon.



All right, let’s move along another 30 years. Mitchell has turned 56 now, a whole raft of high-profile artistic-creative loves and their accompanying heartaches behind her. (Leonard Cohen, Graham Nash, David Crosby, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Sam Shepard, et al, most of whom she wound up incorporating into one song or other over the years.)

Anyone who has traversed the territory knows that while you can almost convince yourself in your early 50s that you still retain a passable dose of youthful élan, as you turn the corner toward the 60s, it’s a much harder case to make to both your mirror and your mates.

Mitchell has lost all her soprano here, age and a decades-long smoking habit having brought a not unappealing husky contralto into her voice. In that sense, she more clearly inhabits the overt pathos of the song’s central theme, starting with the first stanza exulting in the play of clouds:

Rows and flows of angel hairAnd ice cream castles in the airAnd feather canyons everywhereI’ve looked at clouds that way

…But quickly doing a 180-degree turn because on the other hand, excuse me, the other “side”:

But now they only block the sunThey rain and they snow on everyoneSo many things I would have doneBut clouds got in my way

It goes that way throughout, as life and love about-face from:

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheelsThe dizzy dancing way you feelAs every fairy tale comes realI’ve looked at love that way

But now it’s just another showYou leave ’em laughing when you goAnd if you care, don’t let them knowDon’t give yourself away

Below, you will hear her dramatically slow the pace, each word and its accompanying feeling enunciated, probed, felt—a harvest of deep experience seeing right into the true dark and joyful and real depths of human experience. Her voice still retains dramatic, occasionally near-soaring capability, but its pure, unadulterated highs, like the highs of life itself, are leavened and ground through a mill.

Triumph and tragedy are now long acquainted and accepted as the very bread of life—because, really, what other choice do we have? The audience, as you will see, just eats it up as Mitchell stands humbly before them, laid bare in a way that simply wasn’t part of her emotional armature at 25.

At the Newport Folk Festival last summer, Mitchell, seven years after an aneurysm upended her life, gave the song another go at age 78. The result is perhaps surprisingly still powerful, pathos and joy mixing freely with a little help from her friends. I’ll include that version as a sign-off at the end here, sans discussion, just in case you want a chaser.

Meanwhile, I can’t let this version pass without a nod to the arranger, Vince Mendoza, a little known giant in the music industry, whose gloriously restrained, quivering string sections never rise even a smidgen above the do-more-with-less perfection that supports and amplifies Mitchell’s treatment without upstaging it for even a second.



Finally, Annie Lennox, who has been tearing through the pop/soul-singer-songwriter music worlds since the 1970s, always elegant, energetic and just edgy enough to have viewers and listeners inch toward her, expecting something exceptional.

Which she delivers in almost breathtaking fashion on “Both Sides Now.”

There’s barely a winsome or shy or lamenting note in Lennox as she climbs right on top of the song and commands it with an exuberant defiance that I had never even considered as within the song’s emotional range.

Collins and Mitchell approach life’s both-sidedness with a mature and studied acceptance, slightly wounded but, they think, the wiser for it. And we think in turn: “Yes, so very beautiful, it just breaks my heart, and I’ll surely feel better if I just fold up here for a spell and have a good cry.”

Lennox gives us the impression she’s either done that already or just never had time for it in the first place.

She does so with a carefully crafted three-step, starting softly while seated at the piano for the first stanzas until about the 90-second mark. Then, refusing to be contained, she goes forth to stand at the microphone and her voice goes deeper, sometimes nearing a foghorn or whinnying horse.

There go another 90 seconds.

Then the long building climax of the last two minutes as she goes big, detaches the mic, and breaks into dance steps, amping everything up to claim the song’s—and her own—raw power, out from under its wistful covers.

Unbowed, joyous and unapologetic, Lennox seems to be rather slyly winking, “I really don’t know life at all” with a smile and look of huge authority on her face as she goes underneath the song’s gorgeous veneer of poetry.

There, she conveys a more important, unspoken assertion: “YES, I’ve seen clouds FROM BOTH SIDES NOW! And you know what—they’re ALL beautiful!! The big, bright and bawdy, the dark and brooding—bring ’em on!!! I’m still here, and I’m beautiful, too!!!!

And so she is, as the song is, Lennox’s startling treatment bringing the house down as the second song in the program, everything old and beautiful about it made beautiful yet again in a big joyfest of hosannas for musical kinship and deep professional regard.



And the chaser…


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Mitchell photo from Library of Congress


11 comments to The Art of Song Interpretation: “Both Sides Now” From Four Sides

  • mary  says:

    I literally laughed ‘right out loud’ when I read your quote above about the meaningful nature of the two original versions “This despite the fact of the singers being two youngish women giving their most ardent expression to lyrics perhaps better projected by older women who have lived long enough and endured the twists, turns and travails that life visits upon virtually everyone who has managed to survive the more innocent days of their youth.”

    The reason for my mirth? When I first heard Judy Collins sing this song I was FOURTEEN years old and amazed, validated and gratified, as she was so aware of how I felt!! Mitchell, through Collins, was speaking directly to ME!!!!!!

    How’d she do that??????

    Oh yes: she’s a poet.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      For sure, Mary, what you refer to is part of every great poet’s brilliance, all the more so when the poet writes lovely melodic songs that get widely disseminated on the airwaves. It’s a profound talent to be able to speak to 14-year-olds via a song that still holds great meaning for them (and the artist) at 34, 54, 74 and onwards, even as the song becomes ever deeper and multi-prismed to them over time. In lesser hands, artists get sick of playing old songs and listeners are often (and rightly!) embarrassed by what they loved in their youth. Not with Mitchell, though. Speaks to the timelessness, in all the ways we understand time, of great art, which this song/poem surely is.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I agree that our favorite version of a song is often, if not always, the one we first hear. I saw Judy Collins perform “Both Sides Now” a few years ago in Riverside and, using a sports analogy, she hasn’t lost a step. Her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” wasn’t too bad, either. In an earlier blog (“Imperfect Interpretations: When the Song Sung Isn’t What the Song Said”), you describe how a song’s lyric can maddeningly clash with its melody or its interpretation, but on the flip “side” there are those moments when they meld together perfectly as in the classic Christmas film “Love Actually”. On Christmas morning, Emma Thompson’s character is heartbroken. She assumed that the necklace she accidentally stumbled upon in her husband’s coat was his gift to her. It was not. He bought it for a young woman whom he had an affair with. Her gift was a Joni Mitchell CD. She excuses herself from the opening of presents and tearfully retires to her bedroom to the backdrop of Joni Mitchell singing “Both Sides Now”. She sees herself caught in this awful place between the agony of her husband’s infidelity and the ecstasy of those loving remembrances of him as both a husband and father. It is the essence of both sides now.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised in my research for this piece on how many times “Both Sides Now” has been used in movies, most of which I haven’t seen. May give me the excuse to fill up my film-watching card with ease, and my excuse for not remembering its use in “Love, Actually,” which I HAVE seen, is simply that it was a long time ago, and I am old, and these things happen…That is one I have always told myself I should see again, though, so I appreciate the prompt!

  • Layne  says:

    Thanks for a great Sunday morning, Andy!

  • David Moriah  says:

    “Both Sides Now” may be the very best song written and performed (in its many versions as you eloquently point out) in our lifetime. It is a tour de force and lends itself marvelously to many interpretations. I will chasten you, however, for giving short shrift (what does that pesky phrase mean, by the way?) to the heart-warming rendition from the recent Newport Folk Festival. The loving and deeply compassionate interplay between the octogenarian goddess and the much younger Brandi Carlisle brought me to tears many times as one day I could not stop playing it over and over. And the giggly joy of Joni as she finished and the crowd roared was magical – she seemed genuinely surprised and delighted that her gift was once again on display and was appreciated by so many. Far from being a “chaser”, a mere afterthought, the final clip you linked to needs to be seen by all and savored like a rare delicacy. As I face my own mortality these days I ponder the line “I really don’t know life at all”.

    I came upon a quote today by Helen Keller – “Death is no more than passing from one room to another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.”

    Perhaps that is true for all of us. We don’t really know life at all on this side of the curtain. Maybe we will finally understand on the other side.

    Be well, my friend. Life is a gift, whether we understand it or not.

  • Mary G  says:

    Oh my! Thank you for the perfect Sunday service. I loved this so much. It was a chance to stop time and feel life. I contacted 10 people today and said they do not need to go to church today, just spend 15 minutes with Joni Mitchell on Andrew’s blog!

    Great gift Andrew!

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    My great pleasure, Layne! Thanks very much for stopping by…

    David, you’re exactly why I depend on readers to fill in things I left blank or half-baked, thanks! I very much enjoyed Joni’s Newport version but I think by then I was hesitant to throw another piece onto the pile, and I also thought all the heart-felt emotiveness of that version aside, her 2000 version was purer—just her solo, not surrounded by a supporting choir of sorts, and she still had quite a voice back then (albeit far different than in her youth). I think it also better illustrated the different dramatics of her youthful and mature iterations. But I can certainly see how the later version impacted you and I’m sure many others to an even greater degree. Great barroom conversation, if we ever manage to find ourselves in a bar together! Be well, my friend.

    Mary, thanks so much for your kind words. There is a whole other blog post—books, actually, and sermons, too—to be written about music as religion. I’ll take it over sports and just about anything else as a substitute any day, and will likely address the topic, with all its riches, more specifically down the road a ways. Hope a few of your correspondents took you up on your suggestion!

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    A heartfelt thanks to you Andrew and the thoughtful comments by Sunday readers! I had never seen the Annie Lennox version, wow, she did bring down the house with that tremendous ending!! Good timing for me too since I am just about finished with Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe, which I highly recommend to any music fan. Yaffe is a literary scholar (prof at Syracuse) and serious musician in his own right so this book goes deep and wide into each of her albums, the musicians, the musical changes of her career etc. (had no idea my favorite Jazz drummer, Brian Blade, was an important member of the better known jazz musicians who contributed to much to her career post folky days beginning with Court & Spark). I will never forget seeing Joni and band just after Court & Spark, 1974 in LA – blown away by how different it was from her coffee house solo days… and thinking I wonder what kind of future changes this amazing artist will explore? The rest, as they say, is history…

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Indeed it is, Kevin (the rest being history). Quite a body of work. She kept stretching her boundaries, and there’s a lesson in there for artists young and old—and, for that matter, for just regular people, too.

  • marmottes6Pat A.  says:

    I am five years younger than Joni and have followed her music since I was in high school. Both Sides Now, her original version, used to be my favorite of all her songs. I still enjoy the original, but, perhaps because I too am older, I was totally blown away by the version sung in Love Actually. Her maturity both in years and in voice, took my breath away.

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