…and he played real good for free

For Free is one of my favorite Joni songs, I have always loved her spirit, her frank open beauty and her chimingly strange guitar tunings, and this song puts her free spirit dancing through life soul on full display. It is a song of great kindness and generosity. Joni turned music critic, is a gentle beautiful experience, much like Joni. The music box ballerina goes round and round in her graceful circle dance, sweeping round the streets, showing us the clarinet player at the crossing playing ‘real good for free.’ She ‘meant to go over’, she sings, ‘and ask for a song, maybe put on some harmony.’ Joni passes by, but she doesn’t forget the street artist, she writes the song and pays her homage in words and notes.

On the corner of Franklin and Polk there is a street artist who plays guitar, he plays real good for free, he waves hello as he lays down some serious rhythm on the sidewalk, and though he is no television super star, he makes people smile, he makes people walk with a bounce in their step. Joni’s clarinet player lives on. By the Ferry Building another man plays for free, he plays sad songs that don’t quite fit with the palm trees and the blue skies. He plays good guitar, and sings so sweetly he makes me sigh. I wish I could go up and ask him to lay something brighter on the day, but I go on my way, and he weaves his. I hope he is happier one day.

There is a man who plays the squeeze box on Russian Hill, or sometimes Telegraph. Lurching and dancing his body contorting and face reddening with the effort of playing covers of movie songs on keys and wind and concertina waves. I sweep down the street, a dark lady, stomping in time to a star wars beat, and his eyes burnt into mine.

Image by The Paltry Sum

I have always wanted an Appalachian dulcimer. I like to think I would sit by the Presidio with it and play Case of You, or Carey, or Moonshiner, or perhaps Whiskey in the Jar, and add my own melody to the streets and the gutters to disappear into the air to be free. I know a place, it is a single standing doorway with a shady spot a wanderer could rest a while.


  1. R. Cross

    Whoa–Just a few days ago I had a big Joni Mitchell moment. I’d been intrigued by her in the past but put off diving into her catalogue. For the first time, I really listened to the lyrics of “Both Sides Now” and it hit home, with multiple synchronicities. That night, I watched a documentary about her and resolved to explore her compositions–and definitely to pick up what I could from her guitar technique.

      1. R. Cross

        Ah, thanks! I figured someone had collected them but it’s cool that her site does it. Well, it contributes to passing her songs on to a new generation

      2. R. Cross

        I sure won’t be trying to sing any of her words–range aside; they’re hers and maybe ok for certain people to cover depending on the topic. Like, I would never cover Sinead O’Connor’s “Three Babies” because it’s not for me as a man to identify with personally, beyond appreciating the anguish that went into it. That’s an experience exclusive to the women who have gone through it.

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