The Leonard Cohen – Joni Mitchell Match-up
Note: Most of today’s Heck Of A Guy entry is drawn or adapted from “Winter Lady” By Leonard Cohen Meets “Winter Lady” By Joni Mitchell, which I posted here almost three years ago. There is, however, one significant addition – a video which includes Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, each performing his or her own song with the title, “Winter Lady.” (At the time of the original posting, I was unaware of the availability of the Joni Mitchell version on a bootleg.)
Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell have much in common. Both are Canadian, both are respected singer-songwriters who came of age professionally in the late 1960s, both have roots in the folk movement, and both ran with the same Bob Dylan-Judy Collins group of colleagues.
And, it turns out, for a brief time in 1967, they also shared the same bed during a short-lived romantic liaison described at Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell: Just One Of Those Things.
And, in 1966 Joni Mitchell wrote and sang a song called “Winter Lady,” a ballad which was never released on an album. while Leonard Cohen, in 1967 (the year Mitchell and Cohen met and had their fling) copyrighted and performed a different song called “Winter Lady,” which was released on his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in December 1967.1
Quelle coincidence, eh?
“Winter Lady” By Joni Mitchell And “Winter Lady” By Leonard Cohen – The Video
This video includes a recording of Joni Mitchell singing “Winter Lady” live at the Second Fret Club in Philadelphia on March 17, 1967 followed by Leonard Cohen performing “Winter Lady” from his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, released in December 1967. The music playing during the introduction is Joni Mitchell’s “Rainy Night House,” which is based on a visit she and Leonard Cohen made to his parents’ home in Montreal while his mother was out of town.
Winter Lady – Joni Mitchell & Leonard Cohen Versions
Video from DrHGuy
Comparison and Contrast Of Mitchell’s And Cohen’s Respective Versions Of “Winter Lady”
The lyrics to both songs are available at
Rather than perform a tedious, line by line literary and psychological comparative analysis of the two sets of lyrics (and be assured/warned that I have repeatedly proven myself up to the demands of that task, especially the tedious part), I will content myself with a few observations on the differing themes of the two songs and urge readers to perform a side by side reading of the two sets of lyrics, a project requiring less than 5 minutes for which the rewards are ample.
Joni Mitchell’s “Winter Lady”
Key to grasping the Joni Mitchell rendition of “Winter Lady” is its point of view: the song is written as though it were sung by a man beseeching a woman.2
I contend that this perspective is significant but not because of the musically transgendered role of a female vocalist singing a song written for a man. After all, Mitchell’s predecessors in the folk movement, such as Judy Collins and Joan Baez, began performing folk songs meant for men in the early 1960s, sometimes changing pronouns from masculine to feminine and sometimes singing them as originally written. And, there are similar examples in every imaginable genre, including but not limited to opera, blues, Broadway musicals, and rock. Janis Joplin’s 1970 role-reversal of “Me and Bobby McGee” was such a hit that many listeners forgot that Kris Kristofferson had originally written it to be sung by a man. Heck, I’m personally fond of Lizzie West’s cover of Cohen’s irredeemably masculine “I’m Your Man.”3
The more impressive aspect is that Joni Mitchell seems to have scripted the lines she longs to have sung to her, the lady with “hair all soft and loose like snowing.” This reading is not just the inevitable extrapolation from the woman-singing-a-song-written-for-a-man issue. Another of Mitchell’s own songs, for example, written from a man’s point of view which she (famously) sang, “Free Man In Paris,” is not addressed to a woman but is a man’s free-standing soliloquy of his own thoughts and feelings.4
And what is it that Winter Lady/Joni Mitchell wants to hear from the man? The answer is in the chorus:
“Oh Winter Lady I won’t hurt you
I won’t cheat you, I won’t desert you
Winter Lady you need loving
I need loving too
I need loving you”
Those lines are repeated twice, first preceded by “Do you [The Winter Lady] dream or wish on stars / To hear him [her lover] say, …” and at the end of the song by “Love’s too late, you’ve changed your mind / And it’s my [the narrator's] turn to sing, … .”
While there is much in Joni Mitchell’s childhood history that may or may not be pertinent the wished-for promise not to hurt, cheat, or desert her, the impact of the events of her life just prior to her writing these lines in 1967 is impossible to fully discount:
In February of 1965, she gave birth to a daughter by a college ex-boyfriend. A few weeks after the birth, she married a Toronto folksinger, Chuck Mitchell.5 Shortly afterward, it became necessary for her to give her daughter up for adoption. Then, in the summer of 1965, the Mitchell’s moved to Detroit, where they performed as Joan and Chuck Mitchell. After a year and a half, the marriage broke up, and in. 1967, now known as Joni Mitchell, she moved to New York City.6
Leonard Cohen’s “Winter Lady”
Cohen’s lyrics, on the other hand, immediately and definitively describe an altogether different view of the situation, opening with the same lines that end the song:
Trav’ling lady, stay awhile
until the night is over.
I’m just a station on your way,
I know I’m not your lover.
That this terse, bald declaration, “I’m just a station on your way, / I know I’m not your lover” is sung gently over a fragile melody carried by flute and harpsichord renders it all the more striking.
The first verse is followed by the equally straightforward announcement that previously the narrator “lived with a child of snow” when he was willing to fight “every man for her.”
Now, however, the lines imply, times have changed – or perhaps the narrator himself has – because now his hope is only that the lady will “stay awhile / until the night is over,” having resigned himself to being “just a station on [her] way.” The naiveté of being a “soldier” fighting for an idealized “child of snow”7 of has given way to a world vision in which coming together, even for one night, knowing that nothing further can be promised, is preferable to fantasies that unquestioning, unswerving love, protection, and solicitude can be pledged forever.
By the way, doesn’t that stance sound familiar? I submit that Leonard Cohen’s lines in “Winter Lady” are the cognitive if not the stylistic equivalent of these lines excerpted from a 1964 ditty:
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who will promise never to part,
Someone to close his eyes for you,
Someone to close his heart,
Someone who will die for you an’ more,
But it ain’t me, babe,
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe,
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.
(From “It Ain’t Me, Babe” by Bob Dylan)
In this case, I suggest that the significance of these ideas goes beyond my own amusement (although God knows, that has been sufficient justification for any number of entries in this blog), even if my interpretations of the songs are wrong.8
Consider this: Two singer-songwriters quickly develop an intense relationship early in their careers, live together, and, not long afterward, end the liaison. One had written a song called “Winter Lady” in the year or so preceding that relationship and the other writes, either during the relationship or soon after its completion, a recognizably similar “Winter Lady” with a critically distinctive theme. Both were influential in music circles when they wrote these songs and since than time, their impact has surged geometrically.
Such a spontaneously occurring glimpse into the creative process9 rarely presents itself,10 and the opportunity to observe this brief interaction of two parallel artistic universes shouldn’t be missed.
- Cohen’s “Winter Lady” was also featured in the soundtrack for Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. [↩]
- Yes, theoretically, the narrator of the song could be a woman addressing another woman, but Joni Mitchell herself said “This is a love song that actually was intended for a man to sing to a woman. I wrote it that way. And then I decided I like to sing it anyway.” Source: WMMR Retrospective Transcription – January 29, 1974 And, it will require a mighty fancy argument to persuade me that Leonard Cohen wrote his “Winter Lady” as a Lesbian love song. [↩]
- Acceptance of men singing songs written for women appears a more iffy proposition. And, I admit that the notion of Leonard Cohen performing, say, “I Enjoy Being A Girl” is a tad off-putting. [↩]
- The genesis of “Free Man In Paris” is summarized in The Greatest Songs Ever! Free Man in Paris (Blender):
“I wrote that in Paris for David Geffen,” Mitchell has explained, “taking a lot of it from the things he said.” Geffen and Mitchell went a long way back. He had been her agent at the start of her rise to fame in the ’60s, and by the time she wrote “Free Man in Paris,” he owned the record label for which she (along with the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Dylan) was recording. The pair were such close friends that they even shared a house, but despite wide speculation about a romantic entanglement, theirs was more akin to a Will & Grace relationship. The same article notes that When Joni Mitchell played the finished tapes of her 1974 album Court and Spark [which included "Free Man In Paris"] for her Asylum Records labelmate Bob Dylan, the venerated spokesman of his generation fell asleep. “I think Bobby was just being cute,” is how Mitchell figures it. [↩]
- Interestingly, one of the two covers of Mitchell’s “Winter Lady” is by that same Chuck Mitchell [↩]
- Source: Songwriters Hall Of Fame [↩]
- OK, it’s possible that the “child of snow” is not the young, naive, idealized version of the “Winter Lady,” but a different woman altogether (e.g., Marianne Ihlen, with whom Leonard Cohen lived on the Greek island of Hydra prior to moving to New York), but that explanation carries the hint of tediousness, which I’m bound by oath to avoid in this post [↩]
- Don’t worry; my interpretations aren’t wrong. I’m just being grandiosely modest again. [↩]
- My hypothesis, I realize, presupposes that Leonard Cohen’s “Winter Lady” was written as a consequence of his exposure to Joni Mitchell’s “Winter Lady.” It is possible, I suppose, that, instead, both were inspired by a third and still earlier song (I’m thinking something in Middle English around Chaucer’s era) or that both wrote their songs independently in a bizarre coincidence or that Cohen originally set out to write a tune called “The Vintner’s Ladle” but after many revisions the title was corrupted into “Winter Lady.” Nonetheless, until someone points out that obscure 8 year old string in an forgotten corner on a forum in one of the Leonard Cohen Big Blogs that negates my entire thesis, my money is on Cohen’s “Winter Lady” being a consciously crafted response to Mitchell’s. [↩]
- The only other example that comes to mind is Neil Sedaka’s “Hey Carol” and “Oh Neil,” the song Carol King wrote in response. This set belongs in the category of “answer songs,” i.e., songs that refer directly to another song, which doesn’t seem to be the same kind of phenomenon as the two “Winter Lady” songs. [↩]