IT was the year of a summer that seemed, at its height, as if it might never end. Reservoirs dried up and tarmac melted as each long, hot day was succeeded by another. But for me, 1976 is memorable for other things too. I left school the previous year, and had a job at Blair Drummond Safari Park, herding camels, trying to stop nervous giraffes stampeding through picnicking crowds, or keeping watch on the troop of rhesus monkeys who seemed to regard humans with something close to contempt. It was the year I turned 18, bought a motorbike, left home, went to university, had sex. My adult life was underway.

That November, across the Atlantic, Joni Mitchell released her eighth album, Hejira. At the time, this passed me by. I knew little of her work beyond Both Sides Now and The Circle Game. In fact I wouldn’t listen to Hejira for another couple of years. But once I did, it would never let me go. I’ve been listening to it regularly – more than anything else from Mitchell’s impressive oeuvre – ever since.

Hejira isn’t everybody’s favourite Joni Mitchell album. Most would probably settle for Blue from 1971, the bittersweet, acoustic accompaniment to many a romance or to the memory of ones that didn’t last. Blue is almost perfect, but Mitchell, never an artist to rest on her laurels, was constantly looking for new musical directions, and by the middle of the decade was moving from folk through rock towards jazz or, more accurately, mixing aspects of all three. Hejira grew from this journey, and also from a series of physical journeys she made in 1975–6, back and forth across North America, sometimes in company, sometimes alone.

When Hejira was recorded she was still in her early 30s, but the songs on the album are mature, profound and richly poetic. She had already demonstrated her considerable skill at giving intensely personal songs universal appeal: with Hejira, a pilgrimage of self-examination developed into a meditation on the journey of life itself. As she sings on Blue Motel Room: "I’ve got road maps from two dozen states, I’ve got coast to coast just to contemplate …"

One reason why Hejira would eventually get so deeply under my skin was that, three years after its release, I made a similar road trip to Mitchell’s. I spent a year as an exchange student in Philadelphia – something of a culture shock, as I had never before been outside the British Isles – and in the summer of 1979, sometimes in company, sometimes alone, I drove and hitched my way to New Orleans, across Texas and the Southwest to California, up into Canada and eastward again through the Midwest. Back in Philadelphia that August, I saw Mitchell perform live on the Shadows And Light tour, which featured performances of several of the Hejira songs. On my return to Scotland I bought the album and played it incessantly. The more closely I listened, the more intently I read the lyrics and studied the beautiful but austere gatefold cover, the more I felt that I had lived the songs, individually and collectively, in my own way.

When Mitchell sings of being a hitcher, "a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway", I can still see myself, rucksack on the verge and my thumb extended, baking in the sun at an on-ramp, or being moved off it by a short-tempered traffic cop. When she sings that she’s been travelling so long she wonders how she’s ever going to know her home again, I understand: in those pre-internet, pre-Skype days, communication with home was by postcard and letter and just two brief transatlantic phone calls in the course of 12 months. Like her I crossed "the burning desert", although I certainly didn’t shower off the dust as often: pulling in to anywhere as sophisticated as the Cactus Tree Motel was way beyond my budget. Mostly – sustained by the naive belief of youth that nothing much could go wrong – I slept under bushes or on the floors of kind strangers.

"I’m travelling in some vehicle, I’m sitting in some cafe"; "I fell in with some drifters, cast upon a beachtown"; "I’m porous with travel fever": through such phrases these meandering, fluid songs lead to the kind of insights that only come from being on the road and interacting with its other users. It is almost impossible for life to remain unexamined when you are on a constant journey, engaging in different ways with different people. Questions arise about the direction and purpose of travel, points of departure and intended destinations, chance and fate – the hows and whys of what we are doing on this planet, in this life. Again and again, Mitchell counterbalances her success and fame, and the preoccupations and frustrations of her love life, with acknowledgement of her fleeting mortality: "We all come and go unknown, each so deep and superficial between the forceps and the stone." The final track, Refuge Of The Roads, extends these thoughts to a recognition of her microscopic insignificance in the solar system. The act of going on a journey is key to that recognition; and the road, as much as a place called home, is a refuge from its sobering implications.


Some 20 years ago, with Hejira still releasing and renewing its messages to me, I found myself playing with the words of the opening track, Coyote, constructing a semi-autobiographical poem in which Mitchell’s words and ideas moved across time and space and settled on this side of the Atlantic. They shifted linguistically too, emerging in their new guise in Scots. I had the original rhythms, rhyme scheme and line-lengths running in my head as I worked; coyotes being thin on the ground here, the eponymous creature became a tod (or fox). The poem was a one-off act of homage and, as I thought at the time, nothing more than that.

More recently, and almost subconsciously, some of the other songs began to transmit and transmute in the same way. Why they should have done so, I am not sure: I’ve translated Roald Dahl, AA Milne and Baudelaire into Scots, but Joni Mitchell was hardly an obvious candidate for the same treatment. Then again, these new versions of her songs weren’t straight translations: they were re-imaginings in which her finished works were my points of departure. As the coyote had become a tod, so Black Crow metamorphosed into a hoolet (owl). Likewise Amelia, a song which beautifully connects reflections on a lost love with the vanishing of the pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart, became a meditation on the sailing of Saint Columba from Ireland to Iona, and on the strange, not yet extinguished light which that event has cast on our history ever since. The downtown Memphis of Furry Lewis and WC Handy transformed into the Dundee of Mary Brooksbank, Annie Watkins and Michael Marra. And Mitchell’s epic Song For Sharon which, over 10 verses, contrasts the life choices and chances of a childhood friend in Saskatchewan with her own very different ones, re-emerged as Sang For Joni, in which some of the phases and events alluded to in this essay are charted:

That wis the lang, hot simmer, Joni,

we thocht it wid niver end;

I had ma haill life oot afore me,

nae mair lessons tae attend.

Caurs tailed back in the Safari Park,

puggies laughin in the trees:

the warld wis turnin inside oot,

shrinkin by invisible degrees.

I gaed through twenty-nine states and then some mair –

forests, mountains, fields and feelins.

I walked ma shoon tae shreds on stoury roads,

sometimes hurtin, sometimes healin.

Awthin turns in time tae legend,

and in ilka legend somethin’s true;

that fit-sair, luve-seik pilgrimer

aye walks aside me noo.

By this time, in my imagination at least, these Scots re-workings were occupying space somewhere between poetry and song. There they might have remained, in a kind of no-man’s land of wishful thinking, had it not been for a chance encounter with the director of Celtic Connections, Donald Shaw. Our conversation hovered around possible literary or spoken-word input to the festival. Did I have any thoughts on what that might entail? Tentatively, I suggested revisiting an entire Joni Mitchell album through the medium of Scots. To my surprise this received an enthusiastic response. Donald, it transpired, was also an admirer of Hejira. He pointed out that 2016 happened to be its 40th anniversary. A concert based on this idea could be a fitting tribute to one of the truly great songwriters and performers of our time.

From this beginning a working project quickly developed. The immense talents of Karine Polwart and her brother Steven were enlisted to oversee the musical direction, and a house band assembled, including the brilliant guitarist, Larry Carlton, who played on the original album, and some of the finest singers and musicians on the Scottish traditional scene, among them Rod Paterson, Annie Grace, Julie Fowlis and Fraser Fifield.

I was now looking for a title that would complement, mirror or extend the idea of Hejira. This Arabic word refers to the flight of the prophet Mohammed from persecution in Mecca to Medina in 622. More generally, it has come to mean any flight from danger, and by extension, any journey to sanctuary. In an age of mass migration, when people take to the road not for pleasure or self-exploration but to escape death, destruction and the collapse of their world, and when words and concepts like freedom, asylum and security are juggled, traded and degraded on a daily basis, it was important to find a word that had gravity, pedigree and contemporary relevance. The word I settled on was Pilgrimer. Its appearance in an obscure 16th-century source – the liturgical text used at funerals in the kirk at Montrose – seemed particularly apposite: "In this lyfe we are but travellouris, pilgrimaris, and strangearis, seking for ane citie and habitatioun …"

When a complex piece of music becomes as completely familiar to you over a long period as Hejira has become to me, that familiarity can inhibit the way you hear it: you begin to hear it as you believe it sounds rather than as it actually sounds. Working with such an accomplished composer, musician and singer as Karine Polwart opened my eyes and ears not only to this strange truth but also to the particular challenges faced by songwriters as opposed to poets. Even at a mechanical level there were problems to overcome. For example, the consonant and vowel sounds of Scots are more suited to some note-lengths and musical phrasing than to others. You can’t simply swap a song from one language into another and expect it to work. It’s no accident that Scots is the "natural" language of much traditional Scottish music, and American the "natural" language of blues and rock ’n’ roll. This does not mean, however, that synthesis is impossible or undesirable. On the contrary, building bridges between musical and wider cultural worlds is exactly what Celtic Connections does.

I am struck by a comment Joni Mitchell made about that 1979 Shadows And Light tour, when the band included Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays, Jaco Pastorius (whose bass-playing is such a signature on Hejira), Michael Brecker, Don Alias and the Persuasions (who were also the support act). "With these players," she said, "we’re talking about young musicians who have no real musical or categorical preferences. We all love rock ’n’ roll. We all love folk music. We all love jazz. If anything, we want to be considered a musical event … It should be very creative."

Those words apply just as well to what I hope is the outcome of the Pilgrimer event. It will be down to others to pass judgment on it, but there is no doubt in my mind about the marvellous creativity of the many people who are helping to bring it to fruition. Whatever its reception, this re-imagining of Hejira has been done with respect for and gratitude to Joni Mitchell, and to honour the astonishing piece of work which that 40-year-old album continues to be.

James Robertson is a novelist and poet. Pilgrimer: A Re-imagining Of Joni Mitchell's Hejira premières at Celtic Connections with a stellar cast including Dick Gaughan, Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Olivia Chaney and Annie Grace, plus Grammy-winning US guitarist Larry Carlton, who played on Hejira itself. The concert's second half will see stars such as Karine Polwart, Rod Paterson, Kathryn Joseph, Annie Grace and Julie Fowlis perform Joni Mitchell's greatest hits. The event is in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall this Saturday, January 16 at 7.30pm

The Sunday Herald is media partner of Celtic Connections. For programme information and tickets visit


CORRECTION: The original headline to this article referred to Joni Mitchell as a "US" folk legend. This has been corrected. We apologise to the article's author and to readers for the error, and thank those who pointed it out in the comments box