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The Power Of Story: Marcie (Joni Mitchell)

Storytelling is a powerful tool to connect. This is known in the corporate world and also very visible in songwriting. On this blog, I’m breaking down songs for you to demonstrate what you can learn from them when it comes to storytelling.

Today: ‘Marcie’ by Joni Mitchell (the whole song and its lyrics are posted below).

 

‘Marcie in a coat of flowers
Steps inside a candy store
Reds are sweet and greens are sour
Still no letter at her door

 

As can be expected of one of the greatest songwriters of all time, this song is a real gem filled with great storytelling.
Let’s start at the beginning. The first three lines immediately draw an almost visible portrayal of a woman going around her daily business, before the fourth line turns the happy-go-lucky atmosphere upside down by telling us that all isn’t as innocence as it may look. There you go - we’re curious. And instead of telling us what’s going on, Mitchell keeps on describing the day-to-day activities - in a way that we can relate to, activities we recognize - but then throws in casually: ‘…dust her tables with his shirt.
This is such a great line! It tells us more about Marcie’s history - there is an absent man involved - and the fact she uses his shirt to dust tables with adds a huge emotional impact. Why would she do that? Does his shirt have no value to her? Or does it just? What happened here?

 

‘Marcie's faucet needs a plumber
Marcie's sorrow needs a man’

 

A lovely example of connecting a very mundane fact to a very important one. It’s a repetition and it’s imagery. The song goes on like this, providing us with seemingly casual fact that actually form the pieces of a very sad puzzle. We’re following a timeline in which time and life go on, but the letter doesn’t arrive. The fact that Marcie is waiting for it keeps coming back, and every time it does, we as listeners feel more sorry for her. Joni Mitchell definitely knows how ‘show-don’t-tell’ works: she communicates the increasing emotions without literally naming them. Instead, with her descriptions and imagery, she shows them to us and by doing so, let them have a bigger impact.

 

We understand the story completely, especially after the modest lines: ‘Dream back to summer and hear how
he tells her: wait for me’.
Pay attention to the returning reds and greens: their meaning and their importance change. In the beginning of the song, the colors are purely descriptive. In the last verse they represent emotions: ‘Red is angry green is jealous’.

 

It’s almost scary how every detail in this song plays a part here. The storytelling here is off the charts. The mixture between imagery, tension, repetition, emotional charge is sublime.
So how can we benefit from it, and what can we learn or be aware of?

 

I would say the following things are very valuable when it comes to storytelling in the business field:

  • Show, don’t tell. Paint a picture that shows the emotional charge of your story instead of explaining it. 
  • The power of repetition and context. Every time the letter or the reds and greens come back, they’re charged a with a little bit more emotion due to the fact that, during the song, we have more knowledge of the background.
  • Engagement. It’s almost as if we know Marcie, because her daily activities are so relatable to any of us.
  • Tension. These lyrics give away a small piece of the puzzle at a time. If you want your listeners to be all ears, keep them on their toes by gradually revealing more and more. But don’t be too stingy with your information; if we don’t get enough context, we’re gone.

 

Here’s ‘Marcie’ by Joni Mitchell, including lyrics, in its entirety.

 

Marcie in a coat of flowers
Steps inside a candy store
Reds are sweet and greens are sour
Still no letter at her door
So she'll wash her flower curtains
Hang them in the wind to dry
Dust her tables with his shirt and
Wave another day goodbye

 

Marcie's faucet needs a plumber
Marcie's sorrow needs a man
Red is autumn, green is summer
Greens are turning and the sand
All along the ocean beaches
Stares up empty at the sky
Marcie buys a bag of peaches
Stops a postman passing by
And summer goes
Falls to the sidewalk like string and brown paper
Winter blows
Up from the river there's no one to take her
To the sea

 

Marcie dresses warm its snowing
Takes a yellow cab uptown
Red is stop and green's for going
Sees a show and rides back down
Down along the Hudson River
Past the shipyards in the cold
Still no letter's been delivered
Still the winter days unfold
Like magazines
Fading in dusty grey attics and cellars
Make a dream
Dream back to summer and hear how
he tells her:
'Wait for me'

 

Marcie leaves and doesn't tell us
Where or why she moved away
Red is angry green is jealous
That was all she had to say
Someone thought they saw her Sunday
Window shopping in the rain
Someone heard she bought a one-way ticket
And went west again


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