Joni Mitchell’s “My Old Man” and the Anti-Marriage Stance in Her Relationship That Inspired It

Joni Mitchell’s “My Old Man” is quintessentially Joni: whimsically metaphorical, groundedly realistic, and fiercely independent with its laissez-faire approach to long-term, committed relationships. She wrote the iconic track, which she included on the 1971 album ‘Blue’ while living on Lookout Mountain in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles.

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At the time, Mitchell was in a whirlwind relationship with Graham Nash—a relationship that, although doomed from the start, produced other enduring tracks like “Our House” and “A Case of You,” the latter of which is also on ‘Blue.’

A definitive musical power couple, Mitchell and Nash’s relationship was bigger than either party and, as the song clearly states, antiquated ideas of legal domesticity through marriage.

“My Old Man” Features Joni Mitchell’s Unwavering Need For Freedom

Within the context of Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash’s relationship, the opening lines of “My Old Man” paint a clear picture of the creative duo: My old man is a singer in the park; he’s a walker in the rain; he’s a dancer in the dark. Almost immediately, Mitchell asserts the fact that neither party feels the need to validate their bond through traditional means of marriage.

We don’t need no piece of paper from the City Hall keeping us tied and true, she sings in the chorus. My old man, keeping away my blues. The song continues to offer fleeting vignettes of domestic life with no legal tethers. Mitchell includes lines that could have easily been about a week or two (or three) when Nash was on the road. But when he’s gone, she sings in the bridge, me and them lonesome blues collide. The bed’s too big; the frying pan’s too wide.

A love song that uses the chorus to denounce the idea of a traditional marriage might seem a touch too cynical to some, but for Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash, it made perfect sense. Both musicians came from complex backgrounds and even previous marriages. If what they had was working for them on their cozy Lookout Mountain bungalow, then why change it?

Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash’s Complicated Pasts Before Their Relationship

Before Joni Mitchell met Graham Nash at a Hollies concert, she had already experienced tremendous loss. She and her ex-boyfriend, Brad MacMath, had a daughter named Kelly Dale Anderson, but after MacMath left Mitchell, the Canadian folk singer felt her only option was to give Kelly up for adoption—a painful experience Mitchell summarizes in her 1971 track “Little Green,” also on ‘Blue.’ Not long after that, Mitchell married Chuck Mitchell, a fellow folk singer, in 1965. The couple divorced two years later.

Nash, too, had already married and divorced another woman, Rose Eccles, in his early to mid-20s. While there aren’t many details surrounding their divorce, one can assume the rock and roll lifestyle had something to do with their split. In a 2022 interview with The Guardian, Nash recalled that time in his life from a debaucherous lens. “We’d get laid a lot, of course,” Nash said glibly. “Mainly girls that you picked up at the shows…once you were found, it usually led to sex.” Nash and Eccles were together from 1964 to 1966, during which Eccles helped inspire Hollies tracks like “Jennifer Eccles” and “Lily the Pink.”

The rock and roll lifestyle would prove to be too much for Mitchell and Nash’s relationship, too. Nash’s ongoing drug use angered Mitchell, eventually leading to their split after just over a year. Mitchell let him know she was leaving through a telegram. “If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers. Love, Joan,” the note read (via Far Out Magazine). Indeed, Mitchell’s telegram mirrored her romantic ode to her ex-lover (and, generally speaking, Mitchell herself): frank, eloquent, and decisive.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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