Joni Mitchell Returns to Stage and Accepts Gershwin Prize with 2-Song Performance: 'Thrilling'

The Grammy winner was awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday

Joni Mitchell poses on the red carpet at the 2023 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for American Song
Joni Mitchell. Photo: Shannon Finney/Getty Images

Joni Mitchell is being recognized for her profound impact on music.

The Canadian-born singer accepted the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, surrounded by friends and fans effusive in their love for her.

"My God, it's overwhelming," Mitchell, 79, said as she appeared onstage to accept the award. "It's just a beautiful event for me. So many people that I care about are here tonight from different parts of my life. New friends, old friends. It's just kind of thrilling. Thank you all for coming."

The award "celebrates the work of an artist whose career reflects the influence, impact and achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of musical expression and cultural understanding," according to the Library. Previous Gershwin Prize winners include Lionel Richie, Billy Joel, Carole King and Paul McCartney.

The night was a star-studded honoring of Mitchell's music, with Mitchell herself choosing a handful of friends and collaborators to sing some of their favorite songs of hers. Marcus Mumford kicked things off with "Carey," and other performances included Annie Lennox singing "Both Sides Now," Angélique Kidjo singing "Help Me," Brandi Carlile singing "Shine," James Taylor performing "California" and Cyndi Lauper doing "Blue."

Graham Nash—who dated Mitchell in the late '60s and early '70s—sang "A Case of You" as photos and videos of their romance played behind him, while Diana Krall performed "For the Roses," and Herbie Hancock and Ledisi sang "River." The ladies of the night also teamed up for a rousing rendition of "Big Yellow Taxi," during which a seated Mitchell grooved from her chair, and sang the song's final line.

Though Mitchell has only recently begun to ease back into the spotlight following a devastating brain aneurysm in 2015, she delighted the audience with a pair of performances, her first since she surprised the crowd at Newport Folk Festival in July with a 13-song set.

For her first song, she sang the classic "Summertime" as a nod to George and Ira Gershwin, the namesake of her prize.

"It's so exciting to see all of these musicians that I admire performing my music," she told the crowd. "And I wanted to kind of express my gratitude by singing a Gershwin song. Yeah. So I'm gonna sing 'Summertime.'"

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Joni Mitchell performs at the 2023 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for American Song
Joni Mitchell. Shannon Finney/Getty Images

Afterward, all the collaborators who'd previously taken the stage earlier in the night joined Mitchell for a sing-along version of her 1966 classic "The Circle Game."

The concert will be broadcast by PBS at 9 p.m. ET on March 31 and on and the PBS app.

"Her resilience is palpable," Carlile told reporters on the red carpet. "She's been so resilient, and it's one of the first things Joni ever said to me when I met her. The first time I saw her, she couldn't stand up. And the second time I saw her, she walked into a restaurant... She said, 'This is the third time I've learned to walk. Once out of infancy, once out of polo, and once again now.' And I remember just thinking, 'God, you're a beast!' You know what I mean? Just a total pillar."

Nash, meanwhile, said on the carpet that he was thrilled to be there to support Mitchell.

"I'm very honored to be able to help make Joni know that people really love her, and that she is a great songwriter, and that people are recognizing that," he said.

Joni Mitchell speaks onstage during the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song ceremony
Joni Mitchell (center). STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden — who awarded Mitchell her prize alongside a number of U.S. senators — called Mitchell a "musical genius" in a statement ahead of the award ceremony.

"Joni Mitchell's music and artistry have left a distinct impression on American culture and internationally, crossing from folk music with a distinctive voice whose songs will stay with us for the ages," Hayden said.

She added in the statement, "Joni Mitchell's music has so many artists and music lovers all singing her tunes. We are honored to present the Gershwin Prize to this musical genius."

Mitchell was named the MusiCares 2022 Person of the Year last April, with Elton John, Billy Porter and Richie sharing their love and admiration for the "River" singer.

"You've influenced me so much with your chord changes and ability to surprise and delve further into songwriting," John said in a vignette. "Not many people dared to do that, but you did."

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In November 2022, the Grammy Award winner announced that she'll be releasing a new live album based on her surprise Newport Folk Festival performance — which was her first full set live for an audience in more than 20 years.

"I've never been nervous about being in front of an audience," she told CBS News of the set. "But I want it to be good. And I wasn't sure I could be. But I didn't sound too bad tonight!"

Following the surprise performance, Mitchell told Carlile she was keen to perform again. The two are now set to perform at the Gorge Amphitheatre in George, Washington, this June.

"No one's been able to buy a ticket to see Joni Mitchell play in 20 years, so this is enormous," Carlile, 41, said during an October 2022 appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. "And she's so excited, because it's close to Canada and some of her Canadian fans."

"I can't believe it's happening, but it's happening, and she is going to crush it," Carlile added. "So if you can get there, get there."

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