"Sweet Bird" as written by and Joni Mitchell....
Out on some borderline
Some mark of in between
I lay down golden-in time
And woke up vanishing

Sweet bird you are
Briefer than a falling star
All these vain promises on beauty jars
Somewhere with your wings on time
You must be laughing
Behind our eyes
Calendars of our lives
Circled with compromise
Sweet bird of time and change
You must be laughing
Up on your feathers laughing

Golden in time
Cities under the sand
Power, ideals and beauty
Fading in everyone's hand

Give me some time
I feel like I'm losing mine
Out here on this horizon line
With the earth spinning
And the sky forever rushing
No one knows
They can never get that close
Guesses at most
Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching
Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching
Guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching

Lyrics submitted by pumkinhed

"Sweet Bird" as written by Joni Mitchell

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Crazy Crow Music / Siquomb Music Publishing

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Sweet Bird song meanings
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  • +2
    General CommentThis song is about life, and about time slipping away as you grow ever older.
    Zubbyon June 16, 2006   Link
  • +2
    My InterpretationA beautiful song about that liminal moment where you realise you no longer look young.

    It opens with the narrator finding that overnight (between laying down and waking up) she’s crossed the threshold between looking young (‘golden in time’) and visibly showing signs of ageing. It feels like she’s vanishing - perhaps she knows she’ll no longer attract the attention she once did; perhaps she doesn’t quite recognise her own face in the mirror; perhaps she’s picked up an intimation that her life is now headed inexorably towards its demise, its own vanishing point.

    Life is passing by so quickly that it seems shorter than the streak of a meteorite. Embodying time and change in the ‘sweet bird’ links it to the idiom ‘time flies’. It might also bring to mind ‘time’s wingèd chariot’, from the Marvell poem, and also suggest that while we earthbound mortals worry about its passage, time flies about us free and joyful as a bird, unworried about our passage through itself. It may also relate to the song and the Tennessee Williams play ‘Sweet Bird of Youth.’
    Cosmetics can’t halt the passage of time and its effects on us, despite the claims on the labels, ‘vain’ carrying its two meanings here - the bird is both laughing at these empty claims, and at our attempts to remain looking young.
    But our inner selves tally the years, and lines form around our eyes as the skin there adapts to ageing, tired wakefulness and the frustrations and compromises of our daily lives. The circles that form around our eyes also suggest circled dates or appointments on calendars, perhaps appointments we don’t want to keep but know we must.
    She presumes that the bird is amused by all this worry, by our struggles and the compromises we make as we try to fit everything that we want to do into this finite and all too short lifespan that we have.

    Then comes a musical interlude which sounds like she’s stumbling - perhaps, in her shock at what’s happening to her, she’s lost phase with time; perhaps she’s trying to break herself free of its control; perhaps this is the sound of her crossing the threshold, like a train going over a set of points. Soon the song returns to its gentle pace, acquiescing, perhaps submitting to the inevitable, and we move forward and into the next verse.

    ‘Golden in time’, reprised from the beginning of the song and signifying her youth, seems here to be a wistful looking back on that now-lost phase of her life. There’s the image of the smooth skin of youth becoming lined, and pushed at by bones nearing the surface, using the metaphor of the remains of buried cities being exposed as the smooth sand above them is blown away (presumably imagery taken from north Africa or the Near or Middle East), bringing to the surface the character and complexity of the life that’s been hidden beneath. Power declines through time, ideals are compromised, and glamour fades - all three qualities spiral down through time in us both as individuals and as civilisations whose cities were (or will be) eventually buried beneath the sand.

    The last verse begins with a plea (presumably to the ‘sweet bird’) for more time, because her own seems to be running out fast and everything is rushing by so very quickly. It could also be a plea to an evanescent other to give her a chance, because life is so fleeting that we mustn’t waste any opportunity for possible happiness (in perhaps another link to the Marvell poem).
    She’s at her known limit, the horizon line between her past and her future. No-one knows what lies beyond the present, they can only make their best guesses based on what they’ve managed to understand of what’s gone before. But while we’re fastened ineluctably to the present moment, that moment itself isn’t a fixed point - it rushes on from one ‘set of time and change’ to the next, and all we can do is try to navigate our way through the lifetime we’ve been given, knowing that it’s constantly running out, and that while our end point is unknown to us, its existence is all too certain.

    Though more accepting by the end, the disquiet expressed throughout the song’s lyrics seems in sharp contrast to the relaxed, almost languorous music, which has the feel of fingers being trailed through the placid surface of a river while the boat carrying us makes its ineluctable way downstream.
    TrueThomason February 06, 2016   Link

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