"Edith and The Kingpin" as written by and Joni Mitchell....
The big man arrives
Disco dancers greet him
Plainclothes cops greet him
Small town, big man, fresh lipstick glistening
Sophomore jive
From victims of typewriters
The band sounds like typewriters
The big man he's not listening
His eyes hold Edith
His left hand holds his right
What does that hand desire
That he grips it so tight

Edith in the ring
The passed-over girls are conferring
The man with the diamond ring is purring
All claws for now withdrawn
One by one they bring
His renegade stories to her
His crimes and his glories to her
In challenge they look on
Women he has wanted grow old too soon
He tilts their tired faces
Gently to the spoon

Edith in his bed
A plane in the rain is humming
The wires in the walls are humming
Some song-some mysterious song
Bars in her head
Beating frantic and snow blind
Romantic and snow blind
She says-his crime belongs
Edith and the Kingpin
Each with charm to sway
Are staring eye to eye
They dare not look away
You know they dare not look away

Lyrics submitted by pumkinhed, edited by princejoni

"Edith and the Kingpin" as written by Joni Mitchell

Lyrics © Crazy Crow Music / Siquomb Music Publishing

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Edith and The Kingpin song meanings
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  • +5
    My InterpretationA quick look at some proper reviews of this song, as well as the previous comments on this site, indicates that my interpretation may be way off. But hey ho, it still seems to valid to me so here it is, for what it's worth. It's ridiculously long, but I can't get it shorter and still do justice to the lyrical complexity of this song :

    The song begins with the arrival of the 'big man'/'kingpin' (someone who's never named). He's flown in to pay a short official visit to a small town. This is all about him at this point, there's no mention of Edith or any other entourage.
    The town's put on quite a show to welcome him, razzamatazz including a disco dancing display (this is the 1970s) followed by a marching jazz band from the local university.
    He's also 'greeted' by 'plainclothes cops'. The consensus interpretation is that the big man is a drug-lord, or at least a crime boss, so being 'greeted' by cops here carries the undertone of a possible arrest for his 'crimes' mentioned later, or maybe they're keeping an eye on him because so far they have nothing to arrest him on. My interpretation is that he's a politician, and the cops are providing his security. A President would have his own security detail, so it's someone below that level, yet still important enough to be assigned official police protection back in the 70s, so I'd guess this puts him at Member of Congress/State Governor level.
    The phrase 'small town, big man' encapsulates the peculiar perception that one person can be seen as more important than a whole small townful of people.
    There's the impression that most of the town has turned out for this event, all dressed up and looking their best ('fresh lipstick glistening').
    The jazz band give their display, the tapping of drums and the pressing of brass instrument valves reminiscent of how they write their essays on manual typewriters (this was the days before the personal computer). They play mechanically and with little feeling, in stark contrast to the warm jazz infusing this song. But the big man is used to this kind of reception, and his mind is otherwise engaged. Use of the word 'sophomore' confirms the setting here as somewhere in the United States.
    Now we come to the first mention of Edith, who the being held in the big man's stare. Edith is obviously his partner, and presumably his wife (politicians of this era had to be married, whatever they got up to in their private lives, in order to exhibit the societal norms expected of them by the electorate. Their wives would turn out to support them at public events such as this). 'His eyes hold Edith' perhaps implies that he sees her as his property, or that he's exercising his power to control her (there's a tension in the air - it's possible they've recently argued), making sure she doesn't do anything to show him up.
    His left hand grips his right tightly - a rigid, tense stance. Significantly, the hand with his wedding ring (the ring would be visible) is containing the right, the more active hand (in most people, so we'll assume in him), the one that does the taking. 'What does that hand desire?' Women? Wealth? Power? Edith?

    The song turns here - up to this point it's been about the 'big man', but from now on it becomes mostly about Edith.
    The verse begins with 'Edith in the ring' - but what kind of ring? A ring of people surrounding the big man? A secure area around him which only the favoured few are allowed inside? The whole event sounds a bit circus-like, so perhaps it all seems like a circus ring. My preferred interpretation is that it's a reference to the wedding ring she wears (and is therefore inside) for him. His own 'diamond ring' is mentioned shortly.
    The women he's rejected in favour of Edith ('the passed-over girls') are discussing her or the big man, or they may be plotting to supersede her. If there are sufficient women here to scheme in this way, enough women to have been declined by him in the past, it implies that we're back on his home turf, and that this small town is where he grew up.
    The man with the diamond ring (presumably the big man) is assuaged for the moment ('purring/All claws for now withdrawn'), as he laps up the attention. 'Purring' implies a cat-like persona, and not your standard house moggie, but a big cat. He can be dangerous, he has claws, but is content not to use them 'for now,' while his ego is being gratified.
    A succession ('one by one') of women bring tales of the man's past deeds ('his renegade stories/His crimes and his glories') to Edith. Her marriage faces constant, wearing challenges from other women ('in challenge they look on'), as well as from having to hear tales of his chequered past ('crimes and glories'). Edith must be, or will have to become, very strong to survive this relentless onslaught. There's a strong impression that, in his own life, the big man doesn't follow the values expected of him by his electorate. Perhaps this is why he's so controlled and controlling.
    Women he has been with previously (not just been with, but 'taken') are prematurely aged. This may be a result of the demands of being his partner (is there some truth in the perception that politicians' wives look older than their similarly-aged husbands? Especially in the days before personal stylists and routine cosmetic surgery?). Or perhaps the drug lord interpretation is correct, and the big man either chooses addicts or makes his women addicts, which ages them. Whichever, is it also Edith's destiny to age prematurely? It looks likely. There follows an illustration of how old these women appear, 'He tilts their tired faces/Gently to the spoon,' which could be (drug lord interpretation) helping the women feed their addiction, but could equally be (politician interpretation) a photo-op visit to an old folks' home, perhaps something the big man is doing as part of his visit to the town. Though why would an old folks' home be filled with his past conquests? Maybe it's just an illustration of how aged his past women become.

    Later, Edith is 'in his bed' - why 'his' bed? Are they not married? Is she an irrelevance here? Maybe it's just to show that they sleep together, or have just slept together. Presumably this is in a hotel room allocated to him for his visit. But why is she alone? Is he up and gone? She can hear a plane humming (a propellor plane rather than a jet). Is it flying high overhead, or is it waiting nearby, its propellors running, (politician interpretation) waiting to take him to his next engagement? Or (drug-lord interpretation) is it a plane waiting to transport drugs? Or is it a plane overhead bringing drugs in? The rain lends the idea that the song's setting is one of the less arid states.
    The wires in the walls of the room are humming - this might mean the man and this room (and Edith by association) are under surveillance, or it could just refer to the old fixed line phones (whose wires came through the walls into the room) being busy. Edith may be muddling the sound of an air conditioner or a fridge with hidden wires. In the days the song is set, before mobile phones, fixed line phones were the only way of him keeping in touch with his office. Perhaps his staff, or journalists covering the event, are making a lot of calls, keeping the hotel's lines busy. The wires didn't actually hum (unless there was something very wrong with them). Nevertheless, she hears (or imagines) a humming that sounds to her like 'some mysterious song', so maybe she doesn't understand what's being talked about, or is being kept deliberately in the dark about the big man's activities, or she may just be tuning it out, uninterested, but aware of an overall song-like pattern to it all.
    The 'bars in her head' are presumably the musical bars of this 'mysterious song', but the phrase also carries the feeling of her being imprisoned by this life of hers, or (drug-lord interpretation) fearing imprisonment as a result of it. Or she may have erected barriers across parts of her mind she doesn't want to examine for now. It may even self-reference the music of this actual song in some way. The bars are 'beating frantic and snowblind/Romantic and snowblind' - apart from the 'romantic' bit, none of this sounds good, almost migraine-like. The 'snow' and 'frantic' suggest cocaine use, though could also come from the hectic lifestyle she leads with him, the accelerated heart rate, the blinding camera flashes. And there's still that 'romantic' side of all this to her.
    'She says his crime belongs' is a bit impenetrable. Belongs to what? Belongs to himself alone? Belongs behind the bars in her head? She's judging him, or accusing him of something, but beyond that I can't discern any clear meaning.
    Now for the first time he's referred to as 'the Kingpin' of the title, rather than 'big man'. Kingpin often refers a drug lord, so maybe he is. Yet he has official receptions laid on for him, which seems odd in that case. So I think the word is being used to convey his importance and also his air of possible menace ('claws').
    Both Edith and the big man are charming in their own right, and able to influence. Both have the beauty and allure to exercise power over others.
    With 'staring eye to eye', we're back to his eyes holding Edith, but this time she's staring right back. (Does the phrase carry a suggestion of the Biblical 'eye for an eye' punishment?) 'They dare not look away' reveals a lack of trust in each other no doubt born of experience, though you have to fear more for Edith than for him in this relationship, given all we've heard about his effects on women.
    I think practically anyone would advise Edith to get away from him, fast.

    Overall, I still think the 'big man' is a politician rather than a drug lord. The song seems to cover an official visit to a small town in his constituency, possibly while he's running for reelection (considering everything laid on for him, and that he's already a 'big man', he must hold office at some high level currently). The song's flavoured by the time of its writing (presumably around the end of the Nixon administration, when politics seemed a particularly dirty business). There's no real hint as to who these people really are; they may be generic. He's just an interchangeable 'big man/kingpin', while she is at least given a name, even if an old-fashioned one.
    The whole song comes across as an event watched on television (no media is mentioned in the song, though presumably they're present, so perhaps our viewpoint is that of the media).
    The lyrics use an interesting technique of adjacent lines which end with the same word or even whole phrase. This technique seems to be being used to emphasise or to shift meaning.

    As for the album and this song's place in it, I may be superimposing my own structure, but I think the ten songs follow a woman's journey through a few decades of her life, possibly spanning the potentially childbearing years between adolescence and menopause, from the teenage exuberance of In France They Kiss On Main Street to the hard-won mature wisdom of Shadows and Light. This particular song lays out the first of her associations with unsuitable men (also seen in the title track and Harry's House).
    Ms Mitchell has denied she's a poet, but if she isn't, she certainly occupies the highest ground of lyricism. And during those golden years from Blue to Hejira, of which this song, this album, forms part, she showed a remarkable ability to lock into the zeitgeist.
    TrueThomason March 03, 2013   Link
  • +1
    General CommentI don't see Edith as a moll, per se. I think she's a girl at a disco that the kingpin is instantly drawn to, in a way that he perhaps never was before. He's so fixated on her that it arouses jealousy out of the 'passed-over girls,' who are fully aware of who he is and what he does. They go to Edith and tell her about the kingpin, probably to intimidate her. That gives me the impression that she doesn't know who he is.

    "Women he has taken grow old too soon" - These women know who he is and probably end up more interested in the lifestyle he lives (money, clothes, jewelry, etc) so no sooner than they start dating, he suddenly finds he's taking care of them at every turn. There's something different about Edith. I think we're left to wonder if she was the love of his life or if she's just another girl who may 'grow old too soon.'

    Ditto to all the comments about this record, it is one of her finest, start to finish!
    antisainton March 12, 2011   Link
  • +1
    My OpinionHissing intially did well but chilled out because of un-astute reviews. The only Joni album I listened to more than this was For the Roses... (BarandGrill and Electricity motivated me to learn open D tunings (not dropped-D but full blown Open D so that every fingering changes!) on guitar...).

    The song ends with them staring eye to eye and daring not look away, which is almost as pregnant a phrase as Dylan's "Two riders were approaching and the wind began to howl..." They are at the threshold of a relationship that is already fraught with danger... they are "Romantic and snowblind"... good luck guys! The song is a still life of how the promise of intimacy is challenged by the very social scenes necessary for people to meet. What makes a man desirable in that milieu? Well, he's a Big Man, an alpha male, on the hunt, and he's back in the same woods where partners from previous trysts (that did not grow into long-term or he would not be back on the hunt) make up a kind of public foreplay for being chosen, which involves the passed-over girls giving Edith the heads-up and his gangster moves... and the toxic risk of getting involved with a coke-king and his "aging-powder"... every line in the song shades the subtext of what this scene is... I love the reference to her song "Electricity" (which is basically a schematic of a real good erotic circuit board) with the line "the wires in the walls are huh-hu-huh-hummmming"... and the closing line leaves us with a tableaux of the two of them and a future both anxious and hopeful...
    BillPasdeauxon February 02, 2012   Link
  • 0
    General Commentit seems sort of like a seduce and destroy song, each trying to take down the other.
    pumkinhedon October 07, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis song seems to be about a drug lord and his moll. Edith gets sucked into a life of endless stoned days accompanying her man.
    Zubbyon June 16, 2006   Link
  • 0
    General CommentJoni Mitchell - Edith and The Kingpin
    YouTube: youtube.com/…

    Fantastic. Absolutely Fantastic!

    BEST ALBUM EVER (...along with HEJIRA)... :o)
    Theresa_Gionoffrioon April 19, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI must agree this album is fantastic... sadly overlooked... not very popular for a joni album, but sophisticated, real jazzy and loaded with great musicians.
    underbanyantreeson March 01, 2008   Link

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