Joni Mitchell ‘The Magdalene Laundries’

On her 1994 album Turbulent Indigo Joni Mitchell has one of the most descriptive, powerful songs you’ll ever hear. She crafts a first person story about a young girl incarcerated in one of Ireland’s Magdalene institutions – The Magdalene Laundries for being over twenty, unmarried and attractive.

The song is an exceptional example of taking a news topic and finding the human side that speaks of the injustice, but never sounds like it’s a protest song – it never talks at the listener, takes a position and pounds at it. It simply takes a first person account and uses elegant metaphor, figurative language and prosody to bring the speaker’s situation to life.

The best thing about this song is that there’s no chorus. It uses an internal rhyme in the last line of each of the first three verses to set up the hook/title and separate it from the core of the verse.

This song violates the rules when it comes to structure:

  • Structure:  Verse  |  Verse  |  Bridge  |  Verse |  Verse
  • There’s no chorus
  • The addition of a Bridge in the middle of the song is unconventional

The structure lends itself to leaving the song unresolved. This is an ongoing issue that’s only recently been acknowledged, with the laundries being closed. In 1994, they were still open and had residents like the ones described in Mitchell’s song.

As they say in poetry, form follows function. She did an exceptional job of emulating the not-so-happy endings and the open nature of the conflict with the song’s structure.

Note the rhyme pattern change in the last verse, the lack of Magdalene Laundries being mentioned at all in the last verse, and finally, no B rhyme being carried into the verse.

Now that’s song craft![Tweet “Simile: they’ll plant me in the dirt – like some lame bulb that never blooms . . . – Joni Mitchell”]

The B rhyme – what am I referring to there? Mitchell does a great job of using the rhyme pattern to create a strong tie for each element of the song – with the exception of the last verse. She intentionally leaves the B rhyme out, separating it from the rest of the song.

Note how the B rhyme is the second line for each of the first three verses of the song. Staggering rhyme in this way gets the listener in a mode of hearing the rhyme before it happens. This in turn serves to move the forward in a consistent, expected, intuitive way, with the listener anticipating the upcoming sound/rhyme.

Her use of only B rhymes in the BRIDGE serves to anchor the bridge squarely in the song as the summary moment. Verse 3 frames the nuns as harsh, not charitable (a reference back to the BRIDGE), and inhumane “they wilt the grass they walk upon, they leech the light out of a room” – all leading to the final verse.

The last verse leaves you wondering how many girls this happened to – a subtle protest song stressed not by yelling anything, but by leaving something out.

VERSE 1:  A  |  B  |  A  |  B  (internal rhyme shame/Magdalene isolates “Laundries” to rhyme with line 2)

VERSE 2:  C  |  B  |  C  |  B  (internal rhyme stain/Magdalene isolates “Laundries” to rhyme with line 2)

BRIDGE:    B  |  B  |  B  |  B

VERSE 3:  D  |  B  |  D  |  B  (internal rhyme drain/Magdalene isolates “Laundries” to rhyme with line 2)

VERSE 4:  E  |  F  |  E  |  F  (no B rhyme, no internal rhyme)

magdalene laundries song analysis

‘The Magdalene Laundries’ Lyrics

I was an unmarried girl, I’d just turned twenty-seven
When they sent me to the sisters for the way men looked at me.
Branded as a jezebel, I knew I was not bound for Heaven:
I’d be cast in shame into the Magdalene laundries.

Most girls come here pregnant, some by their own fathers.
Bridget got that belly by her parish priest.
We’re trying to get things white as snow all of us woe-begotten-daughters
In the steaming stains of the Magdalene laundries.

Prostitutes and destitutes – and temptresses like me:
Fallen women sentenced into dreamless drudgery.
Why do they call this heartless place Our Lady of Charity?
Oh charity!

These bloodless brides of Jesus if they had just once glimpsed their groom
Then they’d know, and they’d drop the stones concealed behind their rosaries.
They wilt the grass they walk upon, they leech the light out of a room.
They’d like to drive us down the drain at the Magdalene laundries.

Peg O’Connell died today – she was a cheeky girl, a flirt
They just stuffed her in a hole! Surely to God you’d think at least some bells should ring!
One day I’m going to die here too, and they’ll plant me in the dirt –
Like some lame bulb that never blooms come any spring.
Not any spring
No, not any spring
Not any spring

© 1994 Crazy Crow Music

Similar Posts