“Coyote“ is the opening song from Joni Mitchell’s 1976 album Hejira….and also the album’s first single…. albeit the song had been introduced on the tour to support 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns….as “Coyote” was a significant musical departure….whereby Hissing was ornate with pianos, layered vocals and percussion….while “Coyote” was stripped down to electric and acoustic guitars and a fretless bass guitar played by virtuoso Jaco Pastorius. In a sense, this was similar to Mitchell’s early albums, but the sound was extremely spacious, even repetitive, with the verses made much longer and more like a long story. Thus, although this is one of the faster-tempo songs on Hejira, it still lasts for an even five minutes. Mitchell’s guitar itself was in an unusual (low to high) C-G-D-F-C-E tuning….which was the same as in the song “Ladies of the Canyon”….and presumably a type of open tuning designed to play a seventh, ninth, or even eleventh chord.
Lyrically, “Coyote” is concerned with the difficulty of establishing any sort of connection with people who come from “different sets of circumstance” as the song has it….which in particular it describes an encounter, that turns into a one-night stand, between the narrator, possibly meant to be Mitchell herself as there is a reference in the lyrics to her coming home from the studio and “Coyote”, a ranch worker. In Chris O’Dell’s 2009 autobiography Miss O’Dell….she details an affair she had with married playwright Sam Shepard….and states that Shepard then cheated on her with Joni Mitchell….and O’Dell claims that “Coyote” is written about Sam Shepard.
Coyote represents nature contrasted with the narrator’s big city life where “pills and powders” are necessary to “get them through this passion play”. The aforementioned line is also a reference to Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue concert tour….of which Mitchell was a part of in the fall of 1975. During a performance of the song by Mitchell in the film Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds states that, “Joni wrote this song about this tour and on this tour and for this tour,” to which she does not protest. A version of “Coyote” was performed by Mitchell with The Band for the concert movie The Last Waltz…. as seen in this video herewith…..and is included on the soundtrack.