Freedom and “The Dawntreader”

Seabird flying above the ocean, sunrise in the back ground - a symbol of freedom

Songs of Freedom

People have been singing songs about freedom for centuries. During their struggle for independence, the Irish sang songs such as “When Fenians Fight for Freedom,” and “I Had Dream that Ireland Was Free.” In the 1930s, labor unions had “Joe Hill,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum.” “We Shall Not Be Moved” was apparently based on “I Shall Not Be Moved,” an African American spiritual. Slaves also sang “O, Freedom,” “Go Down, Moses,” “Up Above My Head.” Psalm 119 speaks of walking in freedom.

How these verses, and many others, speak of freedom is different, however. There’s the freedom that comes from resistance to oppression, from actively fighting against those who would harm us, and a freedom that comes from peace.“Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” is more like a nonviolent response to unfair labor practices and a prejudiced judicial system. Instead of fighting, though, the bum drops out of the system, seeking to survive on a kindness that never appears. “Bread and Roses” reminds us that, along with demanding wages that will allow us to feed ourselves, we need enough for a bit of beauty and joy. Some spirituals speak of the freedom found in Heaven. The psalm defines freedom as walking with God, of following God’s commandments.

Freedom means so many things.

Popular composers in the modern United States also talk about all kinds of freedom, from the freedom of justice to the freedom of the spirit.

The Dawntreader

Take Joni Mitchell’s song, “The Dawntreader.” [1] It speaks to a longing to be free of the bustle and noise of the city. Like the bum who rejects the injustice of a crooked world, Mitchell’s sailor flees a life of conformity, one in which the trappings of commerce are more important than human beings.

Once free of that relentless oppression, the song’s character embraces the things of nature, like the sea, the rain, the sun. If we can get away from the trappings of a busy and hemmed-in life, if we sit in stillness by the ocean long enough that we learn to speak to seabirds, perhaps we will then know what freedom is. We will live freedom, be freedom.

This kind of freedom is is represented in Mitchell’s song by the ocean’s vastness, by the magic of mermaids and the playfulness of dolphins, by the birds who sit beside us and listen to the stirrings of our hearts, our dreams, our tears. When we release our guilt and sorrow, we become lighter. That, too, is a kind of freedom.

Seabird flying above the ocean, sunrise in the back ground - a symbol of freedom
Photo by Lars Kuczynski

Freedom or Indifference

So what of the silver galleons and treasure chests she describes? Is it not these that lure the seeker, the hope of something shiny on the ocean floor?

If we give up everything to find the riches hidden beneath the water, are we not as chained to our lusts and our greed as any tyrant? Or are we like the wise man of the Book of Matthew who sells all his goods to buy a pearl of great price? Do the coins and jewels in “The Dawntreader” represent the freedom of the spirit, that which comes of being one with the divine or with the cosmos? Maybe the galleons in Mitchell’s song do not trap us in endless grasping, but instead free us from addictive desires.

Of course, money can buy freedom. The wealthy don’t have to toil. Unlike bums, no one throws them in jail for vagrancy or minor theft. No one will catch them loitering on street corners or stealing from stores. Their crimes are often larger, more egregious, and easier to hide. Behind their thick walls, protected by servants and guards, they feel safe, far from the despair of the poor and the helpless.

Is that truly freedom? Or are they boxed in, trapped behind their fear and indifference? Maybe, to be free, we must take risks.

Whole and Alive Again

In Mitchell’s song, the sailor stakes everything he has on nothing more than a promise. The freedom she speaks of is one of the imagination, symbolized by mermaids, dolphins, and dreams. It’s a promise of freedom, because it is only possible when we let go of everything, even answers. In the dawntreader’s world, questions have no answers.

How do the waves move, what does the rigging say, what poetry lies within the taste of the salt-sea? Who can say? It’s not about knowing in our heads, but in our bodies and our hearts.

We don’t know why life exists. Our world cannot be defined in neat boxes and creeds, no matter how much we try to make it so.

To be free, we must ache with longing and burn with disappointment, give up all we know for some elusive promise. It’s a promise of sun and spray and dreams, but also of love. In her song, Mitchell trusts that she is loved. She invites us to seek that love, for in that love, we will become whole and alive again.

The sea dreams wash in and wash out like waves against the shore. They sting and soothe, and they open up possibilities for a joy we won’t find in a quiet, predictable life, a life of borders and reasonableness.

Mitchell’s dream of love is no more fantastic than the seabirds and the children she sings about. The truth of love that lies all around us is the freedom. In that love lies a hope that we might all live together in gentleness, treat one another with respect, offer kindness instead of guns.

Dreams of Love

When we give up the tools of war, we stop suffering, because hatred and aggression are the antithesis of freedom. Like the lure of shining gems and silvery coins, the ones we think are the pearl, but are not, resentment and the violence it elicits trap. Lost to the greed and the anger, we become prey to fear and shame. Though we might feel strong when we claim our rage and hold wealth in our hands, the reality is we lack the courage to stand naked in the sun, the wind in our hair.

To maintain that illusion of strength that comes with the trappings of the world, we can never let them go. Not only that, but we can never have enough. Our life then becomes one great race to the top of what turns out to be a dung heap.

In its freedom, the ocean cares nothing for lies and illusions. It cannot be deceived. Because of that, we can be free to be ourselves in its presence.

That doesn’t mean we will be safe. Freedom is not safe. When the sea is smooth, we feel welcomed. When it rages, it can destroy. That’s when we realize we can let go of who we thought we were and become who we really are. The water can shatter us, but in the end, we will be better for in.

To embrace the waves, we must release everything we thought we were and understood. There are no answers there, only freedom. Nestled in the unknowing, in the trusting of fate and time, in the expansive openness of love, we can learn to fly.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Mitchell, Joni, “The Dawntreader,” 1968,

Photo by Lars Kuczynski from Unsplash

Copyright © 2022 Barbara E. Stevens. All Rights Reserved.

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