In this poignant piano ballad, Joni Mitchell encounters a street musician who is performing for free and gaining little attention from passersby due to his anonymity. She considers her own career of making music for money and fame, and is saddened his talent isn't being appreciated simply because he's not on TV.
Mitchell revealed the song's inspiration when she introduced it at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969, saying: "There's a young man in New York City, I don't know his name, but he's blind and he sits on the street and plays his clarinet for whatever money people will give him. I've often ridden past him, and wondered about his life and I've written this song for him. It's called 'The Boy Who Plays for Free.'"
According to a 1970 article by Ray Schulz for the East Village Other, an underground New York City newspaper, "Blind Richie" wasn't happy about Mitchell's musical tribute to him. He allegedly complained that the singer's empathetic effort was phony because she didn't even bother to get to know him.
This is also rumored to be about Lol Coxhill, an English saxophonist whom Mitchell heard playing the blues number "St. James Infirmary" outside the Swiss Centre in London. As with Richie, Coxhill was miffed by the singer's admiration, saying, "If she dug me so much, why didn't she use me on the session? Paul Horn did it and he sounded horrible - she must have thought I was really broken down and quavery." (New Musical Express, 1973)
This appears on Mitchell's third studio album, Ladies Of The Canyon
, which also introduced her seminal hit "Big Yellow Taxi
Mitchell added these lyrics to the tune during her 1983 world tour:
Playing like a fallen angel
Playing like a rising star
Playing for a hat full of nothing
to the honking of the cars
Lana Del Rey, who began singing "For Free" on her Norman F--king Rockwell Tour in 2019, recorded the song as the closing track to her 2021 album, Chemtrails Over The Country Club, joined by guest vocalists Weyes Blood and Zella Day. Del Rey also references the cover on the album's previous track, "Dance Till We Die," singing:
I'm coverin' Joni and I'm dancin' with Joan
Stevie is callin' on the telephone
In a 2021 interview with Mojo magazine, Del Rey explained why the song was so important to her. "The way things started off for me in the way I was portrayed was that I was feigning emotional sensitivity. I really didn't like that," she said. "Because I didn't even get famous 'til I was, like, 27 and until then, I sang for less than free. And I loved it. I really was that girl who was pure of soul. I didn't give a f--k."
Several other artists have covered this, including Hoyt Axton, Petula Clark, Bette Midler, Buffy Sainte-Marie, James Taylor, and The Byrds.