Posts Tagged ‘Clouds’

1972: Joni Mitchell during early folk singing days. AP photo.

Joni Mitchell celebrated her 75th birthday of one of Canada’s greatest songwriters, Joni Mitchell.

For over 50 years, Mitchell has inspired musicians around the world with her gorgeous, poetic storytelling, whether she was busking on the streets of Toronto or singing for thousands on a big festival stage. Her words have connected with generations of music fans, and people young and old continue to discover and fall in love with her music today.

Canadian born Joni Mitchell is one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of the late 1960s-mid-1970s period  and also one of the most gifted voices of that era. A rising folk musician in Canada and the U.S. during her early years, Joni Mitchell reached mainstream notice in the 1968-1974 period with the release of her first several albums, among them Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, and Court & Spark, each of which include a selection of very poignant, personal and moving songs.

What follows here is a sampling of some of that music from her early years along with a bit of her biography and social context during, before, and after that period. For starters, consider one of her songs below, “Little Green,” which she wrote a few years into her career. It’s a song about a baby daughter she had given up for adoption, as would be learned later. More on that part of her life to follow. For the moment, however, consider the voice, the music, and the poetry.

Born Roberta Joan Anderson in 1943 in Fort MacLeod, Alberta, Joni Mitchell was an only child. Her father was in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the family moved around a bit before settling in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Young Joni contracted polio when she was nine, and spent time in a polio ward where she first began to sing for others – also beating the prediction she would never walk again. Growing up in the late 1950s she listened to a lot of local Canadian radio, but classical music appears to have first captured her ear. “I loved Debussy, Stravinsky, Chopin, Tchaikovsky,” she would recount in a later interview, “anything with romantic melodies, especially the nocturnes.” Unable to afford a guitar as a teenager, she bought a cheap ukulele and a Pete Seeger songbook and taught herself to play. Learning some folk songs, she began performing for movie money and pocket change to pay for cigarettes, a life-long habit she began early on. Still, music was a secondary interest at the time, as she wanted to be an artist.

Her first club performances as a 19 year-old folk singer came in late October early November 1962 at the Louis Real Coffeehouse in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. And through 1963 and early 1964 there were also performances at ski lodges, a few “hootenannies,” as folk-singing gatherings were called, as well as coffeehouse and club appearances in Calgary, Regina, and Edmonton.

After a year at the Alberta College of Art and Design she moved to Toronto in June 1964 to make a more determined bid as a folk singer, but initially had difficulty finding the money to enter the musicians union, which was needed to play most venues. She also worked at local department stores for a time to make ends meet.

In Toronto, while performing at The Penny Farthing club in March 1965, she met Chuck Mitchell, a young musician from America. In their early meeting she chastised him for badly altering some Bob Dylan verse. Still, they struck up a romance, and the two were married in June 1965. It was a union that Joni would later describe as a “marriage of convenience,” for at that time she was an unwed mother with a young baby daughter fathered by a former college boyfriend who had left before the baby’s birth. She had given birth in February 1965, and while single, relied on local foster care to help with her child. At first, it appeared Chuck and Joni would raise the child together, but that changed and the child was put up for adoption. The birth and adoption would remain private for much of her career.

Chuck and Joni Mitchell moved to Detroit, Michigan and performed together as a folk duo, where they became something of a “golden couple” on the local folk circuit. Joni’s singing, meanwhile, drew praise as she began to further develop her musical and songwriting skills, sometime performing on her own. In Detroit, she would meet other musicians, among them, Eric Anderson, a singer songwriter from New York’s Greenwich Village, who taught her some basics about open tuning, a style and sound she would become noted for. One of the clubs where Chuck and Joni performed was the Chess Mate in Detroit. On one occasion there, when singer songwriter Tom Rush was on the bill for a short engagement, he listened to a set of Joni’s songs. “She was a slip of a girl: blond, intense,” recalled Rush in a later interview. “…The songs blew me away – their poetry, their visual imagery.” One of the songs he heard Joni perform was “Urge For Going,” a version of which is below

Tom Rush adopted “Urge for Going” in his own routine, and performed it to great reception on his hometown circuit in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In fact, he was eager to have more of Joni’s material. “I remember asking her, ‘What else do you have? What else do you have?’” She sent him an early version of the “The Circle Game,” which she wasn’t happy with but he instantly liked and would later use in a 1968 album, titled The Circle Game. Rush would also have Joni come to New England and open for him at a series of engagements there.

Back in Detroit, and also in some Canadian venues, Chuck and Joni continued their performances together. The “Chuck & Joni show,” as it was sometimes called, consisted of an opening song or two together, a closing song or two together, and solos in between.

At their Detroit home – a top floor apartment in the 1890s Verona building, a five-story walk-up near Wayne State University – they were a gracious and sociable couple. In fact they entertained lots of visitors and up-and-coming musicians there. A long line of them stayed at the Mitchell place when they played in Detroit – Gordon Lightfoot, Jerry Corbitt, Jesse Colin Young, Tom Rush, Dave Van Ronk, Bruce Langhorne, Eric Andersen, Rambling Jack Elliot, and others.

Joni, meanwhile, sought more autonomy in performing, and over the objections of her husband, she began making single bookings, although they would still do some joint performances.

In May 1966, Chuck and Joni appeared at the Gaslight Café in New York to play as part of a Gaslight Hootenanny. A month later, they made their first appearance as Gaslight Café performers for a two-week engagement. This is the period during which Joni would be seen by other performers, among them, Joan Baez, who came to Joni and said she liked her performance.

David Geffen, who would later become Joni Mitchell’s agent, also first heard her perform at the Gaslight – when she and Chuck Mitchell were performing there together. Geffen was then the agent for singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, whose new album at the time included Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” which Geffen especially liked, and was the first time he had ever heard her name.

In late 1966 Joni had some engagements at The 2nd Fret club in Philadelphia. It was there that Joni met another folk singer from Colorado named Michael who was playing at the Trauma club, also in Philadelphia. The pair struck up a romance, and spent some time together in Philadelphia. But back in Detroit, upon her return there, this did not go over well with Joni’s husband, Chuck. The affair, however, had fueled Joni’s song, “Michael From Mountains.” New love was a powerful creative force for Joni and her songwriting, as would be shown time and time again throughout her career.

Meanwhile on the club/coffeehouse circuit, Chuck and Joni continued to appear together, honoring their commitments through early 1967. But by that time, their marriage was over. Their last joint appearance came in May 1967.

Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell then moved to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a solo artist. She eventually settled in New York’s Chelsea district as her home base.

While in New York during the summer of 1967 and performing at the Café Au Go Go she met Steve Katz who played with the house band there, The Blues Project. She had a brief romance with Katz who in turn, introduced her to Roy Blumenfeld, the Blues Project’s drummer. Blumenfeld and Joni then spent a part of the summer of 1967 together until Blumenfeld’s French girlfriend came home from Europe.

“I was crazy in love with Joan Mitchell,” Roy would tell author Sheila Weller in her 2008 book, Girls Like Us. “The way I felt about her….it scared me…” Joni’s song, “Tin Angel,” using the name of a New York restaurant, is in part about Roy. Roy would later say that Joni Mitchell’s music “was more original than Dylan’s.”

Another of Joni’s Blues Project band member friendships turned out to be Al Kooper, the group’s keyboardist, lead singer, and chief composer. Kooper was also a friend of Judy Collins, who would invite Joni to the Newport Folk Festival, in Newport, Rhode Island.

The July 1967 program at the Newport Folk Festival then included the likes of Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Odetta, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, and others.

Joni, after being introduced at the festival by Judy Collins, played a short set that included “Michael From Mountains,” “Chelsea Morning” and “The Circle Game” – a set that stunned the audience, and according to Lachlan MacLearn who was there – prompted “a tumultuous and prolonged standing ovation.”

It was also at the Newport Folk Festival that summer that Joni met Judy Collins’ Canadian friend, Leonard Cohen, by then a rising poet and singer. Joni was much taken with the 42 year-old Cohen, and the two began a romance. This affair, like others, is credited with fueling Joni’s “love muse,” helping to inspire her songwriting. Among the Joni Mitchell creations credited in whole or part to her time with Cohen, are said to be: “Rainy Night House,” “The Gallery” and “A Case of You.”

As became her practice, Joni wrote snatches of material based on what moved her at the moment, these figuring into songs she might not complete until months or years later. The Cohen affair, in any case, ended within a year or so, after Joni discovered Cohen wasn’t everything she thought he was. Still, Cohen described Joni as “prodigiously gifted,” and a “great painter too.”

Through 1967, Joni continued her performances in various U.S. and Canadian venues, among them: The 2nd Fret in Philadelphia, Le Hibou Coffee House in Ottawa, The Riverboat in Toronto, The Living End in Detroit, and The Gaslight Café in Coconut Grove, Florida.

Those who heard Joni Mitchell sing in those early years were typically blown away. David Crosby was one of those smitten by her sound — and her good looks. Crosby himself was already a famous singer-songwriter who had successfully performed with the Byrds  1965, “Turn Turn Turn,” 1965,” Eight Miles High” 1967). He would also soon become a founding member of another folk-rock group, Crosby, Stills & Nash. But it was sometime in late August/early September 1967 when Crosby had his first encounter with Joni Mitchell. By this time, he had left the Byrds over personal differences and had gone to Florida to sort things out. “I went looking for a sailboat to live on. I wanted to do something else. Find another way to be. I was pretty disillusioned.” Then he walked into a coffee house in Coconut Grove, Florida and heard Mitchell singing. “[I] was just completely smitten,” he would later say. “She was standing there singing all those songs … ‘Michael From Mountains’, ‘Both Sides Now’, and I was just floored. I couldn’t believe that there was anybody that good….”

Crosby would also fall for Joni, and would later write at least part of a song alluding to his feelings about her with “Guinnevere,” which appears on the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album. Joni Mitchell moved in with David Crosby for a time when she came to southern California in 1967, but according to her, they were “never an item,” save for a brief romance in Florida. Crosby would later say of Joni: “It was very easy to love her, but turbulent. Loving Joni is a little like falling into a cement mixer.”

Still, Crosby became her personal promoter and helped her settle into a special little corner of Los Angeles known as Laurel Canyon, which became a famous singer-songwriter enclave where an incredible amount of high-quality rock and folk-rock music would originate. Crosby had her play at the homes of his Hollywood friends — “Mama” Cass Elliot among them, she of the then flourishing Mamas & Papas group. Still, in the U.S. music industry at the time, folk music was a tough sell. But Crosby, with his Byrds success and some connections in the music business, was determined to produce a Joni Mitchell album.

Joni soon had her own manager as well. In late October 1967, while performing at the Café Au Go Go in New York, she met Elliot Roberts, who then managed Buffy St. Marie, who suggested he check out Joni’s performance. Roberts later recounted this first meeting with Joni to Vanity Fair: “I saw Joni in New York… at the Café au Go Go…. I went up to her after the show and said, ‘I’m a young manager and I’d kill to work with you.’ At that time, Joni did everything herself; she booked her own shows, made her travel arrangements, carried her own tapes. She said she was going on tour, and if I wanted to pay my own expenses, I could go with her. I went with her for a month, and after that, she asked me to manage her.”

Joni Mitchell at Reprise contract signing, March 1968, with (l-to-r), Elliot Roberts, David Crosby, and Mo Ostin.
Joni Mitchell at Reprise Records contract signing, March 1968, with (l-to-r), Elliot Roberts, David Crosby, and Mo Ostin.

In New York, she had also met Mo Ostin, general manager of the Reprise record label, by way of Tom Rush, who had already recorded two of her songs. It had not gone unnoticed that a number of her songs were being snapped up by others beyond Tom Rush, including: Judy Collins (Both Sides Now, Michael From Mountains), Buffy Sainte-Marie (Song To A Seagull, Circle Game), Ian & Sylvia (Circle Game), Dave Van Ronk (Clouds, Chelsea Morning), Fairport Convention (Eastern Rain), and George Hamilton IV, a country musician whose version of “Urge For Going” became a big country hit in 1967.

Still, folk music at the time did not have the business appeal that rock `n roll did. Elliot Roberts, however, helped Joni negotiate a recording deal with the Reprise record label in mid-March 1968. Joni, who already had her own publishing company, Siquomb Music, secured a pretty good deal with Reprise. For one, she was given total and complete artistic freedom. It was then quite rare for a woman to be writing and recording her own material, let alone to be an unaccompanied solo act. At the contract signing in Burbank, California, and pictured were: Elliot Roberts, David Crosby, and Mo Ostin. Crosby would produce her first album, and for the most part, to his credit, he let the album’s recording sessions focus on Joni Mitchell and her acoustic music without regard for the more “rocked-up” marketing wishes of the studio.

Joni Mitchell’s first album, “Song to A Seagull,” which includes her art work on the cover, a practice that would continue with subsequent albums.
Joni Mitchell’s first album, “Song to A Seagull,” which includes her art work on the cover, a practice that would continue with subsequent albums. The resulting album,Song to a Seagull, was released in March 1968 and included ten of Mitchell’s acoustic songs, including some of those that had bowled David Crosby over in Florida.

Among the album’s ten songs are: “I Had A King,” “Michael From Mountains,” “Night In The City,” “Cactus Tree” and others. “Cactus Tree,” the last song on the album, It’s a song about a long line of suitors and another from her muse-driven trove of auto-biographical love-loss-hurt-vs-freedom songs. As narrator in this song, she is loving to all her suitors, though warning each one, in so many words, “don’t get too close, as I have things to do and places to go.” Indeed, as she sings, “she’s busy being free.”

1968 French release of 45rpm single of Joni Mitchell’s “Night in the City” on Reprise, with
In terms of the other songs in this album, ‘I Had a King,’ takes it cues from the ending of her first marriage, and is her statement of moving on and becoming independent, with no regrets or blame.

“Michael From Mountains’ is about a new-found love, described earlier, a song that some listeners find very moving. ‘Night in the City’ is regarded by many as the best song on the album. In some countries, this song was released as a single with “I Had A King” on the B side, as shown in the French release at left. Joni does the guitar and piano work on this track, along with her great vocal range, and Stephen Stills provides the backing bass guitar. Other songs on the album include: “Marcie,” “Nathan La Franeer,” “Sisotowbell Lane,” “The Dawntreader,” and “The Pirate of Penance.” David Crosby, meanwhile, fared well in the album, as Joni referenced him in some way in at least three of the songs: the first stanza of “Cactus Tree,” a line in “Dawntreader,” and parts of “Song to a Segull.”

Following the recording sessions for Song to a Seagull, Joni was on the road for a good part of 1968. In March she was playing Le Hibou in Ottawa. In June she had twelve shows at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, and through early July 1968 she played seventeen dates at The Bitter Endin New York. In August she appeared at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Back at her new home in California’s Laurel Canyon, Joni Mitchell’s personal life was now about to take a new turn.

Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash.


It was August 1968 when Graham Nash arrived at the house on Lookout Mountain Avenue in Laurel Canyon section of Los Angeles. He had just flown in from London and was in the process of splitting from the famous British rock band, The Hollies, over differences. His marriage was then on the rocks as well. He had come to Los Angeles to visit Joni Mitchell – the woman, he explained later – “who had captured my heart.”

Nash and Mitchell had met earlier that year, in March, after a Hollies show in Ottawa, Canada when they became romantically involved. His August 1968 arrival at the Laurel Canyon house was the first he had seen Joni since then. “She was the whole package,” he would later write, “a lovely, sylphlike woman with a natural blush, …and an elusive quality that seemed lit from within.” They began living together thereafter, as Joni invited him to stay at her Laurel Canyon home.

But also there that August night when Nash arrived from the airport with his guitar case in tow, were David Crosby and Stephen Stills – two singer-songwriters who, like Nash, had also departed from their rock groups – Crosby from The Byrds, and Stills from Buffalo Springfield. These three bandless musicians started some impromptu jamming and singing that evening and discovered they made wonderful harmony together. As Joni Mitchell recalled for Vanity Fair in 2015: “[T]he first night they raised their voices together I do believe happened at my house. I just remember in my living room the joy of them discovering their blend.” That soon led to the formation of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and about a year later, their blockbuster debut album bearing the group name.

By the time of the Miami Pop Festival of late December 1968, Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell were traveling together as a pair. And Nash, like his friend and new bandmate Crosby, would later write songs about Joni and his relationship with her – “Our House” and “Lady of the Island” songs that would later appear on Crosby, Stills & Nash albums.

Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash – whom she called “Willy” and wrote a song about him in that name – also visited Joni’s parents in her Canadian hometown of Saskatoon. The pair had talked about marriage briefly, but their relationship eventually ran its course and ended. But Joni would remain close to the Crosby, Stills & Nash group (and later Neil Young, a fellow Canadian, as well), and often performed and/or traveled with them.

Mitchell’s music, meanwhile, was rising in notice, and through the late 1960s, she continued one of her most productive periods of song writing and recording. In fact, she had written many more songs than she had recorded, with some of her work doing well for other artists. In 1967-68, at least three artists had released albums with one or more of her songs on them: Tom Rush, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Judy Collins. But it was Collins’ recording of Joni’s “Both Sides Now” that helped move Joni’s music to a new level. Collins had first included the song on her 1967 Wildflowers album and then released its as a single in October 1968. Two months later the single was a Top Ten (#8) pop hit. That helped raise interest in Joni Mitchell’s songwriting, and created anticipation about what she might do with her second album.

During early 1969, Joni was featured along with John Sebastian and Mary Travers (of “Peter, Paul & Mary”) on The Mama Cass Television Program, ABC-TV, which was taped in January of 1969 and broadcast in April. On the road, she had play dates at The Troubadour in W. Hollywood in January, and in the following month, Carnegie Hall in New York and Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley. And there were also continuing coffeehouse dates, including the Unicorn Coffee House in Boston, where James Taylor opened for her in March. She also had a Queens College date that month. And in April, more performances: Boston University, Northwestern University in Illinois, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, the Fillmore East in New York, and McConaughy Hall at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Finishing off April 1969, she and a small group of musicians, including Graham Nash and Bob Dylan, had dinner at the home of Johnny Cash where they also played music among themselves for hours. In Nashville, on May 1st, she and Dylan also had performances taped for the Cash show that would be broadcast later that summer.

Joni Mitchell’s 2nd studio album, “Clouds,” released in May 1969, also featured her artwork on the cover.
Joni Mitchell’s 2nd studio album, “Clouds,” released in May 1969, also featured her artwork on the cover.

In May 1969, Mitchell’s second studio album,Clouds, was released. Among its ten tracks were her own versions of songs that had already been covered by other artists, including “Chelsea Morning,” “Tin Angel,” and “Both Sides Now.”

“Both Sides Now,” had been written by Joni a good 18 months before it ran up the charts for Judy Collins. It was inspired in March 1967 during a plane ride as Joni was reading Saul Bellow’s novel, Henderson the Rain King, and in particular, a passage where the main character is also traveling by plane viewing clouds out the window, as Joni was doing when she put the book down and started writing. The novel also includes the line, “we are the first generation to see the clouds from both sides,” presumably referring to the newly available commercial aviation and viewing clouds from above.

Joni’s perspective at the time, and forming the first stanza of “Both Sides Now,” recalled how children see clouds from the ground below, concocting all sorts of fanciful and innocent images, and then in later life, as adults, seeing them more as bearers of bad weather. The song then continues to use the two different perspectives of looking at clouds as metaphor for the larger themes of life and love, adding in the verse, that even with life’s new perspectives and experience — its trials, tribulations, judgments of others, ups and downs, etc. — she really doesn’t understand life or love after all.

Mitchell was 21 when she wrote the song, and some suggest it is also derived, in part, from the failure of her first marriage, and as later learned, her decision to give up her baby daughter for adoption. Mitchell did a re-recording of “Both Sides Now” in 2003 that was used in the film Love Actually, along with other songs from her later, February 2000 Both Sides Now album. The Judy Collins version of the song was used in a June 2013 episode of the Mad Men TV series.

Other songs on the Clouds album deal with love, lovers, and the uncertainty of new love – i.e.,”I Don’t Know Where I Stand,” “Tin Angel,” “That Song About the Midway,” and “The Gallery.” The “love/relationship” factor would continue to play heavily in her other albums during the early 1970s, a time some describe as her folk/ confessional period.

But Clouds also includes “The Fiddle and The Drum,” a song that compared U.S. government during the Vietnam War to a bitter friend, and, “I Think I Understand,” dealing with mental illness. Singled out another of its songs: “Imaginatively unusual and subtle harmonies abound here, never more so in her body of work than on the remarkable ‘Songs to Aging Children Come,’ which sets floridly impressionistic lyrics to a lovely tune that is supported by perhaps the most remarkably sophisticated chord sequence in all of pop music.”

In 1969, Joni Mitchell’s Clouds album rose to No. 22 on the Canadian chart and No. 31 on the Billboard 200 chart. Mitchell produced all the songs on the album (except for one), played acoustic guitar and keyboards, and was joined by Stephen Stills on bass guitar for one song. Clouds also brought Joni Mitchell a Grammy Award – her first for Best Folk Performance.

1969: Joni Mitchell, Nashville, TN, possibly in May for the Johnny Cash Show taping.
In the summer of 1969, Joni’s earlier taped performances for two episodes of The Johnny Cash TV Show aired. On the June 7th show, Joni then 26, and fresh from her first Grammy win, joined Cash in a duo on the song, “I Still Miss Someone.” In July and August she did a number of folk festivals, beginning with the July 18-19 Newport Folk Festival in Newport, RI where she met James Taylor. In July, she also made other appearances, including the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA; The Music Shed at Tanglewood in Lenox, MA; the Schaefer Music Festival at the Wollman Skating Rink Theater in New York; and the Mariposa Folk Festival held on Centre Island, Toronto (where she and Joan Baez were the featured performers). Another festival performance in early August came at The Sounds Of Summer Mississippi River Festival in Edwardsville, IL where she and Arlo Guthrie were featured performers.

That summer, Joni also appeared as the opening act for her friends Crosby, Stills, and Nash, who were just about to break out big with their first album, Crosby, Stills, and Nash. She would open their first big concert at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago on August 16th, where by some accounts, she nearly stole the show. But earlier that month, on August 1st, 1969, at the Atlantic City Pop Festival held at the Atlantic City Race Track, she left the stage angrily due to the inattentiveness of the large crowd. It would not be the last time she would lose patience with outdoor festival crowds, as she would come to prefer the friendlier confines of the smaller clubs and coffeehouses she had known, as well as the studio.

Joni had already been featured on the cover of the May 17th, 1969 edition of Rolling Stone magazine, then in its early years. Inside the magazines, she was featured in a piece entitled, “Introducing Joni Mitchell.” The cover of that edition also included the tag line, “The Swan Song of Folk Music,” which was somewhat premature given her rise, though at the time reflected the prevailing perspective in the music industry. Happily, despite the tag line, Joni would prove, at least for a time, that folk music and/or folk-rock, were on the upswing. And by that summer’s end, she would become known for something else as well.

In the months and years that followed the giant festival, it would be the “Woodstock” song that Joni Mitchell had written about the gathering – which she composed on the basis of reports from her then boyfriend, Graham Nash, plus what she saw on television – that would have lasting impact.

The version of “Woodstock” that first reverberated across the nation, however, was that recorded by her friends, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSN&Y). When they first heard it, they decided to record it. By March-April 1970 the song was receiving airplay in three ways: the CSN&Y single of “Woodstock;” the CSN&Y album De Ja Vu, which included the single version; and Joni Mitchell’s album, Ladies of the Canyon, also released at that time with her version of the song. The CSN&Y single became a popular hit, Stephen Stills provided a distinctive lead guitar opening for that version and also the lead vocals, backed with Crosby/Nash harmonies. This version also ran over the closing credits of Woodstock the film, which had a much anticipated opening in March 1970 as well.

Joni Mitchell’s version of the “Woodstock” song also came out about this time as well. Her version, however, has a different pace and feel to it, some finding it a more haunting treatment. The song is an “all-Joni-Mitchell-production”  she sings the main verse, plays a tremoloed Wurlitzer electric piano, and provides her own backing chorus with layered, multi-tracked Joni Mitchell voices. It is the more contemplative of the two versions, and coming from the composer, reveals, perhaps, more of her intention. She would also perform the song in September 1969 at the Big Sur Folk Festival, one month after Woodstock.

The lyrics to “Woodstock” tell the story of the narrator meeting a person on his way to Max Yasgur’s farm – the actual festival location in upstate, Bethel, New York. The traveler also explains he’s going for the music but also other reasons – to camp out on the land and try to get his soul free. Then comes the “we-are-stardust” chorus that is part metaphysical, part spiritual, suggesting a getting back to nature and/or a “Garden of Eden” like place.

As the narrator joins the traveler on his trek, she explains that she too, wants to “lose the smog” and the feeling of being “a cog in something turning.” And maybe there is opportunity ahead, this time, for some revelation and learning. Repeat chorus and refrain that there is hope/power in our stardust, i.e., “we are golden;” a chance for change and getting back on the right path. Reaching Woodstock, they find “half a million strong” and much celebration. Buoyed by this hope, the narrator lets herself dream that things might be different. At a time when the Vietnam War was the national concern, she conjures “bombers… turning into butterflies.” Peace is the hope.

One of the posters for the “Woodstock Music & Art Fair,” this one identifying some of the scheduled acts to appear at the festival during the three-day, August 15-17, 1969 event.
One of the posters for the “Woodstock Music & Art Fair,” this one identifying some of the scheduled acts to

In the final chorus, more detail is added to the stardust concept: that it is, in fact, “billion year old carbon,” which science by that time had borne out. And as some interpretations have it, although “we are golden” and this Woodstock generation is strong, it and we are also “caught in the devil’s bargain,” this dating to the biblical bad deal Eve made with the devil, eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, for which she and the rest of us were expelled from paradise, i.e, the garden. And now in modern times, as sinful souls, we are left to grapple with, presumably, war, racial injustice, crime, pollution, etc.,. Still, we have the ability to work at these problems and “get back to the garden.”

Mitchell, in somewhat less grander terms, would later explain her feelings and perspective on writing “Woodstock,” as offered in a 1995 Goldmine magazine piece. First, she explained that not being able to get to site that weekend made her want to be there all the more, and gave her a special interest in the event:

“The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock. I was one of the fans. I was put in the position of being a kid who couldn’t make it. So I was glued to the media. And at the time I was going through a kind of born again Christian trip – not that I went to any church, I’d given up Christianity at an early age in Sunday school. But suddenly, as performers, we were in the position of having so many people look to us for leadership, and for some unknown reason, I took it seriously and decided I needed a guide and leaned on God. …So I was a little ‘God mad’ at the time, for lack of a better term, and I had been saying to myself, ‘Where are the modern miracles? Where are the modern miracles?’ Woodstock, for some reason, impressed me as being a modern miracle, like a modern day fishes-and-loaves story. For a herd of people that large to cooperate so well, it was pretty remarkable and there was tremendous optimism. So I wrote the song ‘Woodstock’ out of these feelings…”

David Crosby, who was there, offered his praise for Joni’s “Woodstock” song: “She captured the feeling and importance of the Woodstock festival better than anyone who’d been there.”

Following Woodstock, Joni continued her performances in the U.S. and Canada, appearing at the Vancouver Pop Festival at the Paradise Valley Resort in Squamish, British Columbia and the California Exposition & State Fair at Sacramento, CA, both in the August 22-24 time frame. She also had a series of a half dozen or so August dates at the The Greek Theater in Los Angeles, opening on her final date there for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. In mid-September it was on to the Big Sur Folk Festival at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA, where she performed solo and again with CSN&Y and John Sebastian. Some of these performances were later featured in the film, Celebration at Big Sur.

Through the last quarter of 1969, there were more performances, among them an October 19th Gala 50th Anniversary Concert at the Pauley Pavilion, at UCLA in Westwood, CA where Joni performed nine songs alone and three with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

14 Sept 1969: From left, John Sebastian, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby and Stephen Stills at Big Sur Folk Festival. It appears that Joni and Stills may be having a little “dueling guitars” contest. Photo Robert Altman

By April 1970, Joni Mitchell’s 3rd studio album, Ladies of the Canyon, had been released, and in addition to “Woodstock” it also included “The Circle Game,” and “Big Yellow Taxi,” the latter known for the line, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” The song was written by Mitchell on a trip to Hawaii, seeing the beautiful paradise-like islands, but also, out her hotel window, a huge, never-ending parking lot. An environmental anthem for some, the song also references the pesticide DDT — “Hey farmer, farmer, but away that DDT now.” Released as a single, “Big Yellow Taxi” became a Top 20 hit in several countries. Ladies of the Canyon, meanwhile, became quite popular on FM radio, and it sold well over the summer and into the fall, eventually becoming her first gold album, selling more than 500,000 copies.

Among other songs on the album is one titled “For Free,” the second track, written by Mitchell. It’s a song about a traveling music star in an anonymous city who comes upon a local musician playing a clarinet on a street corner — “for free.”  The song’s narrator – a music star like Mitchell, presumably – comes to this town for a gig. While there, she is out and about walking through town doing some shopping, and in the course of her outing, comes to an intersection with a traffic light – “waiting for the walking green” – where she sees a street musician across the way plying his craft.

The scene has her thinking about her own career by comparison – “now me, I play for fortunes, and those velvet curtain calls.” She is also driven to her concerts in a limo and escorted by two gentlemen, bodyguards, no doubt. And if you want to attend one of her shows, it will cost you a fair penny. But the guy playing on the street that day – the one by the quick lunch stand – “he was playing really good for free.”

She laments the fact that “nobody stopped to hear him,” and attributes this lack of interest to a fickle public that knew “he had never been on their T.V.,” so they passed his music by. She had in mind to join him – “maybe put on a harmony.” But the signal changed, and life went on. Still, “he was playing read good for free.”

The song is emblematic of Mitchell’s style at the time, likely something she experienced in her travels. It is also a simple story, with a poignant tale, accompanied by a basic piano and Mitchell’s gorgeous voice; a perfect little song and vignette.

James Taylor & Joni Mitchell – “For Free” (John Peel Session)

“For Free” also shows her good eye for scenes from daily life, and how to find poetry there. In this piece there are touches of jazz in the clarinet playing and arrangement, a harbinger of her emerging interests to come.

Other notable songs on Ladies of the Canyon, include: “Circle Game,” “Rainy Night House”, “The Priest”, “Morning Morgantown,” “Conversation,” “Ladies of the Canyon,” “Willy,” “The Arrangement” and “Blue Boy.” Credited on the album for helping with the chorus on “The Circle Game” is “The Lookout Mountain United Downstairs Choir,” i.e,, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Among reviewers of Ladies of the Canyon in 1970, Robert Christgau of The Village Voice, gave the album a “B+” finding it “superior to her previous work, richer lyrically and more compelling musically.” He called the album’s second half “almost perfect,” .

In early 1970 Joni Mitchell decided to take some time off to travel and to paint, and renew her creative juices. She was feeling isolated, finding that success had a way of cutting her off from the rest of the world. She would perform at a few festivals in the summer of 1970, but did not take on a regular concert schedule. She felt she needed new material. “I need new things to say in order to perform,” she told one reporter. “You just can’t sing the same songs.” She was also still ending her relationship with Graham Nash.

On her sojourn that spring, taken in part with a friend named Penelope, Joni traveled throughout Europe, visiting France, Spain, and Greece. On the isle of Crete she took up the dulcimer and while there began writing a series of songs dealing with her adventures. Among these were “Carey” and “California,” the former song about an American guy, Cary Raditz, who she became involved with while on Crete.

Later that summer, Joni agreed to perform at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970 – a giant festival with 250,000 or so attending, some of whom became rowdy and impolite to performers. Joni, for one, was interrupted during her performance by one stage crasher (actually, someone she knew from Crete who was quite out of line), driving her to near tears. Still, she delivered her performance while asking the audience to be civil toward performers.

In 1970, Joni also spent time with James Taylor. She had met him a year or so earlier at the Newport Folk Festival. But during 1970, he was working on a Hollywood film project with the title Two-Lane Blacktop, a road movie also starring The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson and Warren Oates. In any case, during this time, as Taylor would later explain in a June 2015 Uncut interview: “Joni Mitchell came along with me [during filming]. We wrote in this camper across the southwest of America and had some of the most outrageous good times. It was really great.” Taylor also noted: “I had played on the album that Joni was making when we met, Blue. I played guitar and backed her up on a few of those songs. It was wonderful working with Joni. We had a great year together, we worked, we traveled.”

Mitchell and Taylor were then each writing songs for their respective albums that would appear in 1971 – Mitchell’s “Blue” and Taylor’s “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon”. And each would write songs for and/or about the other: Mitchell for him in “See You Sometime” and “Just Like This Train,” and Taylor for her in “You Can Close Your Eyes.” 

In London, England in October 1970, she gave a concert of her songs on guitar, piano and dulcimer for the BBC’s “In Concert” series. In Vancouver, British Columbia she, Phil Ochs and James Taylor performed at an October Greenpeace benefit concert. That month she also joined John Hartford and Pete Seeger for a “folk-rock” TV special in Los Angeles. On October 29th, 1970, she and James Taylor appeared together for a BBC radio performance at the Paris Theater, broadcast in late December that year. In early November she appeared during the encore session of a James Taylor concert at Princeton University where she and Taylor sang “You Can Close Your Eyes” together.

Cover of Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album, “Blue.”

In 1971, Joni Mitchell would record an album that would set her apart from her peers and distinguish her for a major achievement. The album, Blue, covered what some would call her confessional oeuvre, with Joni bearing her soul, wearing her love life on her lyrical sleeve, as it were. Blue was hailed and lauded by critics as well as her musical peers. She had written some of it years earlier, some during her European travels of 1970, and more when she came back home.

Blue offered, for the most part, an intimate and painful assortment of her own love and life stories. Stephen Holden, a music critic at the New York Times observed that “Blue” just went to a level of psychic pain and honesty that no one else had ever written before, and no one else has written since.”

In its lyrics and tone, the album was regarded as inspired, a near masterpiece — albeit depressing and “blue” as its title aptly states. Mitchell would later explain: “At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. … I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music .

In fact, Mitchell’s buffeting from the loves of her life once again proved the powerful ingredient in her song-making. In its deepest moments, Blue is part Graham Nash, part James Taylor. And as mentioned earlier, even relationships dating to the 1960s, such as that with Leonard Cohen, may have also influenced some of the album’s lyrics.

Prior to the making of Blue, Mitchell had broken up with Nash, and on her travels to Europe had a fling with Cary Riditz on Crete, and then came back to the States where a relationship with James Taylor began. All of that and more figures into the emotional stew at work in this album.Graham Nash, writing of Joni and this album in 2012, noted: “Listening to Blue is quite difficult for me personally. It brings back many memories and saddens me greatly. It is, by far, my most favorite solo album, and the thought that I spent much time with this fine woman and genius of a writer is incredible to me. I watched her write some of those songs and I believe that one or two of them were about me, but who really knows?”


Despite James Taylor’s difficulties with heroin, Mitchell became quite taken with him during their time together and was said to have been devastated when he broke off the relationship. It was around this time that she began recording Blue. Among the songs on the album believed to be inspired in whole or in part by her involvement with and parting from Taylor are “All I Want” and “Blue,” as well as “This Flight Tonight.”

On the song “Blue” – in this instance, Blue being the unnamed subject of the narrator’s plea and love song – there is palpable and powerful emotion. On this song, as well as others on this and previous albums, Mitchell’s performances send out very visceral waves of emotion; feelings unseen of course, but yet somehow moving from voice, piano wire, and guitar string through the air as a kind of empathetic current, deeply penetrating and deeply felt by those who receive it, some brought to tears and/or deep internal feeling as they listen to her songs. Mitchell seems to possess a certain kind of emanating emotional aura that flows out of these performances in a very tangible way.

Released in June 1971, Blue was a powerful watershed for Mitchell as well as a critical and commercial success. Blue as one of the 25 albums that represented “turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music.” Among the songs on Blue, in order of their appearance are: “All I Want,” “My Old Man,” “Little Green,” “Carey,” and “Blue” on side one, and “California,” “This Flight Tonight,” River,” “A Case of You,” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard” on side two.

Reviewing the album in 1971, Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times called it “a marvelously sensitive portrait of love and romance…” He also added that it ran the gamut of emotions – “…There’s happiness in ‘My Old Man,’ tenderness in the poignant ‘Little Green,’ mischievousness in ‘Carey,’ regret in ‘This Flight Tonight,’ longing in ‘River’ and a kind of shattered idealism in ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard.’

“Little Green” is autobiographical and dates to 1964 when Mitchell became pregnant by her boyfriend at the time who later left her. Joni had given birth to the child in February 1965, naming her Kelly Dale Anderson, choosing the name after the color, kelly green. The child, initially placed in foster care while Joni struggled as a poor folk singer in Toronto, was later given up for adoption. “I was dirt poor,” she later explained. “An unhappy mother does not raise a happy child. It was difficult parting with the child, but I had to let her go.” Mitchell wrote “Little Green” in 1967.

The existence of her daughter was not publicly known until 1993, when a roommate from Mitchell’s art school days in the 1960s sold the story to a tabloid magazine. Kelly’s adoptive parents, David and Ida Gibb, renamed her Kilauren. Joni and her daughter were reunited in 1997 .

Other songs on the album are not sad in the way that “Little Green” is sad, but most are soul-wrenching in other ways. And some, like “California,” describe travels in Europe with a longing to be home. Still, it is the love and loss-of-love songs, such as “River,” that have the deep and abiding power in this album.

“River,” the third track on side two of Blue, has become one of Joni Mitchell’s most famous songs. It’s cast in a Christmas setting, believed to be southern California where Mitchell was then living, along La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles. In the song, the narrator is in a painful time, dealing with a recent breakup and not feeling particularly cheery. She longs to escape her emotional difficulties. “I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” she sings, a river so long it “would teach my feet to fly.” In Canada, no doubt, Mitchell, in her youth, likely found a river or two to skate away on. But in southern California, no frozen rivers were available to take her away from her sadness. The song’s spare, piano-driven arrangement paints a vivid picture of loss, longing, and some self-blame as well.

Joni Mitchell skating on frozen Lake Mendota, near Madison, Wisconsin, 'Picnic Point' behind her, March 1976. Photo, Joel Bernstein. Also used on her 'Songs of a Prairie Girl' album (2005). Click for album.
James Taylor, who had been involved with Mitchell not long before the Blue recording sessions, was quite familiar with “River,” having first heard the song when she played it at her home in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. “I’ve known it from the time it was written, and I’ve always loved it,” And although “River,” was not intended to be a holiday song, it is now often heard during the holiday season when Christmas music is played. In fact, more than 100 artists have covered the song, including Taylor, who put “River” on his own Christmas album.
The demise of the personal relationship is the major point of the song, as Mitchell turns the blame on herself at one point: “I’m so hard to handle / I’m selfish and I’m sad / Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby I’ve ever had.” So she’s thinking maybe she’s made a big mistake here, sending her lover away. And about now, she really needs that river.“Most Christmas songs are light and shallow, but ‘River’ is a sad song,” Taylor explained. “It starts with a description of a commercially produced version of Christmas in Los Angeles . . . then juxtaposes it with this frozen river, which says, ‘Christmas here is bringing me down.’ It only mentions Christmas in the first verse. Then it’s, ‘Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on’ — wanting to fall into this landscape that she remembers.” Taylor also adds: “It’s such a beautiful thing, to turn away from the commercial mayhem that Christmas becomes and just breathe in some pine needles.” But he adds, “It’s a really blue song.”

Taylor asked rhetorically: “Do I want to know who she made cry, who she made say goodbye?…Well, I haven’t asked her that question. That’s the only mystery in it: Who was it whose heart she broke?… There were a lot of us.” In fact, some believe the song is actually about Graham Nash, as she wrote this particular song in 1969, and sang it publicly in late 1969 as “River/Willy.”

“River” is also one of Mitchell’s songs that has received wider exposure through its use in Hollywood films and TV shows. In fact, many of Mitchell’s songs have been used in various films, TV programs, and documentaries over the years – garnering at least 85 soundtrack credits to date, In other cases, her music has made it into the film’s narrative or dialogue as in the 1998 film, You’ve Got Mail, in which there are numerous references to Mitchell’s songs by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Sometime after Blue, Joni Mitchell sold her house in Laurel Canyon, and purchased a piece of property near Half Moon Bay in British Columbia, Canada where she could have privacy and quiet not available to her in Hollywood. In the latter half of 1971 she retreated to this property for a time where she built a small house. When she needed to be in L.A. for recording or other business, she would stay with her agent, David Geffen. By February of 1972, Joni resumed performing, beginning a 13-city North American tour. Jackson Browne, then a rising singer-songwriter, became her opening act for the tour, and the two became involved in what would be something of a stormy relationship.

After her North American tour, she began residing at David Geffen’s house in Los Angeles. She would also sometimes travel in Geffen’s social circles. In 1972 she and Geffen attended a fundraiser for Democrat George McGovern’s presidential campaign. There she met Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, among others. She and Jackson Browne by this time were ending their relationship, and Geffen sought to cheer up his friend and housemate by taking her away from the L.A. scene for a time with a trip to Paris.

Joni Mitchell’s “For the Roses” album, produced on the Asylum label and released in November 1972.
Joni would later write about Geffen and Paris in one of her songs, described below. At this point in her career, her contract with the Reprise record label had ended, and coincidentally, housemate David Geffen was then starting his own recording label, Asylum, which Joni signed on with.

Mitchell’s albums following Blue kept her career on an upward trajectory. Her fifth album, For the Roses, released in October 1972,  A single from the album, “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” was her first American hit single.

Two other songs of note from this album – “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire,” about a heroin addict, and “Judgment of the Moon and Stars” (Ludwig’s Tune), inspired in part by Beethoven – were also popular tracks. In 2007, For The Roses was one of 25 recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry – the only one of her albums so far selected for that distinction.

Joni Mitchell’s 6th and most successful studio album, “Court and Spark,” released on Asylum, January 1974.
Joni Mitchell’s 6th and most successful studio album, “Court and Spark,” released on Asylum, January 1974.

Mitchell by this time was breaking away from her earlier folk and acoustic sound, adding more musical hardware to the production of her songs, and delivering, in some cases, more of a rock `n roll sound. She hired a jazz/pop fusion band, L.A. Express, to back her up on Court and Spark. In the PBS documentary, Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind, singer-songwriter Eric Andersen observed of Joni’s move to working with a band: “People have this image and idea of this fragile, Nordic goddess who’s descending from the mountains, like wisps of Wagner, and Tiffany wind chimes… But later on, you know, I think when she got infected with rock and roll, well she turned [out] like a red-hot mama, flesh and blood.”

The new band helped power songs like “Raised on Robbery,” which cast Mitchell as a hard rocker. Backing her now on a tune like “Robbery” were fellow Canadian Robbie Robertson on guitar (later of The Band) and also Tom Scott on saxophone. David Crosby and Graham Nash contributed background vocals on “Free Man in Paris.” And several other musicians also contributed throughout the album.

Another popular song and hit single from Court and Spark was “Free Man in Paris,” a song Mitchell wrote about her agent and friend, David Geffen. Part of the inspiration for this song came about when she, Geffen, Robbie and Dominique Robertson made the trip to Paris mentioned earlier. Geffen was Mitchell’s agent from nearly the beginning of her career, and he would be around her and her friends not only in recording, contract, and negotiating sessions, but also on social and informal occasions. In the Laurel Canyon years, he would visit with Joni and friends and help her when she needed a friend to lean on or a place to stay.

“Free Man In Paris” is a song that hits at the travail of those who work in the popular music industry, and in particular, a guy like Geffen who was then engaged with many pop artists “stoking the star-making machinery behind the popular song.”

Mitchell, who had already begun taking swipes at the pop music industry in earlier songs, would have a double effect with this song, as a thank you to her friend and agent for his hard work in helping her, but also as a critique of the industry that was taking a toll on its own, and sometimes, as Joni saw it, trying to crush her art in favor of dollars. There would be more of Mitchell’s music industry critique in the years ahead.

Geffen, meanwhile, may have felt that he was in the meat grinder too, but was soon doing quite well in the music business. In fact, by 1970 he had founded Asylum Records with Elliot Roberts, the label that Mitchell had joined for her albums, For The Roses, Court and Spark, and others to come. In fact, Asylum would also sign a number of artists, among them: Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Linda Ronstadt, and others. By 1972, Asylum would be acquired by Warner Communications and merged with Elektra Records.

Geffen went on to become a Warner Brothers executive for a time, establish Geffen Records in 1980, DGC Records in 1990, and in 1994, one of the three founders of DreamWorks SKG. As of 2014, Geffen’s estimated net worth was $6 billion, making him one of the richest people in the entertainment industry.

So, while David Geffen might have been a free man in Paris momentarily in the early 1970s, enjoying some well-deserved R&R, as history would seem to suggest, he went back to work and built himself a nice little entertainment empire.

“Free Man in Paris” has a nice airy feel to it, and is an enjoyable and relatable piece of music, especially for any listener who has an overbearing, high-pressure work load and a longing to find some escape, whether Paris or the Great North Woods. Meanwhile, Mitchell herself was “courting and sparking,” as she would later put it, beginning a relationship with L.A. Express drummer John Guerin. In 1974, Joni purchased a Spanish style home on a private road in the Bel Air section of L.A., and she and Guerin set up house there.

Court and Spark – and the L.A. Express – helped make Joni Mitchell a popular touring act over some 50 dates in the U.S. and Canada during 1974, generating good notices and also producing a live, two-record set album, Miles of Aisles, in November 1974.

Joni was also a mainstream music star by this time, sought out for magazine features and cover stories. In June 1974, Maclean’s magazine of Canada featured her in a cover story, and Time magazine also put her on the cover of its December 17th, 1974 issue, featuring “Rock Women: Songs of Pride and Passion.”

Through the second half of the 1970s the Joni Mitchell albums kept coming: The Hissing of Summer Lawns in November 1975, Hejira in 1976, and Don Jaun’s Reckless Daughter in December 1977. By now, Joni Mitchell was well into the jazz and experimental stage of her career, and she had lost some of her previous fans who preferred her acoustic style.

Nov 1975: Joni Mitchell’s “Hissing of Summer Lawns” album, the title and lyric phrase derived from the sound of L.A. lawn sprinklers.
Nov 1975: Joni Mitchell’s “Hissing of Summer Lawns” album, the title and lyric phrase derived from the sound of L.A. lawn sprinklers.

As Tom Casciato would put it in one later online review: “Hissing was where a lot of people got off the Joni bus.” But Joni Mitchell, like Bob Dylan, was not about to be circumscribed by her fans’ preferences. She had to follow her muse and move into new territory; that was just who she was. So the music continued, and so did the poetry, now in a different form.

She began working with some of the best musicians in the jazz and fusion worlds, composing new music, and winning their respect, among them – bass player Jaco Pastorius, drummer Don Alias, saxophonist Wayne Shorter (all of whom worked with the progressive jazz group Weather Report), jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, and others.

In late 1978, Charles Mingus, the famous jazz bassist, composer, and orchestra leader, asked her to work with him on his last project. Mingus was then in the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The album Joni helped produce and compose for him, Mingus, was released after his death in June 1979.


In 1982-1992 Joni Mitchell was married to bassist and sound engineer Larry Klein, and during that decade, with Klein’s help and others, she released more albums, three on Geffen Records — Wild Things Run Fast in 1982,Dog Eat Dog in 1985, and Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm in 1988. In the popular market, however, much of this work did not fare well. The 1980s were also a time when Mitchell broadened her social critique taking aim at televangelists in one of her songs, while supporting causes such as the plight of Native Americans (Wounded Knee incident). She also continued to level barbs at the music industry. In a 1995 Vogue interview with writer Charles Gandee, she noted: “…Another thing was that in the eighties we moved into a particularly unromantic period in music. Videos had just begun, and they had a tendency to feature cold women with dark lipstick and stilettos grinding men’s hands into the ground. It was an anti-love period, and my work Wild Things Run Fast, in particular  was a joyous celebration of love, which basically made people sick.”

In the 1990s she regained some of her popularity. Night Ride Home, released in March 1991, was closer to her earlier acoustic work. Her next album, Turbulent Indigo, also viewed by some critics as having more accessible material, though still offering social critique at turns, was called a strong comeback. Turbulent Indigo won two Grammy Awards, including Best Pop Album. In the late 1990s she re-united with her daughter, Kilauren Gibb, and her grandchildren. In the year 2000, Mitchell turned out a collection of standards along with a couple of her older songs with Both Sides Now, which received a Grammy award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. In 2007, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock released his River: The Joni Letters, an album dedicated to Mitchell’s music, and also the first jazz album to win Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards.

In recent years, Mitchell has collected a variety of honors and awards for her musical and songwriting accomplishments. In 1997, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In April 2000, the TNT cable TV network presented a celebration in her honor at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City, with an all-star cast of performers singing her songs, from Elton John to Diana Krall. In 2002 she became only the third popular Canadian singer/songwriter to be appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada, that country’s highest civilian honor. She also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award that year. In 2007 she was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame and Canada Post also honored her that year with a postage stamp.

Joni Mitchell, in a pensive moment, 1976. Photo, Joel Bernstein.

Joni Mitchell’s music and poetry have touched a lot of people. Those who heard her perform or listened to her songs in her early years seem to have been especially moved by her ability to reach into their inner core.

David Crosby, awed from the first time he heard her, would simply say of her singing and songrwriting, “there’s some magic that took place there.” “Everyone was saying that there was a magic to her songs,” said Shay. “She’d come up with these marvelous melodies and wonderful words.”

Joni exorcises her demons by writing those songs,” said Stephen Stills in a 1974 Time magazine story on Joni, “and in so doing she reaches way down and grabs the essence of something very private and personal to women.” True enough, but it wasn’t just women she touched – though women did seem to have an extra sensory something that “got” what she was sending out.

Among those in the music industry who first dealt with Joni Mitchell, many were also amazed at what she brought to the table and how she created so much material in so short a time. Elliot Roberts, her manager in the early years would observe: “When she first came out, she had a backlog of 20, 25 songs that were what most people would dream that they would do in their entire career. Yet Joni Mitchell is more than simply a troubadour of the female soul or a love balladeer – as anyone who has followed her career knows.

Whether finding exquisite phrasing to capture an image or some moment of the heart, using her “weird chords” (open tuning) to bend the sound for the right tonal conveyance, or pushing the bounds of experimental jazz, Joni Mitchell has been a thoughtful and pioneering musician.

Joni Mitchell looks out a window of her Laurel Canyon home in October 1970.

Joni Mitchell emerged at a time when the women’s rights movement was still building steam, and had to fight for recognition as a serious artist. Her image was often defined in terms of whom she was dating – a Rolling Stone article dubbed her “The Queen of El Lay”, and her famous boyfriends included David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne. As her material became more ambitious, and her lyrics became more questioning of society, she was abandoned altogether by Rolling Stone, who named her 1975’s excellent The Hissing of Summer Lawns as one of the worst albums of the year. So if she often appears a little self-promotional in interviews, ranking herself alongside Bob Dylan as the great solo artist of her generation, she’s generally justified, reacting to the sexism she encountered in her prime.

The sophistication of her songwriting and, in particular, her musical arrangements is the essential element that sets Joni Mitchell apart from her contemporaries and her peers, whether the troubadours of the early 70s Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter scene or lyrical heavyweights such as Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and even Bob Dylan. And yet in the music industry, Mitchell has never really been afforded the kind of respect heaped on her male counterparts.

Mitchell’s a wonderful singer, songwriter, and guitarist; a childhood bout of polio left her unable to play guitar conventionally, and she’s an expert of alternative tunings. While her public persona is of a folk singer of songs like ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘Chelsea Morning’, her musical reach expanded throughout the 1970s into pop and jazz. Towards the end of the 1970s, her albums became too insular for me to follow, but her run of albums in the early to mid 1970s is stunning, a peak that ranks with the greatest artists in popular music. It defines the best songs that Joni Mitchell wrote at her creative peak, which stretched from the release of Blue (1971), through For the Roses (1972), Court and Spark (1974) and The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), to the pared and broodingly atmospheric Hejira (1976).

Blue (1971)

Joni Mitchell Blue

Joni Mitchell’s early work was often folk based – 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon featured singalongs like ‘The Circle Game’ and ‘Big Yellow Taxi’.  These five classic releases began with the starkly powerful Blue, on which she single-handedly redefined the notion of the singer-songwriter. Intimate and confessional, her new songs of love and heartbreak shocked some of her male counterparts with their emotional intensity. On first hearing them, her friend Kris Kristofferson exclaimed: “Oh Joni – save something of yourself!” . That was not an option for Mitchell, whose songwriting had now approached a level of rapt intensity. Graham Nash, the Manchester-born, Los Angeles-based songwriter, remembers her “channelling” her songs so intensely at the piano of the house they shared in leafy Laurel Canyon that she would be utterly immune to his presence in the room.

Arguably the most vulnerable song on Blue, “A Case of You” is an intimate window into Mitchell’s personal life. In 1979 Rolling Stone interview, Mitchell said, “The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period in my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.” Said to be inspired by her breakup with Graham Nash, “A Case of You” is yearning and raw. And interestingly, that’s James Taylor on guitar in the back, Mitchell’s love interest at the time.

The best song on Mitchell’s best album has become a seasonal classic over the past couple decades, with artists as diverse as Rosanne Cash, Cee Lo Green and old buddy James Taylor recording cover versions for holiday records. Mitchell’s spare, piano-driven take is the most heartbreaking. Like most of ‘Blue”s tracks, it’s a love song. But this one looks back on a particularly painful breakup that still hasn’t settled in as Christmas nears.

She took a more direct approach with 1971’s Blue, a stripped back, emotionally vulnerable album that diaries her relationships with Graham Nash and James Taylor. Side two is the stronger half with masterful songs like ‘A Case of You’ and ‘River’, and the intense paranoia of ‘This Flight Tonight’. Blue features Mitchell’s work on the Appalachian dulcimer.

The trio of austerely beautiful and forlorn songs – River, A Case of You and The Last Time I Saw Richard – that close Blue are the real beginning of that creative tightrope walk. On the final repeated line of the beautifully forlorn River – “I wish I had a river I could skate away on” – she lingers on “skate”, making it sound like the resigned cry of someone falling slowly, wilfully though the ice.

“During the making of Blue, I was so thin-skinned and delicate that if anyone looked at me, I’d burst into tears,” she admitted years later, referring to the messy fracturing of her relationship with Nash and the tentative beginnings of a short, but intense, relationship with James Taylor, then in the throes of heroin addiction.

Blue, though, also signalled in more subtle ways the more dramatic musical shift that was to follow. Listen to the way she enunciates the very first notes of the title song, settling on the word “blue”, stretching and bending it across an octave or two in the manner of a seasoned jazz singer. Then there’s the joyous lilt and sway of Carey, one of several songs of wanderlust that, across the years, testify to a relentlessly restless spirit.

Mitchell came up though the American trad-folk circuit of the mid-60s and was for her first two albums marketed as a fey, fragile hippy folk singer. She had already survived several setbacks. Her childhood in small-town Saskatchewan was fractured when she contacted polio, aged eight, in 1951. In 1964, she had fallen pregnant and, struggling financially, gave her newborn daughter up for adoption the following year. (The song, Little Green, from Blue, is an ode to her lost daughter and, on Chinese Cafe, a song released in 1982, she sang: “My child’s a stranger / I bore her / But I could not raise her.” She was reunited with her daughter, Kilauren Gibb, in 1997.)

Joni Mitchell For The Roses

For The Roses (1972)

If Blue was a dramatic refinement of her songwriting approach, the next album, For the Roses, seemed like a step sideways. Revealingly, though, the usual coterie of LA session players was augmented by jazz musicians Wilton Felder and Tom Scott. Between her two undisputed classics ‘Blue’ and ‘Court and Spark,’ Mitchell released ‘For the Roses,’ which, in its way, is the quintessential Joni Mitchell album’s, despite its shortcomings. The record’s lead single stems from a meeting with record-company executives, who asked the commercially averse artist to write a hit single. Even though it’s delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, ‘You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio’ ended up in the Top 30, The effortlessly commercial You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio – written to assuage David Geffen, the boss of her new record label, and the snaky thrust of Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire both pulse with the more musically loose-limbed presence of Felder (bass) and Scott (woodwind and reeds). Joni was branching out and moving on once again.

For The Roses has always felt like the overlooked album from her 1970s peak. It’s also an important step in her development, a big leap in musical sophistication after the emotionally naked Blue. Seemingly straightforward songs like ‘The Blonde in the Bleachers’ are filled with complex chord changes that showcase Mitchell’s musical sophistication. Her arrangements are fuller than before, with more guest musicians, but it’s still centered around Mitchell’s acoustic guitar and piano. A lot of these songs concern Mitchell’s recent breakup with James Taylor.

Court and Spark (1974)

Joni Mitchell Court and Spark

All of Mitchell’s studio albums between 1971 and 1976 are strong, but my favourite is the smooth jazzy pop of Court and Spark. Mitchell recounts; “Nearly every bass player that I tried did the same thing. They would put up a dark picket fence through my music, and I thought, why does it have to go ploddy ploddy ploddy? Finally one guy said to me, Joni, you better play with jazz musicians.” .  “Help Me” Mitchell’s biggest hit (it reached No. 7, her only Top 10 showing) is also one of her instantly likable songs, thanks to an impeccably played melody that splits the difference between soft rock and smooth jazz. Backed by an ace session group fronted by L.A. saxophonist Tom Scott, Mitchell breezily works her way through this distress call that goes down like a cool cool cocktail on a hot summer day.

The sound and the melodies are smooth, and the singles like ‘Free Man In Paris’ and ‘Help Me’ are among her most approachable songs. But there’s still plenty of trademark romantic insecurity on songs like ‘Car On The Hill’ and ‘Down To You’. On Free Man in Paris – reputedly about Geffen – and the observational People’s Parties, Mitchell turned her gaze on the newly ascendant Los Angeles rock music aristocracy with their “passport smiles” and cocaine cool. As Court and Spark became her bestselling album, she was still the conflicted outsider, unable to fit comfortably into this new elite – “I feel like I’m sleeping, can you wake me?” she sings on People’s Parties, sounding resigned, almost numb, “…I’m just living on nerves and feelings with a weak and a lazy mind/ And coming to people’s parties, fumbling, deaf, dumb and blind.”

Court and Spark came as a surprise. Gone was the fragile, confessional songstress in a flowing dress; instead, here was a confident, full-throated singer in designer threads with a slick electric band in tow. Gone, too, were the acoustic songs sung with just a guitar, piano or dulcimer backing, replaced by an electric, jazz-inflected, intricately arranged sound, courtesy of Tom Scott’s LA Express Band, that weaved around lyrics that were acutely observational or dazzlingly impressionistic, rather than soul-baringly confessional. When her friend, Malka Marom, author of Both Sides Now, asked her if the band’s presence meant that she might risk the vulnerable singer-songwriter image she had cultivated, Mitchell replied defiantly: “Well, I don’t want to be vulnerable any more.”

Not for the first or last time, Joni Mitchell had moved on and, in doing so, had remade herself in the manner of a true artist. The band were rehearsing the Court and Spark songs for the live tour,” says Malka Marom. “Joni had a close connection with drummer John Guerin. He was the first person to put her music on paper; he mapped it out for the band. But he was also the one who inspired the courting and the sparking.” You can hear that romantic static loud and clear on the raucously sensual Raised On Robbery,  After five albums of increasingly personal songs, mostly guided by acoustic guitar, Mitchell didn’t want to rush the record she had released an album each year since 1968 — but she also didn’t want it to sound anything like those other ones, which were starting to pigeonhole her as a single-minded singer-songwriter. So she incorporated jazz elements into the songs. ‘Raised on Robbery,’ the album’s first single, begins as a big-band-style boogie before giving way to one of the hardest-rocking songs in Mitchell’s catalog. In which Mitchell inhabits the role of a good-time girl on the pick-up, relishing the lines, “I’m a pretty good cook, I’m sitting on my groceries/ Come up to my kitchen, I’ll show you my best recipe.” It was a long way from Laurel Canyon, lunar miles from the folksy piety of Clouds.

The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)

Joni Mitchell Hissing of Summer Lawns

The follow-up, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, sparked a critical backlash that  is hard to fathom. Rolling Stone noted Mitchell’s increasing sophistication as a songwriter while lambasting her “increasingly eccentric” melodies and “uninspired jazz-rock style”. One suspects that the rock blokes wanted folk-rock authenticity, but her hybrid sound and the shifts in style that now marked her writing had taken her way beyond that.

Among those who did get The Hissing of Summer Lawns, though, were Smiths frontman Morrissey – who called it “the first album that completely captivated me” Hissing got thrashed,” a defiant but still bruised Mitchell recalls So, though it got thrashed by the press, the young artists coming up could see there was something special going on there.”.

The Hissing of Summer Lawns marks where Mitchell focused on texture, a much more eclectic record than anything she’d done previously. ‘The Jungle Line’ is built around a sample of Burundi drumming, while ‘Shadows and Light’ is filled with airy synthesisers. But the dominant mood of the album is sumptuous, feminist ballads like ‘Shades of Scarlett Conquering’ and ‘The Boho Dance’. Prince was vocal in his admiration for this record, and ‘Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow’ is my favourite of Mitchell’s songs, with its fluid bass line and dobro textures.

“For a long time, I’ve been playing in straight rhythms,” Mitchell told her friend, Malka Marom, in 1973, in the first of the three extended interviews that are included in Both Sides Now, a new book published next month. “But now, in order to sophisticate my music to my own taste, I push it into odd places that feel a little unusual to me, so that I feel I’m stretching out.” The Jungle Line, which jumps out at you with its juxtaposition of Mitchell’s voice and the thunderous rhythms and whoops of the Drummers of Burundi.)

Hejira (1976)

Joni Mitchell Hejira

After the richness of Hissing, the mood poems of Hejira seemed to me for a long time to be a muted coda to Mitchell’s golden period. Over time, though, the best of these often slow and brooding songs – Hejira, Amelia, Blue Motel Room have kept calling me back despite my slight aversion to Jaco Pastorius’s relentlessly virtuoso bass playing. If Blue Motel Room is a study in longing and languorous sensuality. Amelia, an ode to the pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart, sees Mitchell in reflective mood, her confessional honesty now even more nakedly self-searing than before. “Maybe I’ve never really loved, I guess that is the truth”, she sings in the penultimate verse, “I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes…”

After splitting with drummer John Guerin, Mitchell embarked on a road trip. Hejira is effectively a journal of her travels, documenting characters like the horny protagonist of ‘Coyote’ and veteran blues-man Furry Lewis. Texturally, the album revolves around Mitchell’s guitar and Jaco Pastorious’s fretless bass. With the homogeneous sound, it’s perhaps the most difficult of her first five albums to access, but it’s filled with gorgeous songs like ‘Amelia’ and ‘Refuge of the Roads’.

It is an acknowledgment that Joni Mitchell created her best music at some personal cost, which is part of the reason it carries such emotional resonance across the years. She once said that her audience connected with the honesty of a great song because “it strikes against the very nerves of their life”. She then added: “To do that, you have to first strike against your own.” For me, she is indisputably the most sophisticated voice of hope and heartbreak, joy and sorrow.

A Four-disc box set Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, a Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced, featuring 53 remastered songs from Joni Mitchell’s career, is out 17th November on Rhino.

Also check out: 1977’s double album Don Juan’s Restless Daughter has lots of great moments, and it’s a little overlooked in her catalogue. 1969’s Clouds is the best of her early folk-oriented work, with gorgeous songs like ‘That Song About The Midway’.

“You Can All Join In” was a budget priced sampler album, released in the UK by Island Records in 1968. It was priced at 14 shillings and 6 pence (£0.72), and reached no. 18 on the UK Albums Chart that year

It was arguably instrumental in breaking world-class bands such as Free, Jethro Tull and Traffic to a wider audience. It represented one of the most unexpected marketing triumphs of the age — an (admittedly budget-priced) gathering of underground unknowns riding the label’s own reputation for keeping its finger on the pulse, and out-performing many of the era’s bona fide superstars. Wynder K. Frog, Art, Tramline, Clouds these were not names one normally expected to find hogging the number 18 slot on the chart.

Yet, place familiarity (or the lack thereof) aside, and You Can All Join In is one of those seamless compilations that simply cannot be improved upon. A dozen tracks highlight the best — and that is the best — of Island Record’s recent and forthcoming output, from much-anticipated debut albums by Jethro Tull, Free, and Spooky Tooth to the sophomore effort by Fairport Convention. There’s also a healthy taste of the label’s most-successful-so-far signing, Traffic, as a leaf from Steve Winwood’s back pages — the Spencer Davis Group’s “Somebody Helps Me” joins Tramline’s cover of “Pearly Queen” and Traffic’s own “You Can All Join In” (yes, indeed, this collection’s title track). one of those seamless compilations that simply cannot be improved upon. A dozen tracks highlight the best – and that is the best – of Island’s recent and forthcoming output, from much-anticipated debut albums .

The early ’70s were the golden age of British record-label samplers, with Island themselves following through with three, Vertigo weighing in with the legendary “Suck It and See”, and CBS’ redoubtable Fill Your Head With Rock ranking among a myriad others. None, however, echoed either the success or the resonance of You Can All Join In. 

The Cover Designed by Hipgnosis and although not as imaginative as some of their later work, the front cover photograph was taken in Hyde Park and is said to feature “every single one of the Island artistes … bleary eyed after a party. The rear cover consists merely of a track listing and monochrome images of the covers of eight of the sampled albums .

  1. Clive Bunker, 2 Neil Hubbard, 3 Gary Wright 4 Glenn Cornick 5 Bruce Rowland 6 Martin Barre 7 Mick Weaver 8 Ian Anderson 9 Patrick Campbell-Lyons 10 Ashley Hutchings  11 Alex Spyropoulos 12 Chris Wood 13 Richard Thompson 14 Ian Matthews 15 Steve Winwood 16 Ian A. Anderson 17 Jim Capaldi 18 Mike Harrison 19 Martin Lamble 20 Simon Nicol  21  Harry Hughes 22 Rebop Kwaku Baah 23 Chris Mercer 24 Simon Kirke 25 Paul Rodgers 26 Billy Ritchie  27 Andy Fraser 28 Ian Ellis 29 Sandy Denny

It was combined with the follow-up, Nice Enough To Eat for a CD Re-release in August 1992 entitled Nice Enough To Join In (Island Records IMCD 150).

Side One

  1. “A Song For Jeffrey”  Jethro Tull – (Alternative mix, original version from This Was) (ILPS 9085)
  2. “Sunshine Help Me”  Spooky Tooth – (from It’s All About Spooky Tooth) (ILPS 9080)
  3. “I’m a Mover” Free – (from Tons of Sobs) (ILPS 9089)
  4. “What’s That Sound” Art – (from Supernatural Fairy Tales) (ILP 967)
  5. “Pearly Queen” Tramline – (from Moves of Vegetable Centuries) (ILPS 9095)
  6. “You Can All Join In”  Traffic – (from Traffic) (ILPS 9081T)

Side Two

  1. “Meet on the Ledge”Fairport Convention – (from What We Did on Our Holidays) (ILPS 9092)
  2. “Rainbow Chaser”  Nirvana – (from All of Us) (ILPS 9087)
  3. “Dusty”  John Martyn – (from The Tumbler) (ILPS 9091)
  4. “I’ll Go Girl”  Clouds – (from Scrapbook) (ILPS 9100)
  5. “Somebody Help Me”  Spencer Davis Group – (from The Best of the Spencer Davis Group) (ILPS 9070)
  6. “Gasoline Alley”  Wynder K. Frog – (from Out of the Frying Pan) (ILPS 9082)