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Biography: 1943-1963 Childhood Days   Print

by Wally Breese
JoniMitchell.com
January 1998

Roberta Joan Anderson was born on November 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada. Her parents, Bill and Myrtle (Her father was a grocer, and her mother a schoolteacher), moved with their young daughter to North Battleford, Saskatchewan after the end of World War II. When she was 9 years old, Joni and her family moved to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the "city of bridges," which Joni has since referred to as her hometown.

Inspired when her slightly older friend Frankie McKitrick, a piano prodigy, introduced her to classical composers like Schubert and Mozart, Joni begged her parents to let her study the piano. Her piano lessons started at age seven, but lasted all of a year and a half; It was a time when the "knuckle-rapping school" was in effect. Although Joni heard melodies in her head that she wanted to get out, she felt stifled when her teacher asked her "why would you want to make up your own songs when you can have the masters under your fingers?"

She also discovered early in her life that her drawing skills were much praised by her elders and peers. In fact, her main sense of identity as she grew up was as the classroom artist.

At the age of 9, along with many other children at that time, Joni contracted polio. As she convalesced, she says she truly developed an artistic sensitivity; "A great sorrow hath humanized me." Thanks mostly to her mother's loving attention, she recovered from the often fatal disease, and returned to her life in Saskatoon.

Also at age 9, Joni started smoking cigarettes. I'll let her tell this-

I started smoking at the age of nine. I had polio, and when I got out of the hospital, I kind of made a pact with my Christmas tree, or maybe it was God, that if I could get my legs back... At that time I'd broken away from the church because I loved stories, and they had a lot of loopholes, and, if you asked the teacher about those loopholes, like, O.K., Adam and Eve meet, they're the first man and woman, and they have two sons: Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel, then Cain got married. Who did he marry? It did not go over well. So I refused to go to church in the town for awhile. But I had this debt to pay back because I did stand up, unfurl, and walk. So I joined the church choir and one night after choir practice, in the middle of the winter, a girl had snitched a pack of Black Cat cork from her mother and we all sat in the wintery fish pond in the snow, and passed them around. And you know, some girls choked and some threw up, and I took one puff and felt really smart! I mean I just thought,"Woah!". My head cleared up. I seemed to see better and think better. So I was a smoker from that day on. Secretly, covertly, and I'm still smoking."

In Grade 7, Joni met a teacher who would have a great effect on her direction. Mr. Kratzman was an Australian who taught English at Queen Elizabeth school and the 12 year old Joni discovered him at the end of schoolyear while hanging her paintings at school. Joni describes him this way: "he looked like Gable and Peck rolled into one, with gray sideburns", and he told her: "If you can paint with a brush, you can paint with words." And this is what she's been doing ever since. The next year in his class she wrote a poem about stallions and he circled the paper over and over with "cliche". He told her to write about things she knew, and thus helped to mold her remarkable ability for imagery and description. In the credits for her first album, Joni wrote: "This album is dedicated to Mr. Kratzman, who taught me to love words." As a teen she listened to rock-n-roll radio broadcasts out of Texas. She bought herself a baritone ukelele for $36 because she couldn't afford a guitar. She played at parties and get-togethers, and also hung out at a local coffeehouse in Saskatoon called the Louis Riel.

After high school, Joni enrolled in the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, but stayed only one year. She'd discovered a club called The Depression in Calgary and become a regular performer there. She says: "My childhood longing mostly was to be a painter, yet before I went to art college my mother said to me that my stick-to-it-iveness in certain things was never that great, and she said you're going to get to art college and you're going to get distracted, you know. Yet all I wanted to do was paint. When I got there, however, it seemed that a lot of the courses were meaningless to me and not particularly creative. And so, at the end of the year I said to my mother: 'I'm going to Toronto to be a folksinger.' And I fulfilled her prophecy."



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