Translated from the original German by Marian Russell
Children at play: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell & the Stellas
Neil Young shares more in common with Joni Mitchell than with practically any other artist: Both grew up in a Canadian province and moved around several times - Neil as the son of a journalist, and Joni as the daughter of an officer of the Canadian Air Force. Both were sick with polio in childhood, both discovered early their passion for music, and both made their first notes with a ukulele, and even in the same year- 1958.
Their paths crossed for the first time in October 1965 in Winnipeg, as Joni Mitchell and husband, Chuck, appeared at the local 4D Coffee House. Previously, Joni had been a guest on Oscar Brand's hootenanny folk show "Let's Sing Out", two episodes of which were recorded in Winnipeg by the Canadian television station CJay TV.
Neil Young by that time had already moved to Toronto, where he was trying to make it as a folk soloist after a failed experiment as a member of the group "The Squires". The meeting with Joni Mitchell came about almost by accident when Neil Young went to Winnipeg for a few days to visit his mother.
Legend has it that Neil Young played "Sugar Mountain" for Joni Mitchell after her appearance with Chuck at the 4D in Winnipeg. He had written this song about the end of childhood and the problems of growing up just about a year before his 19th birthday in Fort William, and it was part of his repertoire which he wanted to play in Toronto's folk clubs. Joni Mitchell was allegedly so moved by the song that she wrote "The Circle Game" in response, a song which refers to "Sugar Mountain."
In actuality, Joni Mitchell was probably already familiar with the song by way of Vicky Taylor, a folk singer in Toronto, in whose apartment both Joni Mitchell and Neil Young had stayed several times, independently of one another. Author Sheila Weller quotes Vicky Taylor in her 2008 book Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon - And the Journey of a Generation, as having said that her friend Joni Mitchell had wanted to play the song for her as early as the summer of 1965.
No matter when Joni Mitchell first heard the song, it is sure that she had both Neil Young's "Sugar Mountain" and her response "The Cicle Game" in her repertoire in her earliest years. Whenever she announced the songs on stage, she always mentioned Neil Young. In a radio interview in 1966, she even expressed her hope that "Buffalo Springfield" would record the song. It is known that Neil Young finally released "Sugar Mountain" only in 1977 on the album "Decade", even though he had often been playing it live since 1968. Similarly, Joni Mitchell didn't release "The Cicle Game" until 1970 on her third album "Ladies of the Canyon".
Joni Mitchell and Neil Young also played these two songs plus Young's "Helpless" together on stage. The occasion was a surprise appearance by Neil Young at the end of a show by Joni Mitchell on 18 January 1976 in the Elliott Hall of Music at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
It was the second stop of her 1976 Tour of the United States with the LA Express as a backing band that featured Robben Ford on guitar. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell apparently had so much fun doing their respective key songs about the end of their teenage years, that they played very special guitars which can be seen in the following photos:
Photos of this gig - acoustic recordings unfortunately did not survive - show Neil Young and Joni Mitchell with cheap Stella student guitars made by the company Harmony. To make the gag complete, Neil Young played the H6134 model advertised in the "Harmony" catalog as designed for little boys, and Joni Mitchell can be seen with model H6128 advertised as designed for little girls.
Both guitars were manufactured from 1972 to 1975 from inexpensive wood. The guitar for boys had a top made of birch plywood with a finish called "simulated Pine." The body of the guitar for girls was made of wood from a fruit tree (but the type of fruit was not mentioned). The other parts of the guitar were made from very cheap materials - the bridge appears to have been plastic, the fingerboard an "ebony-like" material, a fake soundhole rosette - so it is no wonder that these instruments were priced at about about $60.
The sound of these cheap instruments was miles away from the noble sound of the expensive Martin acoustic guitars with which both artists normally performed, but it was a fitting inspiration to present these two songs about the departure from childhood with guitars for children. It is not known if someone presented these guitars to them as a surprise, or if they planned together beforehand to use these guitars. Likely, it was the latter case, as the penchant for dry humor is a further commonality between the two kindred Canadians.
Neither Neil Young nor Joni Mitchell were ever before or since seen with "Stella" guitars. Although Neil Young started with an inexpensive "Harmony" archtop guitar after he had tired of the four strings of his ukulele, he abandoned it for electric guitars after only one year. "Sugar Mountain" was written in 1964, therefore, not on an acoustic guitar, but on an electric Gretsch 6120 'Chet Atkins'.
By the way, guitars branded "Stella" were not always such cheap ones made of fruitwood and faux fir as those played by Neil Young and Joni Mitchell in 1976. "Stella" was originally one of several brands of the Oscar Schmidt Company of New Jersey. Since 1899, Oscar Schmidt, a native of Germany, had been making mid-priced acoustic guitars, banjos and mandolins under brand names such as "Stella ,"Sovereign" and "La Scala", and became known for his trademark "Stella", and especially for 12-string instruments which, among others, were played by legends like the blues musician "Leadbelly". During the economic crisis in the late 1930s, the "Harmony" group, which had been manufacturing and distributing low-cost instruments through department stores and mail order catalogs, bought the brand name "Oscar Schmidt Company." Harmony then began using the name "Stella" for its cheap Western and folk guitars for students and beginners.
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