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 offered below in a YouTube video from her early years.
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 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 (e.g., “Mr.Tambourine Man” 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.”
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 at left 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.
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, is offered above in the music player. It’s a song about a long line of suitors and another from her muse-driven trove of autobiographical 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 to close, as I have things to do and places to go.” Indeed, as she states, she’s busy being free.
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 End in 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 about to take a new turn.
It was August 1968 when Graham Nash arrived at the house 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.
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. Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Both Sides, Now” at No. 171 on its December 2004 list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
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.
David Cleary of AllMusic.com, in a favorable review of the album, also 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.
That summer, Joni also appeared in some locations 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 8th. But at one of the Crosby Stills & Nash performances — the Atlantic City Pop Festival Atlantic City Race Track on August 1st, 1969 – 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.
Woodstock: Event & Song
Joni Mitchell was scheduled to appear at the August 1969 Woodstock festival in upstate New York, but her agent, David Geffen, cancelled her appearance there, worried she would not be able to make it back in time for a television appearance in New York for The Dick Cavett Show. It appeared at the time that horrendous traffic congestion and bad weather might make it difficult for her to get back to the city, as filming for the late night show occurred on Monday afternoon.
As Geffen would later describe their arrival coming into New York for the festival: “I was bringing Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young …and Joni Mitchell to Woodstock. And I arrived a La Guardia Airport. And I picked up the New York Times and it says, ‘400,000 People Sitting In Mud.” And thought, ‘no way am I going to Woodstock.’ And so they [Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young] went on to Woodstock. And Joni and I went back to my apartment at Central Park South, and we watched it on television…”
Geffen did not want to risk Joni missing national TV exposure. The Dick Cavett Show was a very popular, and culturally important TV show at that time. Cavett’s show ran opposite Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in those days, and he was somewhat more permissive of his guests’ interaction and expression than Carson, and had a following among the young and literati of that day. For his late-night show following the Woodstock gathering, Cavett had lined up a number of guests who were scheduled to appear at the festival and would come to the city for a Monday afternoon taping of the late-night broadcast.
Joni Mitchell, however, by staying at Geffen’s 59th Street New York city apartment and not going to Woodstock, would instead compose a song titled “Woodstock” — a song that would become an anthem of sorts for her generation, defining one of the era’s key events. The song would become a big hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and would also be recorded by Joni for her Ladies of the Canyon album (more on this album later below).
As it turned out for the Cavett show, in addition to Joni, some of those who had performed at Woodstock were able to make it back in time for the Monday afternoon taping – including David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Grace Slick, and the Jefferson Airplane. On the show, Mitchell sang several songs, including “Chelsea Morning”, “Willy,” and “For Free,” and also an a capella version of “The Fiddle and the Drum.” The Jefferson Airplane performed “We Can Be Together,” Stephen Stills performed his”4 + 20″ song, and David Crosby joined Grace Slick in a version of “Somebody to Love.” Cavett’s “Woodstock show,” as it would be called (which can be found today on YouTube), was seen by many young people who had heard about the festival, or read about it in the newspapers, but weren’t able to get there. When Cavett asked David Crosby about what he had seen at Woodstock and if he thought it was a success, Crosby (who had arrived with Nash and Stills in the general area by helicopter, getting quite an overview of the scene) replied: “It was incredible. … It looked like an encampment of the Macedonian army on the Greek hills, crossed with the biggest band of Gypsies you ever saw.”
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 national hit, rising to No.11 on the Billboard Hot 100. 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.
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.”
And years later, others found her poetry of that moment worthy of memorial. The Princeton University Class of 1969 – at their 25th reunion in 1994 – dedicated a piece of sculpture featured in a quiet garden on campus (shown at left), that has the final “we-are-stardust” verse etched into its body along with Joni Mitchell’s by-line.
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. In late September, Canadian Broadcasting (CBC-TV) aired the earlier performances at the Mariposa Folk Festival (July 25-27) with Joni, Joan Baez, Ian and Sylvia, Doc Watson, and others.
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. On October 27th, 1969 she did a performance at the Rockefeller Chapel, at the University of Chicago. On November 1st it was on to her hometown of Saskatoon, SK where she performed at Centennial Auditorium. More college and university concerts followed in November and December: California State University at Fullerton on November 22nd, where John Fahey opened for her; an afternoon concert at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA on November 29th; and an evening concert that same day at Alden Memorial Auditorium at Worcester Polytechnic Institute also in Worcester.
On December 5th 1969, she performed at Symphony Hall in Boston, and on the following day she did two evening performances at Crouse College Auditorium in Syracuse, NY. Two days later she performed at the University of Hartford in Hartford, CT and on December 10th at Springfield College in Springfield, MA. Over the next four days, December 11th through the 14th, she performed at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA; M.I.T in Cambridge, MA; the Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, NY; and The Masonic Temple Theater in Detroit, Michigan, where she was a surprise guest performer at a CSN&Y concert.
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. It’s 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. On YouTube, there is at least one video clip that has Mitchell at the piano performing “For Free” in a televised segment.
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,” noting that its arrangements “are intelligent throughout.” However, he also noted Mitchell’s voice to be weak at times and her wordplay “inconsistent.” Most of her fans, in any case, were glad to have it.
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 off England 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.”
Although she was not on a hectic touring schedule that latter part of 1970, Joni was still making selected appearances in the U.S. and in Europe. In the fall of 1970, Joni joined actor Dennis Hopper, Michele Phillips of the Mamas & Papas, Micky Newbury and Johnny Cash for a late night of food, fun, and music at a Nashville restaurant after that year’s first taping of The Johnny Cash Show. 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 29, 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.
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 was that there were no defenses there either….” Jack Hamilton, commenting on Blue some years later in a retrospective review of Mitchell’s work for The Atlantic magazine, called the album “a 10-song suite that might be the most vivid autopsy of romantic relationships ever put to record.”
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.
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?”
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.
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” and “River.”
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. By September, Blue peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard albums chart, while hitting No. 3 on UK albums chart. In January 2000, the New York Times chose 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” – the song available at the top of this story – 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 and since then a number of press accounts have appeared about their relationship.
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, as James Taylor would later observe. 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 she “would teach my feet to fly.” In Canada, no doubt, Mitchell – pictured below on her skates – did exactly that on more than a few occasions. But in her southern Californian home of the early 1970s, no frozen rivers were available to soothe her wounded Canadian soul. The song’s spare, piano-driven arrangement paints a vivid picture of loss, longing, and some self-blame as well.
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,” he told Washington Post reporter J. Freedom du Lac in December 2006.
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.
“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.”
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.
During his Washington Post interview, 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.”
For Mitchell, meanwhile, “River” is one of those songs that has also reaped wider exposure through its use in film and TV programs, providing emotional background music. Over the years, the song has been used in televised episodes of: Thirtysomething(1987), The Wonder Years(1988), Ally McBeal(2000), Alias(2002), and ER(2007). It was also used in the films Almost Famous(2000) and Love Actually(2003). 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, according to Imdb.com, the movie data base website. 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 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, did well on the music charts, rising to No. 11 on Billboard and also going gold. A single from the album, “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” peaked at No. 25 on Billboard for two weeks in February 1973, 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 sixth album, Court and Spark, came in January 1974 and would become her most commercially successful album. It went to No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart and No. 1 on the Cashbox chart.
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.
Geffen: Free Man
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. “Free Man in Paris” went to No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 2 on the Easy Listening chart.
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.
Still, “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.
Court and Spark, in any case, went to No. 2 on the Billboard album chart and stayed there for four weeks. “Help Me,” a popular single from the album, released in March 1974, became Mitchell’s only Top 10 single when it peaked at No. 7 in the first week of June 1974.
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.
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 December 1995, Billboard honored her with The Century Award, its highest award for distinguished creative achievement. In 1996, she received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, Canada’s highest honor in the performing arts. 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. In 2015, she was awarded the SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award. Yet for Joni Mitchell, perhaps the highest praise has come from her peers and those who have been touched by her words and music.
Magic & Muse
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.” Gene Shay from Philadelphia’s Second Fret, where Joni played in her early years, echoed a similar sentiment about her performances: “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.
Malka Marom, a Canadian folk artist and writer, had her own singing act a few years earlier than Joni. She performed in Canada with her husband, as Malka & Joso. One night in November 1966 Malka discovered Joni when she happened into The Riverboat coffeehouse in Toronto where Joni was playing. Malka was simply knocked out by what she heard:
“When I first saw her, hardly anybody was there…I mean the coffeehouse was empty. She was standing almost a little pigeon-toed. She was all involved in tuning her guitar, and she covered her face with her hair. It’s almost like she wants to erase who she is, and just let the voice be, let the songs be who she is. Then she started to sing “I Had a King,” [a poignant song about an ill-fitting marriage with the opening lines, ‘I had a King in a salt-rusted carriage / Who carried me off to his country for marriage too soon…’] I was going through a divorce then. And I just felt, I don’t know what it was about that song. Talk about a new way of conveying–-through music, through words–-a new way of conveying an existential reality… It was really something… And, oh, I just started to sob. …She sang it as if she was singing for me. She was my voice, you know… She was everybody’s voice… I was amazed that she was so young; there was so much wisdom in her work.”
Malka that night would talk with Joni after she performed to the mostly empty coffeehouse, telling her she had something special and could become a star. The two became life-long friends and Malka would compile a book on Joni in 2014 based on the conversations she had with her over 30 years, Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words.
Among those in the music industry who first dealt with her, many were 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. She had already done it, before she had recorded. It was stunning.” Bill Flanagan of MTV Network, explained in the PBS film, Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind: “Joni took this really potent popular image — that had been building for seven or eight years anyway — the California girl, the Beach Boys’ girl, the beautiful golden girl with the long, blonde hair parted in the middle. And Joni not only was the girl, but she was also the Bob Dylan, the Paul Simon, the Lennon and McCartney, writing it. I mean, she was the whole package. She was the subject and she was the painter. And that was incredibly powerful for people.”
Yet women in particular looked up to Joni Mitchell as a trailblazer and would grow up with her music over the years. In 2003, filmmaker Susan Lacy, who made the 90-minute PBS documentary, Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind for the “American Masters” TV series, also offered her personal views on what Mitchell meant to her:
In my teens, 20’s, and even into my 30’s, when I was disturbed or needed to reflect on things, I would sit at the piano and play Joni Mitchell songs. When I had children, my favorite song to sing with them was “Circle Game,” which they learned from the time they could sit up. I loved her music then and still do. Her songs were a touchstone to my own experiences and emotions. I grew up listening to Joni Mitchell – going from my teenage years into adulthood.
I saw her as the free spirit we all wanted to be. She represented an incredibly interesting mix of mysticism, beauty, talent, and femininity but, with a backbone of steel. She was doing it her way. Wouldn’t we all like to be like that?
“Joni’s Love Muse”
Joni Mitchell loved being in love. It inspired her; it was how she wrote much of her material. “Being in love is extremely important to her muse,” said jazz musician and producer Larry Klein, her husband for ten years in the 1980s. “A lot of her creative impulses come from whatever that phenomenon is that happens to us when we fall in love.” Joni was a free spirit in her dealings with men, given licence in the era of “sex, drugs and rock n roll” to be whoever she wanted to be. And she pushed it to the limit. She acted just like men had for eons. But Joni was a genuine romantic, taking her relationships to heart, good and bad. And that came through in her music. Sometimes though, the scars ran deep, both professionally and psychologically. A few bad depressions and one rumored suicide attempt appear to be part of that history. When Rolling Stone magazine included her by name in an early 1970s story with line graphic connecting partners in the Laurel Canyon love nest, Joni was hurt and angry. She saw the age-old double standard at work. And although there were marriages and near marriages in her life’s course, Joni seemed to have a compulsion to stay free. “I remember getting a telegram from Greece from Joan,” said Graham Nash of his early 1970s relationship with her. “The last line of which was, ‘If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers.’ It was Joan’s way of saying goodbye to me.” And so she remained: in love, recovering from love, or on the hunt for love through much of her career. Of course, the record for all of this — or at least some of it — is found in her lyrics, explicit and between the lines, in the hundreds of songs she has written. It’s a legacy of heart and soul, delight and torment, doubt and self discovery; a legacy that remains an open book of one person’s journey with life and love.
Gail Sheehy is a New York writer with some 17 books to her credit, including Passages of 1976, and also occasional articles for Vanity Fair and other publications. In 2014, Sheehy spoke to the Wall Street Journal’s Marc Myers about how Joni Mitchell’s music had entered her life, and how one song in particular, “Both Side Now,” helped her grow, celebrate, love, divorce, grieve, and recover in her own various life stages:
“Back in 1968, when I was 30, my entire life blew up. I had a life plan and it collapsed for no rational reason. I had been a newspaper reporter in New York but left the job to help editor Clay Felker start New York magazine. My marriage was breaking up and I was falling in love with Clay. The song that carried me through those years and all stages of my life is “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell…”
In that song, Sheehy found Mitchell’s voice to be genuine, neither “cynical or put off by life;” she admitted her confusion while still marveling at what she saw around her, though shedding her illusions. “In 1969, after my divorce,” said Sheehy, “I let go of my illusions about marriage.” Some years later, after a second marriage and after her husband had died in 2008, Sheehy was devastated. “I put on Joni’s version [of “Both Side Now”] with strings from 2000 and heard a deeper voice full of sorrow and wine and cigarettes. Eventually I found my way out of that dark place and dared to love again.”
Linda Sanders of Entertainment Weekly, reviewing Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo of 1994 called that album “the distilled essence of everything she’s done before,” adding of her long career to that date: “all she’s really managed to deliver in the course of sixteen albums is one of the most vivid and delicious chronicles of a woman’s life that’s ever been produced in any medium anytime, anyplace.”
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.
In addition, her interviews, especially in the later years, are full of thoughtful, honest and sometimes stinging critique. She became outspoken on a range of topics, whether the state of the environment or the corruption of modern culture — including her own music industry. Still, for millions, it will be her poetry and music that bear the lasting gifts – whether from the “acoustic Joni” or the “jazzy Joni.”
Although this piece has explored more of the early parts of her career, and is meant more for those who know little about her, there is much more detail on the life and work of Joni Mitchell at her website, JoniMitchell.com. See also the various Joni Mitchell biographies, interviews, and profiles noted below in “Sources” at the end of this article. For additional stories on music at this website see the “Annals of Music” page. See also “Noteworthy Ladies,” a topics page with additional story choices on famous women. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please consider making a donation to help support this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Sources, Links & Additional Information
“Joni Mitchell,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, New York: Rolling Stone Press, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 657-659.
Stephen Holden, “The Evolution of the Singer-Songwriter”(Joni Mitchell section), in Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke (eds), The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock `n Roll, New York: Random House, 1992, pp. 483-484.
Wally Breese, “Biography: 1964-1968, Early Years,” JoniMitchell.com, January 1998.
Mark Scott, “Oh, But California…,” 2014 Biography Series, Part 2 of 16, JoniMitchell.com, May 16, 2014.
“Joni Mitchell,” Wikipedia.org.
A.L. McClain, “Two Single Acts Survive a Marriage,” Detroit News, February 6, 1966.
RS Editors, “Introducing Joni Mitchell: The Canadian-Born Singer-Songwriter Makes Folk Music Hip Again,” Rolling Stone, May 17, 1969.
“Joni Mitchell Joins Reprise,” Record World, March 16, 1968.
Susan Gordon Lydon, “In Her House, Love,” New York Times, April 20, 1969.
“Rock Stars Will Dominate Cavett Show Next Tuesday,” New York Times, August 12, 1969.
“Woodstock (song),” Wikipedia.org.
Mike Evans, Paul Kingsbury, Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked the World.
Gary Von Tersch, Album Review, “Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon” (Reprise), Rolling Stone, June 11, 1970.
“Ladies of the Canyon,” Wikipedia.org.
Robert Christgau, The Village Voice, July 30, 1970.
Bernard Weinraub, “Isle of Wight Festival Turns Slightly Discordant,” New York Times, August 30, 1970.
Michael Watts, “Glimpses of Joni,” Melody Maker, September 19, 1970.
Robert Hilburn, “Joni Mitchell’s Bid for Top Album,” Los Angeles Times, June 29, 1971.
Lynn Van Matre, “Singing-Songwriters: 1971 Is Woman’s World,” Chicago Tribune, July 4, 1971.
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Jack Hamilton, “Why Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ Is the Greatest Relationship Album Ever,” The Atlantic, February 14, 2013.
John MacFarlane, “Listening Again to Blue Gives Writer a Case of Joni Mitchell,” Toronto Star, March 6, 2013.
**Mick Brown, “The Flowering of Joni Mitchell,” Telegraph Magazine, February 23, 1991.
Stephen Holden, “Joni Mitchell Finds the Peace of Middle Age,” New York Times, March 17, 1991.
** David Wild, “ A Conversation with Joni Mitchell,” RollingStone.com, May 30, 1991.
William Ruhlman, “From Blue to Indigo,” Goldmine, February 17, 1995.
Bill Higgins, “Both Sides at Last,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1997.
J. Freedom du Lac, “Joni Mitchell’s Blue ‘River’ Flows Onto Holiday Playlists,” Washington Post, Thursday, December 21, 2006.
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**“Inductee: Joni Mitchell,” Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 1997.
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David Yaffe, (Dance), “Working Three Shifts, And Outrage Overtime,” New York Times, February 4, 2007.
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Susan Whitall, “Joni’s Journey; From an Apartment in Detroit, Mitchell Composed Some of Her Most Famous Songs,” Detroit News, June 5, 2008.
Tom Casciato, “Loving Joni Mitchell: You Don’t Have to Be Gay,” PBS.org, March 7, 2011.
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Brian D. Johnson, “Leonard Cohen’s Tale of Redemption,” Maclean’s(Canadian magazine), October 22, 2012.
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Leah Collins, “Throwback Thursday: Cartooning with Joni Mitchell and Adrienne Clarkson,” CBC Live (Canada), June 6, 2013.
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