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Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

by Michael Gray
The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia
April 15, 2008
Original article: PDF

Mitchell, Joni (1943 - ) Roberta Joan Anderson was born on November 7, 1943 in the tiny town of Macleod (now Fort Macleod), Alberta, Canada. She grew up teaching herself guitar and piano, both of which she plays like no-one else, so that these unique styles have themselves been the shaping forces behind many of her highly personal songs, along with lyrics of great intelligence and emotional directness mediated by acute self-observation and lightness touch, all of which qualities were clear even on her début album, Joni Mitchell, produced by DAVID CROSBY in 1968, on which, despite its occasional immature gush, she was already evidently an original writer, capable of complexity of form and content. She also has a highly distinctive voice of great range (if with a tendency, unchecked early on, to shriek off at the top end).

The result is that she has been absolutely the most important female singer-songwriter of Bob Dylan's generation, and the greatest such figure alive today. It is a reflection of our culture's disinclination to take women as seriously as men that her work is not more commonly mentioned in the same breath as, if not Dylan's then at least VAN MORRISON's and NEIL YOUNG's. Like Dylan she has never been content to stay in one place artistically, and has created a large body of variegated, honourable work achieved over several decades. She has become too a figure of dignity and gravitas, a role model for women through her skilled, unpreachy delineation of predicaments and inconsistencies of being a contemporary woman in the modern world as well as through her insistence on high standards for her artistry.

She began her career in the folk clubs of Toronto before belatedly joining the New York City folk scene in the mid-1960s and finding her first success as the writer of "Urge for Going", recorded by Tom Rush and George Hamilton IV, and "Michael form Mountains", recorded by JUDY COLINS, who enjoyed a hit with Mitchell's "Both Sides Now", one of the songs on her second album, Clouds, in 1969, along with the widely covered "Chelsea Morning". All theses songs were picked up by others artists before Joni Mitchell landed her record deal. (Judy Collin's version of "Both Sides Now", for example, started out as a track on her 1967 album Wildflowers.)

In 1970 Mitchell had her own first hit single with "Big Yellow Taxi", from her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, which also included the song "Woodstock", covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and "The Circle Game". Next came the lovely albums Blue and, even better, 1972's For the Roses, an album not far short of, and preceding, Dylan's Blood on the Tracks as superb, contemporary yet timeless work of mature intelligence, fully achieved. "Woman of Heart and Mind" is sublime, and is followed by closing track of this masterwork, the dark and glorious "Judgment of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune)". The album also contained the hit single "You Turn Me on, I'm a Radio".

Sometimes, following this, Joni Mitchell would veer off into unwelcome jazz explorations, but always came back, sometimes bringing useful with her. There isn't the space here to do justice to her long, subsequent career, though any list of her other finest albums would have to include Hejira (1976), Night Ride Home (1991) and Turbulent Indigo (1994).

Bob Dylan first came to her attention back in 1965, when she was a struggling and unknown folkie with songwriting ambitions¬ - and heard "Positively 4th Street" on the radio: "When I heard Bob Dylan sing, "You got a lotta nerve", I thought "Hallelujah!, man, the American pop song has grown up. It's wide open. Now you can write about anything that literature can write about." Up until that time rock & roll songs were pretty much limited to, "I'm a fool for ya, baby."

Oddly, in the light of that, when it came to the Starbucks album Artist's Choice; Joni Mitchell - Music that Matters to Her, 2005, the Dylan track she includes is "Sweetheart Like You", from Infidels album of 1983. (She also chooses a track of her own, "Harlem in Havana".)

Dylan recorded a delightfully casual but convincing version of her "Big Yellow Taxi" in the studios in New York on June 4, 1970, at one of the sessions for the New Morning album; it was issued not on that LP but on the subsequent compilation Dylan issued in late 1973. Mitchell and Dylan first worked together two years after that, when she dropped in on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975 - by which time she was a major star in her own right. SAM SHEPARD reports DAVID BLUE as eagerly awaiting the psychic catfight in prospect when SARA DYLAN was due to arrive: "Just wait", said Blue, "till her and Joni get around each other. You'll get some shit on camera then... Sara's a very regal, powerful chick, and Joni's gettin' into her empress bag now. I mean Joni's a real queen now. She's really gettin' up there."

And she was. However, though no clash between her and Sara Dylan occurred, she did find the whole business of supporting RUBIN HURRICANE CARTER rather difficult. She never believed he was innocent (and she was probably right); nor did she enjoy the concert held his presence at the Correctional Institute for Women in Clinton, New Jersey on December 7, 1975 - on the eve of the "Night of the Hurricane" concert at Madison Square Garden. Rolling Stone reported that the "mostly black audience of prisoners... loved Dylan, Roberta Flack and ALLEN GINSBERG, but Joni Mitchell's supercilious songs were booed and she shrilly lectured Carter and the rest of the inmates: "We came here to give you love; if you can't handle it that's your problem."

In Austin, Texas, on January 28, 1976, three days after the second and final fund-rising Rolling Thunder gig for the Carter (staged in Houston), Dylan made a surprise guest appearance at Mitchell concert, coming on stage too duet with her on "Both Sides Now" and then sing "Girl of the North Country" by himself.

They next appeared on stage together at the Farewell Concert by THE BAND later that year (and consequently in the film The last Waltz), but after that there seems to have been no conjunction till both performed, separately and together, in Japan in May 1994, at the so-called Great Music Experience at the Todiji Temple, Nara, when for the finale of the third and final night's concert, on May 22, Joni shared vocals with Dylan on "I Shall Be Released", backed by the Tokyo New Symphony Orchestra, conduced by Michael Kamen. This was televised around the world and caught Joni Mitchell looking askance at Dylan throughout this duet. Afterwards she complained that he never cleaned his teeth.

Undaunted, she reappeared on a triple bill with him and Van Morrison at series of six West Coast concerts in May 1998, beginning in Vancouver on May 14. On the opening night she stood at the side of the stage for Dylan's set after completing her own. In the town of George, in Washington State, on May 16, she shared vocals with Bob and Van on the tenth song of Dylan's set, "I Shall Be Released". It was alleged that on the second of two dates at UCLA in Los Angeles, on May 22, Dylan came during Joni's set to share vocals with her on "Big Yellow Taxi" ¬ - but this didn't happen: Joni just imitated his voice on one verse. The last night of the six was at Anaheim on May 23.

Like Dylan, she has slowed down her output in middle age. She released only three albums of new material in the 1980s and further three in the 1990s. But her career proceeds, recurrently beset by fights with her music-biz, which she has often roundly condemned, in tandem with her life-long interest in painting. She has painted not only a number of her own album covers but also for example the cartoonish front of the 1974 Crosby, Stills Nash & Young album So far.

Not has she lost her sense of humor. The cover of Turbulent Indigo is a self portrait of Joni as Van Gogh, complete bandaged ear. And in 1996 she released two compilations albums. One was called Hits: the other, Misses.

NB: the 2005 Joni Mitchell - Collector's Edition 2-DVD set, combining the unmissable 2003 documentary A woman of Heart and Mind with a 1998 live show previously released as Painting with Words and Music, is advertised as having a duet with Joni and Dylan on "Positively 4th Street": but this is actually a clip of Joni singing along to the Dylan record. A bit of a swizz as a duet but related proof of that special fondness for "Positively 4th Street".

[Joni Mitchell: Joni Mitchell (later re-titled Song of a Seagull), Reprise, US, 1968; Clouds, Reprise, 1969; Ladies of the Canyon, Reprise, 1970; Blue, Reprise, 1971; For the Roses, Asylum, US, 1972; Hejira, Asylum, 1976; Night Ride Home, Geffen 24302, US, 1991; Turbulent Indigo, Reprise /WEA 45786, US, 1994. Artist Choice: Joni Mitchell - Music that Matters to Her, Starbucks/ Hear Music /Rhino Special Products OPCD-7699, 2005. Joni Mitchell - Collector's Edition 2-DVD set, Eagle Eye Media EE 39072-9, US, 2005 (the 1st DVD includes brief footage of Dylan at Newport Folk Festival and from Don't Look Back). Quote re "Positively 4th Street from Bill Flanagan, Written in My Soul¸ Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1986; Rolling Stone quoted from online review of movie Hurricane, posted 2000, nia.]

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TheChatterbox on

It is clear, that much in the same way that men always assume the highest seat in the house, even if it is not theirs, this article attempts to minimize Joni's accomplishments musically - i.e the true list of albums produced. One must also comment, whatever Bob Dylan did, piled side by side to that of Joni, how did he rate an encyclopedia, seeing the only way it could be filled was by commenting on all the artists that have made up the age? As we know of the artists of this time, many fall short of composer and rather remain bubble gum or slightly higher! The music scene in its consideration of Joni Mitchell mimics the character in Liar, Liar - you know Jim Carrey being forced to tell the truth going into contortions as he is forced to do so and of course the comparative the music scene not quite able to take a back seat to a woman! I guess it is because she is not their real "mom"!

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