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The Songs She Wrote Before She Released a Record Print-ready version

by Geoffrey Himes
American Songwriter
October 26, 2020

One night in 1967, Judy Collins was fast asleep in her Greenwich Village apartment when the phone rang at three in the morning. It was her friend Al Kooper. He had just played a gig in the neighborhood with his band Blood, Sweat & Tears, and he had struck up a conversation afterward with a good-looking young woman. She was a songwriter and she'd invited him back to her apartment to hear some songs.

"He was so knocked out ," Collins remembers today, "that he called me up and said, 'I know you're looking for songs for your next album, and you have to hear this.' He put Joni on the phone, and she played 'Both Sides Now.' It was - and still is - one of the most singable, the most memorable songs I've ever heard. I got dressed and went right over. She had a little apartment on the Lower East Side, full of cut glass and candles, very Joni. The three of us stayed up all night playing songs."

"Both Sides Now" and another Mitchell composition, "Michael from Mountains," both wound up on Collins' seventh album, Wildflowers. When Collins' "Both Sides Now" was released as a single in October, 1968, it became a top-10 pop hit on Billboard and won a 1969 Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance. Meanwhile, David Crosby produced Mitchell's debut album, Song to a Seagull, released in March of 1968. Tom Rush included three of Mitchell's songs, including the title track, on his sixth album, The Circle Game, released in December of that year.

Those three albums made Mitchell famous, and she was off and running on one of the great careers of her generation. But just a year earlier, she was one more obscure singer-songwriter, carrying her acoustic guitar from folk club to folk club to play for small handfuls of people. She had only started writing songs seriously in 1965, but once she started, the words and music just poured out of her - in such profusion that many of the songs never found a place on her albums.

What must it have been like to sit down in a tiny Detroit coffeehouse, as Rush did, and hear songs like "Urge for Going" coming from an opening act? What must it have been like to be awakened at 3 a.m., as Collins was, to hear "Both Sides Now" for the first time? What must it have been like to wander into the 2nd Fret coffeehouse in Philadelphia and a hear a song as strong as "What's the Story, Mr. Blue?" only to wonder why it never showed up on any of Mitchell's albums?

Now, at long last, it's easier for us to imagine that sense of discovery, thanks to the new five-CD box set, Joni Mitchell Archives, Vol. 1: The Early Years [1963-1967]. It includes 91 songs plus 28 spoken intros, drawn from radio broadcasts, live performances and home demos. Thirty of the songs were never released on an official Joni Mitchell album in the 20th century. The two final - and strongest - discs have also been released as a stand-alone package, Live at Canterbury House 1967, two dozen selected cuts from the three sets at the Ann Arbor, Michigan, folk club on October 27, 1967.

Most box sets are for die-hard fans only, as they mix old favorites with rarities that were left off the familiar albums for good reason. But here is a box set for anyone seriously interested in songwriting. It traces Mitchell's rapid growth from a run-of-the-mill folk singer with an overly sweet soprano and a familiar batch of traditional tunes in 1963-1964 to a songwriter in 1965-67 who was bursting with knockout lines, odd tunings, striking melodies, a mature grasp of song architecture and a voice that was gradually deepening in both range and power.

The box set allows us to imagine that we're sitting next to Tom Rush, already a successful folk singer with five albums under his belt, in the cramped, shadowy, smoky quarters at the Chessmate, a folk club in Detroit, where Rush played a two-week stand every year. Up on the stage with strawberry-blonde bangs, high cheekbones and a big guitar was Mitchell, trying hard to be noticed.

Rush had once stayed at the fourth-floor walk-up apartment rented by Joni and Chuck Mitchell during a visit to Detroit. Rush enjoyed the married couple's harmonies on public-domain folk songs, but when he returned in 1965, Joni was just starting to mix some originals into her traditional repertoire. Morrie Widdenbaum, the Chessmate's owner, was so impressed by her first compositions, that he arranged for Joni to play a short solo set just for Rush.

"She did four songs, and 'Urge for Going' was one of them," Rush recalls over the phone from his studio in Rockport, Massachusetts. "It was that goosebump thing in spades. You hear lots of songs in this business, but a song like 'Urge for Going' just grabbed me. She was a little slip of a girl, very pretty, and it seemed incongruous to hear this poetry coming out of someone that young. She came off stage, and at this point I was two years overdue for an album for Elektra. I asked her if she had any more songs. She said, 'No, but give me a minute.' Maybe six weeks later she sent me a tape, including 'The Circle Game,' for which she apologized because she had just finished it."

The Chessmate shows aren't in the box set, but two demo tapes that Mitchell recorded in Detroit in 1965 are. Anticipating "The Circle Game" with its theme of nature's cyclical change, "Urge for Going" is clearly the prize of this first crop of songs, not only for its opening lines ("I awoke today and found the frost perched on the town; it hovered in a frozen sky, then it gobbled summer down.") but also for its propulsive melody and catchy refrain. Yet it was never released by Mitchell till she put it on the B-side of the "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio" single in 1972 and wasn't on a Mitchell album till 2005.

The tapes also include seven songs few people have ever heard. "Born To Take the Highway" is the kind of road song that any fledgling songwriter might attempt, but few could invent such a fetching melody or a stanza as strong as this: "I've skipped on concrete, danced on cobbles, stepped on pavement in the heat. I've seen where children crouched at marbles, made chalk circles in the street."

The minor-key ballad "Day After Day" finds the narrator riding a train away from her lover and reflecting, "The wheels, their hummin' seems to say, 'He'll follow you someday,' but someday seems a million miles away." In introducing "The Circle Game" at the 2nd Fret, Mitchell said, "I guess my best ambassador is a fellow named Tom Rush who does 'Urge for Going" and also this one."

Rush incorporated "Urge for Going" into his set and recorded it for his next album. He gave a copy of the track to the Boston radio station WBZ a year before it was released, and the DJs played it so often that it became a regional hit. He invited Mitchell to open many of his shows on the East Coast, introducing her to a whole new audience. He even tried to convince his record label to sign her.

"I went to Jac Holzman at Elektra, and his reaction was, 'No, she sounds too much like Judy Collins,'" Rush remembers. "And she did, because Judy influenced her a lot. Her delivery, her phrasing, her vocal style were reminiscent of Judy, but she outgrew that quickly. She was very driven. She wanted to be a big star. That's my take, not hers. I thought she would be a big star and it wouldn't make her happy."

Collins was another ambassador. As a member of the Newport Folk Festival's board of directors, Collins convinced the old-timers that they should devote a Saturday afternoon workshop at the 1969 festival to "Contemporary Songs," featuring Mitchell, James Taylor and Steve Young. And when Life Magazine published a cover story on Collins in May of 1969, she made sure that Mitchell was in two of the photos.

"She was darling," Collins says today from her New York apartment. "She was Canadian and had that straightforward manner, but she was always fun to be with. We sat around smoking and putting our cigarettes in our strings at the end of our guitars, lucky to get a few puffs in between songs. Her songs were poetic, always musical, always eccentric, sharply cut as if by someone who cut diamonds. She had a painter's vision - she caught the glimmer of something at the edge of your vision and turned it into unforgettable language."

Collins kept recording Mitchell's songs: "Chelsea Morning" on 1971's Living, a duet of "Cactus Tree" with Shawn Colvin on 2011's Bohemian, and "River" on 2019's Winter Stories. As with her tributes to Dylan, Lennon & McCartney and Leonard Cohen, Collins would like to devote an entire album to Mitchell's songs in the next few years.

Mitchell's growth was astonishingly rapid. By the time she returned to the 2nd Fret in the spring of 1967, she had a batch of new songs, including "Both Sides Now," "Morning Morgantown," "Song to a Seagull" and "Winter Lady." She introduced the latter song by saying, "This is a love song that actually was intended to for a man to sing to a woman, then I decided I like to sing it anyway."

Here was a clear sign that she was breaking free from the trap of autobiographical songwriting and inventing new characters. The opening couplet, crooned over the interval-leaping guitar pattern, contained this striking image: "Winter Lady, where you going, with your hair all soft and loose like snowing?" This box set marks the first release of Mitchell singing the song. In May of 1967, she recorded a new demo in North Carolina, with two songs destined for her second album ("Tin Angel" and "I Don't Know Where I Stand") and three rarities she never released. "Strawflower Me" is an affecting plea for a man to value a field daisy like herself as much as he does the gaudier blossoms of the greenhouse. "A Melody in Your Name" boasts a spellbinding guitar figure and memories of a now perished romance: "Dawn light on a skyline bridge's span, street light on a rooftop memory."

By July of 1967, Mitchell's marriage to Chuck had fallen apart and she found herself trapped in her apartment as the Detroit riots broke out nearby. Rush happened to be in town at the Chessmate, and she called him to come rescue her.

"We had to drive down the middle of the road," Rush says, "because there were fires on either side. I went to the Chessmate to play, and the National Guard was setting up in the parking lot with sandbags and machine guns. I said, 'No way am I playing tonight,' and I got the first plane out of town.

"Chuck was a good guy, but he didn't share the enthusiasm about her songwriting; he was more interested in sticking with the traditional folk stuff. She was more interested in creating new stuff. After they broke up, he kept singing and playing shows."

Joni soon moved to New York, and there she made another demo tape that introduced two songs destined for her first album ("Michael from Mountains" and "I Had a King") and one for her third ("Conversation"). Mixed in with these are some other gems destined for no Mitchell album at all till now. "Free Darling" depicts a recent divorced woman ("You cut the strings to fill your wings and fly into a strobe light room") reinforced by a Bo Diddley beat. "Gift of the Magi" sets to bouncy music the old Christmas story of a woman who sells her long hair to buy her husband a watch and chain, while he uses his savings to buy her a bejeweled comb.

"I heard 'Michael from Mountain' and couldn't stand not to sing it," Collins remembers. "That's how it happens. A song grips you and you can't imagine not singing it. You choose a song not only because you love it but also because it fits like a glove. It can be a good song and not fit you. Kris Kristofferson came over to my house and played 'Me and Bobby McGee,' and I didn't like it. So he took it over to Janis Joplin and she liked it. The same thing happened when James Taylor played me 'Fire and Rain.'"

"When I hear a song and I have a visceral reaction," Rush adds, "I want to do it. Me doing it isn't always a good idea, but there are some songs that I can do justice to. My M.O. is to listen to the song enough to learn it and then not listen to it again. That way they drift to become a song that's more me. I don't want to do a copy of the demo. Unless I have something to add, I don't want to go there. But a good song can be done a thousand different ways."

In the fall of 1967, Mitchell played the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor. Over the two years of her songwriting explosion, her vocals had deepened in tandem with her lyrics. The girlish soprano had settled into a womanly mezzo. Her guitar playing had calmed down to be less busy and more efficient. Her lyrics were less self-consciously clever and more closely resembled actual conversations. The 24 songs taken from the three sets at Canterbury that night are evidence that Mitchell had finally matured into the major artist the rest of the world was about to recognize.

And she was still introducing freshly written songs into her repertoire, some of which she never released till now. "Come to the Sunshine" is a quiet appreciation of a new love: "All words seem wrong from the start, so I will tell with my eyes, say it with a kiss, silence that asks and looks so wise and needs no answer on a day like this"). "Play Little David" is an appreciation of a fellow singer ("David he would send them notes a-flyin', some that laughed and some that felt like tears") over vigorous guitar changes. "Go Tell the Drummer Man" is a quirky waltz about the costs and benefits of falling in love with a musician ("Silver birds fly away like words in the wind, and soon I'll be in another world, the land of without him").

A highlight of the Canterbury show is "Little Green," a discreetly veiled song about the daughter Mitchell gave up for adoption in 1965. She would hold it back from release until her fourth and best album, 1971's Blue. But already in 1967, it was written and a highlight of her sets. Singing low in her range and with sly power over a guitar arpeggio, she is in full possession of her powers. She describes herself as a "child with a child" who will "sign all the papers in the family name" and not be ashamed.

As she tries to predict the life her daughter will have, Mitchell sings one of the most captivating refrains of the entire singer-songwriter movement. The melody rises on "Just a Little Green," her nickname for the baby, moves to a stop-and-go line of eighth and quarter notes on "like the nights when the northern lights perform." And then all her doubt and fears dissolve on the reassuring tumble from the subdominant to the tonic, repeated four times in succession, as she sings, "There'll be icicles and birthday clothes and sometimes there'll be sorrow."

It was all there in 1967, before most of the world had ever heard of her: the northern ice, the fancy clothes and the ache of sadness, the non-triadic melodies, the velvet vocal and painting with words. In her early days, she had written too many songs to take care of, so many of them were put up for adoption. Now, on this box set, she has reclaimed them all.

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