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Tracing the remarkable rise of Joni Mitchell Print-ready version

An ambitious new retrospective explores the early years of the small-town folk singer, from a Yorkville coffee shop to an undeniable musical force

by Paul Wells
Maclean's
October 30, 2020

Mitchell performs at The Bitter End on Oct. 23, 1968, in New York City, N.Y. (PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Tracing the remarkable rise of Joni Mitchell

An ambitious new retrospective explores the early years of the small-town folk singer, from a Yorkville coffee shop to an undeniable musical force

You can tell from the way the guy at the Half Beat Club introduced Joni Anderson on Oct. 21, 1964 that she did not yet have much clout in this world. "Tonight we have for your entertainment Joni Anderson," the man, probably the club's owner John McHugh, tells the small and lively crowd. "Joni's been appearing here for the last two weeks - and will be for the next three weeks, starting Monday." He leans on the second half of that sentence a bit, the part that encompasses his young performer's immediate future.

"We have her under contract. We hope she won't - well, we know she will stay here. We know you'll enjoy her as much as we have. Let's give her a bit of a welcome."

It's clear from that introduction that, if only for the nonce, the Half Beat had Joni Anderson under its thumb. The young singer from North Battleford and Saskatoon by way of Calgary was still a few weeks shy of 21, new in town. Unable to afford $149 in annual dues to the musicians' guild, she was stuck working for less money in non-union clubs like the Half Beat, which didn't have a liquor license. Her biographer David Yaffe writes that she was trying hard to get booked at another club, the Mouse Hole. Its owner, Bernie Fiedler, had come to the Half Beat to hear her play, but he wasn't hiring. And Joni Anderson needed to work somewhere, because she was also five months pregnant, which was two months longer than the father had stuck around.

The deck of life is thus well and truly stacked against this young woman as she accepts the distracted applause of the Yorkville audience. But when the moment comes, on the second CD of Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967), an extraordinary new 5-CD set of unreleased early performances by the woman who would soon be named Joni Mitchell, you can hear how uninterested she is in playing the victim.

"It's sure refreshing to have a mike for a change," she says cheerfully into the microphone, with just a hint of a sarcastic edge. "I've been playing to a sort of an empty thing." One suspects that the price she exacted for extending her two-week engagement to five was prompt improvement in her working conditions. Then she starts to sing, and you can hear why the club made the concession. She launches into a Scottish folk song, Nancy Whiskey, and she's just belting it out. Her voice is a bell-clear soprano, hardly even a thing of this world, and from there to the end of the night, two sets of standards and other people's tunes - she hasn't started playing her own music yet - Joan Anderson's voice is the most commanding sound in Yorkville.

Those two sets on an October night form a point, early but not quite at the beginning, of the story Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years tells. The set begins with Joni Anderson's first known recordings, made in a studio at CFQC AM Radio in Saskatoon in 1963 by Barry Bowman, a DJ at the station who had a bit of a crush on her. The tapes were intended as demo tapes to help Joni get gigs. She plays nine folk songs - Fare Thee Well, Molly Malone, House of the Rising Sun - accompanying herself on a big baritone ukulele, as she hadn't yet learned to play the guitar. She has none of the self-assurance that she'd show later at the Half Beat, but that ethereal voice is already there. "A beautiful honeyed lilt... that sounded like it came from another time," Bowman calls it in his contribution to the copious notes that accompany the boxed set.

So the voice is there first, followed soon after by the confidence. A third ingredient is not slow to follow: the individuality that comes with original creation. In Detroit in 1965, where she moved after Toronto, Joni Anderson records a few songs of her own to send to her mother in Saskatoon as a birthday gift. "I've written a couple of new songs since you were out here," she says, "and I think you'll like this one especially, Mom." It's Urge for Going, the first original song on this collection, and once again the tone of the proceedings changes markedly.

Urge for Going is about bleak Saskatoon winters. Its point-of-view character can't work her courage up to do what Joni did and leave. "When the sun turns traitor cold/ And all the trees are shivering in a naked row/ I get the urge for going/ But I never seem to go." There's a finality to the performance that's absent from what precedes it, a sense of ownership. Here is something new in the world.

There are two other songs on the tape Joni recorded in Detroit for Myrtle Anderson's birthday, one about lost love called Here Today and Gone Tomorrow and another about wanderlust, Born To Take The Highway. "Now I know a road that winds forever," she sings, "Through the land the rainbows run/ You cross the bridge from now till never/ Take the first turn past the sun."

On these tunes and another she had already written and would soon record, Day After Day, Joni dwells on aspects of a familiar urge: the yearning to leave where you're from and get where you're going, even if home isn't all that bad and your destination is a perfect mystery. The Early Years covers, approximately, the period between her home and her destination.

The boxed set ends in October 1967 with three sets recorded at Canterbury House, the Episcopal Church's campus ministry at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, then and now a cheerful haven for all manner of rebels and artists. By now she's Joni Mitchell, married and divorced, and she's an in-demand singer up and down the East Coast. She's singing almost entirely her own music, astonishing songs, harmonically rich and strange, lyrically unmoored from convention, songs like Chelsea Morning and Michael From Mountains ("Michael wakes you up with sweets/ He takes you up streets and the rain comes down/Sidewalk markets locked up tight/ And umbrellas bright on a grey background"). There's another song too, one she's already begun introducing as a favourite, a meditation on the perspective that comes from living a little. It's called Both Sides Now.

The future that stretches out beyond Canterbury House is beyond the scope of The Early Years. That story will be covered in a series of future boxed sets of largely unreleased material from Rhino, the company behind the Joni Mitchell Archives project (distributed in Canada by Warner Music).

The reasons for this ambitious retrospective are transparent. In 2015 Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm. For several weeks her prospects for survival were unclear. She's since stabilized. She appears occasionally in public. She tells the filmmaker Cameron Crowe, in a long confessional liner-note interview that provides much of this new release's charm, that she still struggles to walk, but she's plainly in good spirits. And what has become clearer since her 2015 health scare is that every day Joni Mitchell is still among us is a gift.

I didn't grow up as a Joni Mitchell fan. I found her high voice off-putting, and I was a bigger fan of the jazz musicians she worked with in the 1970s than of the music they made with her. In the 1990s the editor of the old Saturday Night magazine asked me to fly to California to interview her for a cover story. I turned the request down. It was one of the two biggest journalistic mistakes of my life. Wisdom comes to us in its own time, if at all.

The longer you listen to Mitchell, to songs that inhabit their own harmonic world and regard the human condition from angles inaccessible to other songwriters, the more you wonder how such a singular creative spirit could come to exist. That her childhood unfolded in Fort Macleod and North Battleford, Maidstone and Saskatoon is interesting but not particularly helpful to understanding her: no other series of hometowns would have been more obviously compatible with the sounds she made.

She was often in poor health. She got polio at 9, spent weeks in a hospital, was physically weak afterward, had to abandon hopes of being a dancer or athlete. She wasn't great in school, but sometimes all you need is one teacher. Hers was Arthur Kratzmann, the 7th-grade English teacher at Queen Elizabeth School in Regina. He was Australian, and announced to the students on the first day that the curriculum he had to teach them was "crap."

In his 2017 biography Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, Yaffe writes that Kratzmann handed back one of young Joan Anderson's compositions, about a stallion white as snow, marked in red pen: "Cliché, cliché, cliché." He gave her a B. The kid next to her wrote something truly lousy and Kratzmann gave him an A+. She complained. How could the other kid get a higher mark? "Because that's as good as he's ever going to write," said Kratzmann, who died in 2015 after a career as dean of education at the University of Regina. "You can write much better than this." Later Joni Mitchell dedicated her first album to him.

When there's nobody around to tell you what music to listen to, you find your own influences. She loved a 1953 Kirk Douglas movie called The Story of Three Loves and couldn't afford to buy the soundtrack album, so she'd walk to Grubman's department store in North Battleford and listen to it with headphones at the listening station again and again. The music was Rachmaninoff, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, by turns wild and lushly romantic, a 19th-century orchestral showcase par excellence. I think one way to understand Joni Mitchell is to imagine a girl walking across town, again and again for weeks, to listen to Rachmaninoff.

One of the first records she was able to keep and own was by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the U.S. trio of jazz singers Mitchell has called "my Beatles." They'd set lyrics to improvised instrumental solos, which meant writing long, snaky polysyllabic lines and singing them in close three-part harmony. It's a far more complex sound to have in your head than most kids ever experience.

One last ingredient in the unique stew of influences on young Joan Anderson: her polio-weakened left hand. She got a ukulele to play at parties for the other kids, then became almost obsessive about practicing. "Something went off inside her and she could not put that thing down," a childhood friend told Yaffe. "I distinctly remember standing in line to go to a movie and she wouldn't even talk. She was just playing this damned thing."

But when she graduated from a four-string ukulele to a six-string guitar, her hand was often too weak to press the strings to frets and form chords. So she became adept at finding and applying new tunings, loosening or tightening the strings to change the intervals between them. This would allow some chords to sound on open strings, make others possible by pressing just one string, and it established new relationships among the strings. Rich, unusual harmonies would lie naturally on a retuned guitar. Several songs pop up repeatedly on The Early Years, and Mitchell pauses to tell an anecdote before them each time. It's because she's retuning her guitar and she needs time to get the strings ready.

So the young woman who appears on these club dates and broadcast recordings through the mid-60s is quietly, methodically, working to integrate vast stores of surprising musical and lyrical information. Russian romanticism and motormouth bebop, novel chords and Mr. Kratzmann's invectives against cliché. Soon after these sessions end, she's in Miami's Coconut Grove neighbourhood and she runs into David Crosby, who's already famous as a singer for The Byrds. To her, with his handlebar moustache, Crosby looks like Bugs Bunny's gun-totin' antagonist Yosemite Sam. To him she seems like some kind of miracle.

Soon they're a couple and she follows Crosby to California, where he repeatedly shows her off, like a novelty item, to friends and visitors. In Crosby's memoir Long Time Gone, Peter Fonda recalls a visit from the couple. "She grabs hold of my guitar and then detunes the f - -er and then plays thirteen or fourteen songs, warbling like the best thing I'd ever heard in my life."

Mitchell soon tired of Crosby showing her off. The romance cooled, but he produced her first album and she was by then ensconced in the heart of late-60s California culture. Romances with Graham Nash, James Taylor, Jackson Browne and others followed. "I'm just a fool for love," she tells Crowe in the liner-note interview. What's perhaps more important to note is that they were all fools for her, not least because she was a finer musician than any of them.

The breadth of her musical ambition, and her regal disregard for others' opinion if it clashed with the imperatives of her own vision, would lead her to release one album that stands as a high-water mark of 20th-century popular culture, 1971's Blue. It led her to pursue rich, playful and durable collaborations with a succession of jazz musicians through the 1970s, including Charles Mingus and Jaco Pastorius. And it led one of those musical partnerships, with the saxophonist Wayne Shorter, to continue on album after album into the 21st century. It's a body of work very few artists can match.

What makes The Early Years so satisfying is that it already contains so many signs of the potential in this young folk singer, struggling for a fair shake in a Yorkville coffee shop. Once she became aware of an urge for going and started to listen, Joni Mitchell found there was no limit to how far she could go.

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