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Joni Mitchell’s Youthful Artistry Print-ready version

by Margaret Talbot
The New Yorker
November 30, 2020

A new release documents Joni Mitchell’s early metamorphosis—unmoored, broke, living for a time in a Toronto attic—when her lodestar was her big, strange, unwieldy talent.Photographs by Jack Robinson / Hulton Archive / Getty

In 1964, a twenty-year-old Canadian singer named Joan Anderson began composing her own folk songs. They were good folk songs, sturdily constructed and memorable, but the genre corseted her. She would need to roam the mountains and plains of rock and jazz in order to claim her gift. Folk was not enough - but it was what was available to her as a young woman from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in the early nineteen-sixties, a woman in possession of an ethereal soprano and a four-string baritone ukulele, the instrument she could afford to buy on her own after her mother nixed a guitar. At nineteen, she left home for art school in Alberta - painting was her first creative outlet - and then began touring, playing in coffeehouses or church basements in Toronto and Calgary and Detroit. For her mother Myrtle's birthday in 1965, Joan made her a tape with three of the songs she had written, "Urge for Going," "Born to Take the Highway," and "Here Today and Gone Tomorrow." In the folk tradition, they celebrate footloose rambling. The lyrics are vivid and earnest, but impersonal:

I was born to take the highway
I was born to chase a dream
Any road at all is my way
Any place is where I've been
Anything is what I've seen

Seven years later, as Joni Mitchell, she would record a song called "Let the Wind Carry Me," in which she transposed the abstract, youthful restlessness of those first songs into the intimate personal idiom in which she was by then writing. "Joni Mitchell Archives - Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967)," a five-CD set just released by Rhino Records, is a document of this metamorphosis. To listen to it is to hear Joan Anderson, the winsome folksinger, beginning the work of transmuting herself into Joni Mitchell, the magisterial singer-songwriter. The earliest recording, from 1963, has her performing traditional folk songs - "House of the Rising Sun," "John Hardy," "Molly Malone" - accompanying herself on the ukulele, at a radio station in Saskatoon. The last is from a live set in October, 1967, at the Canterbury House, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in which she plays the guitar, performing, among other songs from her early albums, "Both Sides Now," which Judy Collins recorded first and would turn into a hit, and "Little Green," her wistful composition about the baby she had given up for adoption two years earlier. Unmoored, broke, she lived for a time in a Toronto attic where the previous tenants had burned the railings for firewood; yet her lodestar was the big, strange, unwieldy talent she was discovering she had. It would be, as she later sang, the key to set her free.

Joan was born the only child of a grocery-store manager and a housewife dedicated to keeping up appearances and chiding her daughter for failing to. Her mother "wanted me to be Doris Day or something like that," Mitchell recalled years later. The young Joan - with her gift for painting, her passion for dancing, her bristling impatience with school rules, and her wanderlust - was more like a changeling. When she was ten, and living in a small town called North Battleford, she came down with polio and was hospitalized for several months, nearly a hundred miles from home, in Saskatoon; in keeping with medical practice at the time, her mother visited only once and her father not at all. The experience seems to have enhanced in her a bemused sense of autonomy - especially when she defied the predictions of her doctors and, through sheer force of will, trained her body to dance again. "Let the Wind Carry Me" embraces the ceaseless yearning and the allusions to the natural world of her early folk songs, but it twines them with emotional directness, cinematic specificity, and a keen ear for dialogue, the hallmarks of her mature songwriting:

She don't like my kick-pleat skirt
She don't like my eyelids painted green
She don't like me staying up late
In my high-heeled shoes
Living for that rock-'n'-roll dancing scene
Papa says, "Leave the girl alone, Mother
She's looking like a movie queen"

The song goes on to explore the puzzle of ambivalence that Mitchell returned to again and again: the longing, in fervent, equal measure, for independence and for love:

Sometimes I get that feeling
And I wanna settle
And raise a child up with somebody
I get that strong longing
And I wanna settle
And raise a child up with somebody
But it passes like the summer
I'm a wild seed again
Let the wind carry me

The new collection came about by something of a serendipitous accident. The overnight d.j. on that Saskatoon station, Barry Bowman, misplaced the tapes for more than fifty years. Then one day, a few years ago, his daughter found a box of old cassettes in her mother's house and brought them to him - among them were two marked "Joni Anderson Audition." The quality of the recordings, like Mitchell's voice on them, is disarmingly clear and pure. Mitchell had never been particularly keen to revisit the recordings and performances she'd made before her first album, "Song to a Seagull," in 1968. She'd bristled at the label folksinger, and said she found her early songs melodic but "ingénue-y." But Patrick Milligan, the A. & R. director at Rhino Records, who co-produced the new CD set with Mitchell, said that there was something about the rediscovery of the 1963 tapes that seemed to change her mind - especially when it became clear that Bowman "just wanted her to have them, rather than trying to get rich off of it. That really impressed her. She liked the tapes - she said, 'I want this to be my next album.' I think it really opened her mind to the whole idea."

Mitchell also had some of her own early demos - and that birthday tape for her mother - and tapes of Canadian television and U.S. radio broadcasts were added to the mix. Alas, there seems to be no tracking down one tape that Mitchell mentions in an interview with the music writer Cameron Crowe that accompanies the rereleases. In 1968, when she was playing at a coffeehouse in Ottawa, Jimi Hendrix, who was performing at the big theatre in town, came to see her, and asked if she minded him taping her show. Kneeling down, with headphones on, he recorded the entire set, manipulating the controls on the bulky machine - "engineering," as she says. Unfortunately, the tape recorder and tapes were stolen a couple of days later.

Mitchell describes the folk scene she came up in as "very cliquish and very exclusive and very unfriendly towards me, a newcomer," and herself in those years as consistently "undervalued." At one of the first folk festivals she played, she once told an interviewer, she had "a lot of trouble with the audience booing and hissing and saying, 'Take your clothes off, sweetheart.' " But you can hear in these recordings that, at least some of the time, small, appreciative audiences listened quietly and applauded for her at length. Alone on the stage with her guitar, she seems to be collaborating with the audience in lieu of a band, honing her craft in the relentless give-and-take of performing. By 1967, she was crisscrossing the eastern United States, booking her own gigs until she hired a manager, Elliot Roberts, who saw the potential of her music - not so much "radio play or hits," he told Mitchell's biographer, David Yaffe, but a sense of "people being guided" by her songs, using them "for the soundtrack of their lives."

Milligan told me that what struck him about the collected early recordings was that "you can hear right off the bat how very accomplished she is musically - she's just so in command, and there's hardly an errant note. Her ukulele playing and her phrasing, the intricacy and the detail are spot on. We're so focussed on her songwriting and art, but she's an exceptionally talented musician."

In the years that the CD set covers, you can sense Mitchell feeling into the corners of her talent, poking and stretching it. Once she starts writing songs, they quickly become more sophisticated. Crucially, she discovers and embraces her lower vocal range, a breakthrough that adds warmer and darker moods to her music. In the live performances, she chats up the audience, while she takes her time turning the pegs on her guitar in her own distinctive ways - the beginnings of the affinity for open tunings that produced many of the unusual, emotionally charged chords in her songs. When, in 1968, Mitchell landed in Los Angeles, that style astonished the denizens of the flourishing Laurel Canyon scene, including the rock-star guys David Crosby, who produced her first album; Eric Clapton, when he dropped in; and Graham Nash, Mitchell's live-in lover on Lookout Mountain Avenue. When Mitchell played a song for musicians who didn't know her yet, "it was just a delight to watch their minds crumble out of their noses when they heard this girl," Crosby told David Yaffe. "Nobody knew about the open tunings, and up till then there were very few of us doing it." Fellow-musicians would pick up a guitar after she'd put it in a tuning, Mitchell told Crowe, and think, The Martians have been here!

It's a kick to hear some of the songs that never made it to albums - "Here Today and Gone Tomorrow" is a stealth earworm that I found myself singing along to after one listen. But, for me, the collection's most affecting moments are the early renditions of already familiar Mitchell songs. In "I Had a King," a song that appears on her first album, Mitchell reckons with the end of her youthful marriage to a fellow-singer on the coffeehouse circuit, Chuck Mitchell, with whom she lived in Detroit and toured as a duo for a time. Over the years, she has spoken of their partnership as a gamble on stability that she found stifling. They were a beautiful young couple, and people came to behold them, including two reporters for the Detroit News, who rapturously described the Mitchells' venturesome urban life style, in a richly painted apartment they'd furnished with thrift-store finds and stained-glass windows - the "tenement castle" she evokes in the song. Mitchell scouted out a diner in a Black neighborhood where the waitresses were kind to her: she could order a coke and write, creating a private world for herself. "I can't go back there anymore," she sings in "I Had a King." "You know my keys won't fit the door / You know my thoughts don't fit the man / They never can." In an early performance of the song, you hear the determination rising on the ascending notes of that chorus, and in the emphatic, repeated last phrase - "they never can" - sung in her deeper register. But you also detect, even more than on the first album, the melancholy of the song, the wash of regret that the song's narrator must flee her outwardly pleasing destiny.

Like an Adrienne Rich poem or an Alice Munro story, "I Had a King" is as exhilarating as ice cracking in the spring, readying the world for new life. "There is a change coming I think in the lives of girls and women," Munro wrote in her second book, published in 1971. "Yes. But it is up to us to make it come. All women have had up till now has been their connection with men. All we have had." To be a person, especially a woman, of artistic ambition in the time and place Mitchell grew up in marked you as an oddity from the get-go. In a tribute at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, in 2007, the writer Margaret Atwood joked that she and Mitchell "were both members of the Canadian Lunatic Generation. That was in the early sixties back when Canada was a blank spot on the map of global culture." If you said that you were going to be a novelist or a singer-songwriter, people thought you were a lunatic - "Multiply that by ten for being from the prairies. But Joni did it anyway."

In the early recordings collected on these CDs, you can hear the tentative acknowledgment of Mitchell's artistic ambition - the bafflement it stirred in others, and her calm assertion of it, anyway. The d.j. on the Folklore Radio Broadcast in 1967 is an admirer of "The Circle Game." He says, "That's gonna be a classic." But he struggles with how to describe Joni Mitchell's relationship to her work. Is she an author - an authoress? "What do you call it?" "Composer," Mitchell says evenly. "I wrote the song."

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Added to Library on November 30, 2020. (3384)


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