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Hear Joni Mitchell's Previously Unreleased Early Recordings Print-ready version

NPR's All Songs Considered
November 5, 2020

Transcribed by Greg Roensch

Bob Boilen: From NPR Music, you're connected to All Songs Considered. I'm Bob Boilen. On today's show we explore the early works of Joni Mitchell. The singer and songwriter released her first album in 1968, but a new boxed set has just been released, Joni Mitchell Archives Volume 1 - The Early Years (1963-1967). It's 119 songs, including 29 songs never released from Joni. I'm going to bring on NPR Music's Ann Powers to talk about this five-CD set. But let's start with one of the many live recordings in this box set. This song is from a performance at the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It's one of her well-known tunes. It's called "The Circle Game."


So that's Joni Mitchell from live at the Ann Arbor Canterbury House, back almost 53 years ago to the day, October '67. Joining me to talk about this amazing collection is Ann Powers, NPR Music's Ann Powers. Wow. 100-plus tracks, a time warp indeed.

Ann Powers: A treasure trove.

Bob Boilen: A treasure trove indeed. Tell me about this box set. And where to begin?

Ann Powers: This is such an exciting development for Joni devotees, of which there are so many. Joni Mitchell has always been somewhat resistant to archiving, especially her early material. But now she is launching a new series that's going to be similar to what her peers Bob Dylan and Neil Young have done for a long time. She's going to be sharing unreleased material in these beautifully produced box sets. I've seen this set in the flesh and it's just gorgeous. There's so many amazing photos of Joni as a young girl and young woman. Twenty-nine original compositions that have never been released before with her singing them.

Bob Boilen: Wow.

Ann Powers: I know. It's insane. You know how usually with these kinds of archival boxes, it's a lot of stuff that the people have heard but it's better organized. But I think this is truly like you open the vault and... oh my goodness. It's all there.

Bob Boilen: And that was a live cut. That's not true of a lot of these. I want you to take this to something nice and early.

Ann Powers: Oh, yeah. Nice and early, as early as it gets. One of the reasons that Joni finally decided to put this box together was that a recording surfaced of her very first time in any studio, I think. At 19, she entered a radio studio in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan ¬ - where she spent her teenage years - with a disc jockey named Barry Bowman. She recorded a bunch of folk songs. And this recording disappeared for decades. It was shrouded in the mists of legend. And one day, Barry Bowman the disc jockey's daughter was going through some old boxes and found this tape labeled Joni Anderson, Joni's maiden name. And lo and behold, here was this recording of her. They made it in the off hours, and it's Joni playing her baritone ukulele, which was what her mom bought her. She wanted a guitar, but mom thought a ukulele was more economical. And singing these folk songs. So even in these very early recordings, I think you hear her inventiveness, and of course, her incredible voice.

Bob Boilen: What should we hear from those early days, from that early recording?

Ann Powers: Well, let's hear a song that Joni probably learned on the folk circuit. It was also recorded by Judy Collins, who would later become one of Joni's early patrons, I guess is what you'd say. She recorded some of Joni's songs very early on. It's called "Anathea." I think you and I both like this song, Bob, because it just shows that voice in all its glory, even in Joni's teen years.

Bob Boilen: Awesome.


Bob Boilen: So we're in the 1960... what? '63-ish range?

Ann Powers: Yes, yes.

Bob Boilen: She's 19-ish.

Ann Powers: Yep.

Bob Boilen: She starts eventually to write songs of her own and starts traveling, right? She heads to Detroit?

Ann Powers: Joni thought she would be a painter before she ever considered a career in music, and she even to this day thinks of herself as a painter first. So she went to our college, but she also started playing in coffee houses. And by 1965, she'd moved around a little bit in Canada, and then she ended up in Detroit. A lot happened that year. She had a baby, whom she entrusted for adoption. She also married another musician, named Chuck Mitchell, and she was performing with him and she was writing songs. And even then, she was writing songs that later became classics. I think she'd gone through a lot, even by that time. And you sense that thing that's so essential to Joni, which is that blend of... I don't want to say girlish or childlike because that's not quite right, but that poeticism and wonder combined with a kind of almost world-weariness. And that's in some of the early compositions that are on this box set, including her very earliest compositions, one of which is a song that we all still love. It's called "Urge for Going."

And one of the great discoveries of this box set is a recording she made for her mom for her mom's birthday in 1965. And on that little demo is "Urge for Going." And here she is, she's trying to figure out her life. She's in this marriage that is not working out. She is in the midst of the process that will make a birth mother who has entrusted her child for adoption. This is intense stuff. And I think all of those experiences there are in these songs, but also that great sense of observation that's Joni's gift. She has said that this is the first well-written song she ever had. And I think part of that is that it isn't just a raw record of her experience, but it's also an observation of her life and of those around her in the Canadian prairies who sometimes felt trapped, even within the beautiful surroundings where they grow up.

Bob Boilen: Let's listen to "Urge for Going."

Joni Mitchell: I've written a couple of new songs since you were out here, and I think you'll like this one especially, Mom.


Bob Boilen: Just to give people an idea of the world of the "folk singer," which is a term I think she hated, but it is a world in which singers and songwriters sang each other's tunes. And this beautiful song that makes me want to cry right now...

Ann Powers: I know.

Bob Boilen: ... was not originally made famous by her.

Ann Powers: No, actually Tom Rush was the first to record "Urge for Going." And then George Hamilton IV, a country singer, recorded it and had some success with it too. That folk-singing community was so important to Joni, and though, yes, she would absolutely move beyond the frame of the folk singer fairy quickly, it was essential to who she was at that time. And I think one of the interesting things about listening to this music is you really can imagine and conjure the community of which she is a part. She would hate me for saying this, but I think you can hear the influence of women like Judy Collins and Joan Baez in her voice. And also, she talks about her number one influence at the time, Bob Dylan. She was also to soon meet Leonard Cohen, become close with him. He was...

Bob Boilen: Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Ann Powers: Yeah. Buffy Sainte-Marie. Actually, I'm so glad you mentioned Buffy. Joni, when she first left her home region, it was to travel to the Mariposa Folk Festival to see Buffy Sainte-Marie. Buffy was essential to her development. So, yeah, all of these people factor in. And they were trading songs, and Joni became a popular writer for others to interpret, which I think is almost... it's inevitable because the songs were great, but it's also extraordinary because when you have that instrument, that vocal instrument that Joni had, for others to be singing the songs, even as great as Tom Rush is and as Judy Collins is, we want to hear Joni do them. That's one of the great things about this set.

Bob Boilen: You talk about Dylan. There's some recordings where she talks about songwriting and so forth, and we'd love to play "What's the Story, Mr. Blue." She does an intro, but do you want to just...

Ann Powers: I'm so glad we're sharing this song, because as much as these early recordings make us think about Joni as a folky, she was always a rock and roller in her heart and in her soul. In the interview that's within the liner notes of this set that she did with her old friend Cameron Crowe, she says her favorite songwriter is Chuck Berry. I know.

Bob Boilen: I did not know that.

Ann Powers: Yeah. She loves Chuck Berry. She was hugely influenced by '50s rock and roll and doo-wop and all that stuff. You can hear that, I think, in this song, "What's the Story, Mr. Blue." She also talks about Dylan's influence, specifically Dylan's playfulness as a songwriter, and how he would just throw together all the lines he had building up from all the songs he'd never completed and build a new song from it. She tells that story in the introduction. She also mentions someone named David Blue, and says, "This is not about him." I have to wonder, but David Blue was a really cute songwriter, and a very good songwriter, singer-songwriter, and she was close to him at this time. So that's who the David Blue is who is not the Mr. Blue of this song, supposedly.

Bob Boilen: So she says, yes. All right. Let's listen to the intro, listen a bit of "Mr. Blue."

Joni Mitchell: The other day I was reading in a magazine that Bob Dylan had written one of his songs by taking leftover lines from dozens of songs he'd never finished. And I decided, well, by golly, I've got about 15 unfinished songs at home, and what I want to do is I'm going to take the lines I like out of each one of them, and I'm going to kind of cram them all together into a Mulligan stew kind of song. But the thing was that all of the songs were on very, very different topics. And so to put them into one song I had to develop them around a very basic plot, and a rock and roll beat. Now, the plot goes like this. There was fellow named Mr. Blue, who's no relation to David Blue at all. He's Mr. Blue because he's kind of sad. And he had a girlfriend who he treated very badly, and so she left him, and it serves him right. That's the plot. "What's the Story, Mr. Blue?"


Joni Mitchell: This is my favorite verse.


Joni Mitchell: This is my second-

Bob Boilen: There's a little bit of "Chelsea Morning" in that, maybe, yeah?

Ann Powers: Yes, totally. Good call. I think that's one of the fun things about listening to these tracks, is you can hear elements that show up in her other songs. I even think in that melody you can almost hear a little bit of what becomes "Both Sides Now," just in that little... the way it kind of drops down. Throughout this whole set you hear so much process. I mean, Joni Mitchell, she is just one of the most sophisticated songwriters, even in these early years. So to be able to hear how she's building those things... And no one ever understands her guitar tunings, but you can kind of hear her exploring those here. And every element that becomes what we love is on this set.

Bob Boilen: We'll take a quite break, be right back. I'm with Ann Powers, having a conversation about the new box set from Joni Mitchell's Archives Volume. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967). You're listening to All Songs Considered from NPR Music.

Bob Boilen: From NPR Music, you're connected to All Songs Considered. I'm Bob Boilen, and I'm talking with NPR Music's Ann Powers about this 119-song collection of early Joni Mitchell music that's just come out. And one thing we've both made note of in these early years are how painterly these lyrics are. Ann Powers picks up on that point.

Ann Powers: And the persona that she was creating as well, which was this sort of flower child, but then always with an edge and always with that observational quality as well. And I know we will get box sets for the later periods, the jazzy period and the Blue period and all of those much beloved moments in her career. She would look at this early stuff and say, "I was just silly back then." And, hey, let's be honest. Some of the writing in these are early songs is a bit high-flying, flowery. But I think that's the exploration she needed to do to become the writer she became.

Bob Boilen: Well, it wasn't just her. A generation of songwriters were exploring new ways to be expressive and mixing the poetry that they started reading and gathering around and talking about. It is the times. This is a time machine for me. What should we play in that writing that you call flowery that... a song we've not heard before. What would we play here?

Ann Powers: Well, I'm really intrigued by this little recording she made for the mysterious Michael who is the subject of her song "Michael From Mountains," one of her beloved early songs. And on that recording she has a couple songs about love that are so intensely romantic, and they're all about like, "Am I one with you or am I myself? I'm different than what you think I am." It's such an expression of young womanhood. One of them is called "Gemini Twin." And just the idea of Joni Mitchell writing a song called "Gemini Twin." I love it. That is the '60s in a nutshell for me.


Bob Boilen: Do we know anything, Ann, about where that was recorded? Obvious, some of the recordings really vary in quality, most being pretty good. That one, very hissy. But to not hear it because it was hissy would be a mistake, right?

Ann Powers: Yeah. No, absolutely. A lot of what's on this set is recording Joni herself made in her own home, wherever she was living. There's a demo she made for Jack Holzman, the record executive early on. There's stuff she made like that, she made for her friends, her lover. Then there's wonderful recordings of live concerts, but you hear the audience. You just have to be willing to walk into this collection of songs as if you were, as you said, Bob, walking into a time machine, and take in the ambience of the other world you've entered. I'm a Joni nerd, a complete Joni obsessive, so I just love to listen to that recording and think of her in her little flat in New York, looking out the windowsill at whatever... the taxis driving down the road... and making a recording sitting on her bed.

Bob Boilen: So is that as an uber-fan, and the fact that something like this is for uber-fans? What is it that you love, that fans are going to love that you heard on this?

Ann Powers: Well, Bob, one of the great things about becoming an intense Joni Mitchell fan is it connects you with a community over space and time. And there are songs on this record that have been treasured, hoped for by fans for many years, some of which fans have actually recorded because Joni's own recordings weren't available. So a few of these songs I've heard in versions by other singers. An example of that is "Cara's Castle." I think there might be a live version floating around of "Cara's Castle" as well. But I first heard this song on YouTube covered by other people who had found sheet music for it somehow.

Bob Boilen: No kidding.

Ann Powers: Yeah. And just like, "Okay, Joni didn't leave us with this one yet, so we're going to do it." So now we're back to the source, and that's really, really great.


Bob Boilen: Did any of the YouTubers get it right at all?

Ann Powers: Yeah, pretty good. I mean, Joni fans are very, very devoted. But one thing about that song I think is interesting is that she's painting this picture, this very poetical picture of maybe life in a rough part of town. And that's a side of Joni we don't talk about too much. We talk about her as a genius of the personal and the interpersonal, but she also was a social observer. And I think "Cara's Castle" is a song you could put next to one like "For Free," her later song about seeing a street musician and questioning her own involvement in the music industry and the value of art. So you see a little bit of her greater consciousness in that song.

Bob Boilen: Joni Mitchell turns 77 this week. She's had some health issues, but she is "speaking" in this interview that you can read with Cameron Crowe on the liner notes. Do we know if she's active in putting together some of these... the next of set of archives that'll come out?

Ann Powers: You mentioned her health setback. She had an aneurysm several years ago, and she has been in recovery. It's actually quite touching. She said a few times that this is the third time she's had to learn to walk, because she had polio as a young girl, and she lost the ability to walk again when she had this aneurysm. So just pause and shout out to the resilience of Joni Mitchell. Incredible resilience. She is getting better. But before she became ill, she was really doing a lot to sort of shore up and refine her legacy. She recorded some of her songs in orchestral settings. She participated in various tributes where other people interpreted her songs. She published a beautiful book of lyrics and artwork that she had created over the years. So I see this is part of a continuum, and I just can't wait for the next volume, because wait until we hear the outtakes from Hejira or what she was up to with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. There's so much more. But this set we have here is a great gift, and it sets us on the road in a beautiful way.

Bob Boilen: So take us out on something. What would be good?

Ann Powers: Well, I don't know Bob, what do you think? Should we go for the most beloved and obvious Joni song or one of the second-most? What do you think?

Bob Boilen: Well, growing up in that time period, I think something from Blue would be fine, and something that maybe gives us a little insight to her. We talked a little about the fact that she had a child, and she gave the child up for adoption. And though none of us knew that story in 1971 when we heard the song "Little Green," now that we do know that story, that has a whole different feel and meaning.

Ann Powers: It's an absolutely essential part of Joni's story and it's one that she was talking about in her music from the beginning of her career. And the song "Little Green," it's sort of like a purloined letter. When you know that it's about the experience of having a child and entrusting that child for adoption and the grief that comes from that, but also the hope, you can never hear the song in any other way. But you're absolutely right. I've looked at the reviews. I've looked at accounts, and really, nobody in the media got it. It's kind of amazing. But this is definitely a song that... I'm an adoptive mom myself. I have cried to this song so many times, include in front of Joni Mitchell once. One of my most embarrassing stories of my life.

I was presenting at a conference and she was there. It was a conference in her honor, and I was presenting on the album Blue, and I had recently become an adoptive mom to my daughter, and Joni was there. At the time, she had recently reunited with her daughter, and they were in the front row, and I started crying when I got to the part in my paper about this song. And I heard this little voice, Bob, from the front row, "You can do it. You can do it."

Bob Boilen: Oh my god.

Ann Powers: It was Joni.

Bob Boilen: Oh my god.

Ann Powers: I know. I know. I know.

Bob Boilen: Life.

Ann Powers: At the time I was mortified, but now I realize that was a gift.

Bob Boilen: That is beautiful.

Ann Powers: And now sometimes I just try to hear that voice again in my dark moments. "You can do it." That's what Joni says to all of us.

Bob Boilen: I love that. Thank you. Thank you, Ann Powers.

Ann Powers: Well, thank you for spending this time with the greatest songwriter of all time, Joni Mitchell.

Bob Boilen: That's beautiful.

Ann Powers: Sorry, Bob... Dylan, that is.

Bob Boilen: Thank you. I didn't know what you meant. I've been reading Jeff Tweedy's book, trying to write a song, write one song. Didn't think you meant me.

Ann Powers: No, you definitely rival Joni, but that Dylan guy, I don't know.

Bob Boilen: Let's go out on "Little Green" from the box set of Joni Mitchell: The Early Years (1963-1967). I'm Bob Boilen for NPR Music, along with Ann Powers. Thanks everybody.

Ann Powers: Thank you so much.

Bob Boilen: It's All Songs Considered.


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