GUY DIXON listens in as artists gather to salute the sounds of the timeless Joni Mitchell and other celebrated homegrown talents
James Taylor first heard Joni Mitchell's music while sitting in the Beatles' Apple offices in London.
You can imagine the scene. The man who most epitomizes the image of a singer-songwriter was with Derek Taylor, press officer for the Beatles, as they put on her album. Paul McCartney and George Harrison listened, too.
It was rock royalty listening to a young singer about to join their ranks. He then met Ms. Mitchell at the 1969 Mariposa Folk Festival on Toronto Island. (Or was it 1970 or '71, he later wondered. "Things were hazy for me in those days," he said).
"So yeah, you can say that her music is definitely tied up with some of the most important moments of my life," Mr. Taylor said at a dinner Saturday night before last night's gala performance in Toronto for this year's Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductees.
Although a number of songwriters and individual songs were being inducted, it was a weekend devoted to Ms. Mitchell -- who considers Saskatoon her hometown -- and five of her most famous songs.
"And then of course," Mr. Taylor added, tall and gaunt as ever, but with crystalline-clarity in his eyes, "in '71, we spent a year together really, almost all the time, and made a lot of music together. For me, that music goes straight to my heart."
Countless people have had that kind of close connection with Ms. Mitchell, 63, without ever having seen her in person or in concert. And this weekend, the reclusive artist who lives in California wasn't about to change her habits by coming out and suddenly making a public splash. By all accounts, she enjoyed the weekend and the tribute. Accepting her induction award on stage yesterday at Toronto's John Bassett Theatre, she appeared on the verge of tears, but then joked how she's been told she has a scientific rather than creative mind.
"I need to explore and discover . . . It's just in my stars. There's nothing I can do about it," she said modestly, during her short thank you speech.
Similarly, at Saturday's dinner, TV cameras lined the entrance carpet leading to a banquet room at the King Edward Hotel. Ms. Mitchell arrived at the last minute, breezed by and gave the simplest, open-armed gesture to the cameras.
In addition to Mr. Taylor playing Woodstock, others performing her songs last night included Chaka Khan and Herbie Hancock playing Help Me (and sent Ms. Mitchell's feet bouncing, her hands constantly pounding her knees and basically grooving in her seat) and Measha Brueggergosman singing Both Sides Now. The other two songs of Ms. Mitchell's inducted last night included Big Yellow Taxi and You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio.
"My junior high-school teacher is a huge Joni Mitchell fan and would play her during class. So that was my introduction to her. But she is the soundtrack to many people's lives actually," Ms. Brueggergosman said at the Saturday night reception.
Commenting on her musical legacy before the ceremony, Mr. Taylor added, "I, like everybody else, have such feelings over time for Joni and her music. In my case, with our long-lasting and deep friendship, there was no question I wanted to be here."
Last night's other inductees included Quebec singer-songwriter Jean-Pierre Ferland and a number of his songs (such as Je reviens chez nous and Le petit roi), early Broadway composer Raymond Egan (Ain't We Got Fun and Sleepy Time Gal), country singer Wilf Carter (My Old Canadian Home, My Swiss Moonlight Lullaby and There's a Love Knot in my Lariat), plus a number of individual songs such as David Clayton-Thomas's Spinning Wheel.
As the singers -- including Michael Bublé who sang How About You? -- performed their numbers, a question lingered over the event. Once songs such as these become so legendary, do they effectively belong to everyone, with artists losing possession of them?
"Ideally, a handful of songs that one has written over a lifetime of writing songs will resonate so much with people that they mean a lot, that they are commonly held property," Mr. Taylor said.
"They mean so much to so many people that they become, certainly with a number of Joni's songs, part of the cultural fabric and contribute to the modern cultural myth that people use to assemble their own lives."
Folk singer Sylvia Tyson, whose song You're On My Mind was inducted last night, added, "I don't think you lose possession of them. Certainly it's gratifying that so many people love those songs that we've written. But those songs are our kids. Even when they grow up and go away, you never really fall out of love with them."
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