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Taking Risks Print-ready version

Mitchell Songs: Cover Versions

by Jeff Hankins
Shadows and Light
October 1996
Original article: PDF

Probably it's Bob Dylan who has laid down the greatest challenges to the interpretive singer - to pick the jewels of startingly sweet melodies from the bare rock of his raw, idiosyncratic recordings, and yet somehow try and retain their immediacy and their power. Joan Baez and Judy Collins were two notable amongst a great crowd who took up the challenge with remarkable vigour, and occasional success. (More about Judy Collins in a moment.) Joni Mitchell's work has presented a similar, but different, challenge to the interpretive artist: to take a song which has already had its definitive embodiment and bring from it some new flavour. It's remarkable the number who have taken up this challenge, though not always with equal degree of adventurousness.

Judy Collins, whether we like it or not, probably did more than any other artist to bring the songwriting talents of Joni Mitchell to the mass audience, through her stirring, strings-augmented version of 'Both Sides Now,' lifted from the Wildflowers album of1967. The same album sees her taking a successful stat at Michael from Mountains.' I remember seeing Judy Collins during this era doing a spot on some glitzy TV show (Tom Jones Show? Something like that). Playing the piano to accompany herself she sang a song called 'Chelsea Morning,' ... I was arrested very much by the delightful construction of the song - something refreshingly different about the melodical and lyrical patters and, well, apparently Collins released the song as a single around this time, but, displeased with the result, had it withdrawn, and had another (indeed, better) bash at it on the semi-live album Living some years later. I think I remembering hearing an interview with her somewhere where she said she'd have recorded a lot more Mitchell songs if the composer hadn't done them so beautifully already. And there, put very succinctly, les the problem.

We tend to find some of the bolder covers in the days before the writer herself had been discovered and put onto disc, and we had no "original" to compare their efforts with! Tom Rush in whose Detroit Club Joni was performing in 1965-66 before her move to New York, recorded three of her songs on his Circle Game album. One wonders, if her own recordings had been in existence at the time, whether he would have had the courage. Of the three, for me, only 'Tin Angel' stands as bringing something new and distinct to the song: perhaps what Mitchell herself described (talking in that instance about Dave Van Ronk's version of 'Both Sides Now,' the only cover at that time she actually liked...) as a quality of male sadness. I applaud Rush for choosing the song, too, acknowledging a classic beauty in it too often overlooked. Of course several people besides Rus were beginning to record 'Urge For Going.' I've still not heard the George Hamilton IV version which was the earliest, successful (c&w charts!) one. So I'm indebted to Rush because his was the first version of the song I heard.

In this country the folk group The Johnstons recorded it. I've got a single with that song and "both Sides Now' back to back. They must have been quite entranced by what they heard when they met her here in 1968; I believe they also recorded 'Marcie' though I've not heard that cover. (What happened to the Johnstons?) These days you can hear several cover versions of 'Urge For Going;' I believe Mary Black has one on an album. Oh, and I notice there's a Crosby, Stills & Nash version unearthed and included on one of those boxed CD sets. In the late sixties others over here must have got hold of a demo-tape that Joe Boyd or someone was floating around. In one interview I read, Joni says that Julie Felix was doing some of the more obscure songs in club performances, though I've found no recordings apart from the obligatory 'Both Sides.' Fairport Convention, in one of their earliest incarnations, did 'I Don't Know Where I Stand' and also 'Chelsea Morning,' and then on there What We Did On Our Holidays album a lovely version of 'Eastern Rain." And here they really have made something a little different. Ambitiously they've injected a sort of new busy pace into it, and dropped the lyrics of the bridge section. Not a bad idea: it works well. A bit of risk-taking that the artist would surely applaud.

Because, after all, a bit of creative risk-taking is the only way to do a cover version of a Mitchell song. Witness that sad imitation of 'Songs to Ageing Children Come' from the soundtrack of Alice's Restaurant... or witness Buff Saint-Marie's version of 'Song to A Seagull' which changes nothing, stylistically, and so certainly adds nothing new or fresh to the definitive composer-version. Was it worth it? A hundred mediocre versions of 'Both Sides Now' attest the same thing. But one person who wasn't afraid to make it fresh was Pete Seeger who added his own verse to it. Have you heard that wonderful recording of him and Joni duetting on it (from some US TV programme in 1969)? Ah, now that captures the creative spark burning bright! In the same way, however much Ian Matthews' hit single made a rather tamed and comfortable 'Woodstock,' I still have to admire him for seeing its potential for a different kind of treatment (even a slightly different melody!) After all Joni herself did the same kind of thing in her guitar-version 80s performance of the song.

There was a time some years back when I started to collect lists of these cover versions (too much time on my hands, obviously!) but here of some of the quirkier ones I recall:

'Night In The City' by the Athenians (Nana Mouskouri's band)
'In France They Kiss On Main Street' by the Swingle Singers!
'Dreamland' by Roger McGuinn
'The Circle Game' by the Ian Campbell Folk Group
'For Free' by David Crosby
'Big Yellow Taxi' by Bob Dylan
'This Flight Tonight' by Nazareth (remember that?!)
'Ladies of the Canyon' by Annie Lennox (only heard that recently)
'I Don't Know Where I Stand' by Barbra Streisand

My own favorite? Bonnie Raitt doing 'That Song about the Midway.' She gives it a new soulful quality, and anyway its such a great, under-exploited song and Raitt is such a great singer.

You've got the idea by now, I'm sure, that the point I'd make is; if you're going to cover a Mitchell song, don't just repeat; certainly don't try and compete; but do something with the song which grabs a hold of the creative challenge that each son is; creativity renewed and rediscovered with each intelligent interpretation; so give me a bold Nazareth 'Flight' to a bland Perry Como style 'Both Sides' every time.

Thanks Jeff. Maybe Joni should record Carly Simons' "Nobody Does It Better!' Seriously, do any of our readers have a favourite Joni cover version? Please write to me at the usual address. Ed.

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Added to Library on August 2, 2021. (429)

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