Both Sides of Joni

by Steve Clarke
History of Rock
March 1983

Of all the singer-songwriters who emerged at the beginning of the Seventies, only Joni Mitchell has been able to build significantly on the music which first made her name. While many of her peers were finding it increasingly difficult to follow up their first success, Mitchell was developing from a gifted, folksy song-writer into a popular artist of unusual breadth and originality. Always innovative, Mitchell never ceased to absorb new influences. She cast the traditional rock devices aside in favour of the less-structured framework of jazz. To describe her work as jazz-rock, however, would be to do it an injustice, for whatever Mitchell turned her attention to she made her won.

She was born Roberta Joan Anderson on 7 November 1943 and brought up in the Canadian prairies of Alberta by her middle-class family. Her first instrument was the ukulele, learnt from a Pete Seeger instructional record. She discovered folk just as it was enjoying its largest revival, one which would have enormous implications for popular music. As Mitchell later put it: "Rock'n'roll went through a really dumb vanilla period. And during that period, folk came in to fill the hole."

After visiting the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1964, she abandoned her art-school course and began singing in the coffee bars of Toronto's Yorktown folk scene. In 1965 she married fellow folkie Chuck Mitchell with whom she worked together for a while in a duo. But the marriage was short-lived. After moving to Detroit, from where they hoped to conquer the eastern states folk circuit, the couple went their separate ways. (In 1983 she was married again, to bassist Larry Klein.) Mitchell based herself in New York, booking her own tours and handling her own finances.

Rush for stardom

In Detroit, the Mitchells had met Tom Rush, one of the more adventurous new folk-singers. Rush tried to get Judy Collins to cover one of Joni Mitchell's songs, 'Urge for Going', in 1966. Collins demurred, so Rush recorded it himself and scored a local hit with it. Mitchell herself did not record the song until 1972.

Tom Rush's next LP, the commercially and critically successful The Circle Game, contained two of Mitchell's songs, including the title track. That same year, 1967, Judy Collins featured two Mitchell tunes on her LP Wildflowers. One was 'Michael from Mountains'; the other, 'Both Sides Now', which made the US Top Ten and established Mitchell as a major song-writer. By this time Mitchell had got herself a record deal with Warner-Reprise. Originally Frank Sinatra's label, Reprise that year, the label signed Jimi Hendrix, Randy Newman, Arlo Guthrie and Joni Mitchell herself. Elliott Roberts, who was responsible for the signing, remained Mitchell's manager into the Eighties, a role he also fulfilled for her fellow countryman Neil Young.

Joni Mitchell's self-titled debut album, produced by former Byrd David Crosby, was released in the summer of 1968. Like her songs for Rush and Collins, Joni Mitchell and its successor, Clouds (1969), displayed her obvious way with words and flair for melody. But neither album suggested that Mitchell was anything more than another folksy 'poet' whose main function would be to furnish more gifted vocalists with the occasional song, and she herself was later to call Clouds her artistic nadir. Her phrasing was locked firmly within the folk tradition, and she sounded uncomfortably self-conscious in the recording studio. Her songs tended to be dour; her portrait of her ex-husband, 'I Had A King', was, despite its vitriol, too solemn to make the impact of, say, Dylan's epistle to rejected love, 'Positively Fourth Street'. Many of her songs indulged in fanciful imagery inspired that was reinforced by her move to California during the last phase of flower-power.

By this time, Mitchell had become part of the Los Angeles Laurel Canyon rock-star community, a predicament reflected in the title of her third LP, Ladies of the Canyon (1970). She was also living with former Hollies star, Graham Nash; in case the public didn't get the message, Nash Mitchell wrote their respective ditties about it. CSN&Y recorded 'Our House', while the somewhat slight 'Willy' as included on Ladies of the Canyon.

Not all the songs on the album were so disposable, fortunately. Mitchell as beginning to take musical changes. Piano now shared the limelight with Joni's acoustic guitar, and the feel of the music was closer to rock. Jim Horn's exuberant sax playing made a fitting coda to 'For Free'. This song introduced one of Mitchell's recurrent concerns, the paradoxes of making a living out of self-expression. As time went by, she would address herself more and more to the problem of her relationship with her audience.

Yellow and Blue

Ladies of the Canyon also included 'Big Yellow Taxi', which became her first UK hit single. A great little plug for ecology, the song was a vocal tour de force, delicately poised between exuberance and regret. 'The Circle Game', which Rush had recorded earlier, saw Mitchell breathing new life into the traditional folk metaphor of the seasons as a symbol for ageing. And, despite its naivety, 'Woodstock' was a landmark for Mitchell. While Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young never shook off their identification with the song - their frenzied electric arrangement appeared on their album Déjà vu (1970) - Mitchell was only briefly associated with that myth, in spite of having written it's theme tune.

By the end of 1970, Joni Mitchell had established herself as a recording artist in her own right. Commercial logic would have suggested a world tour to consolidate her success, but Mitchell was uncomfortable with the role of rock-star. Instead, she decided to withdraw from the limelight, travelling in Europe and sailing from Jamaica to California with David Crosby and Graham Nash. It was a time re-assessment: "Like falling to earth", she said, "It felt almost as if I'd had my head in the clouds long enough……Shortly after that time, everything began to change. There were fewer adjectives in my poetry. Fewer curlicues to my drawing. Everything began to get more bold and solid in a way."

That year's sabbatical produced the album Blue (1971). Where Mitchell's idealism has previously got the better of her, she now told the story from the other side, taking a wry and anti-sentimental look at both personal relationships and public affairs. 'California' saw the author of 'Woodstock' admit, "That was just a dream some of us had". Despite this new mood, Blue was an international success, and established Mitchell at quite a different level. The generation that had been told it could have everything - the world included - responded to her mood of disillusionment.

Instrumentally, too, the LP was a breakthrough. Apart from Joni Mitchell's acoustic guitar work, the contributions of Stephen Stills, James Taylor and Sneaky Pete of the Flying Burrito Brothers (on pedal steel guitar) all formed a supple and rhythmic backdrop. And, for the first time, Mitchell was using her full vocal range, singing with passion and skill.

After an extensive American and European tour, accompanied by the then-unknown Jackson Browne, she retired to Canada to contemplate her next move. The hippie in Mitchell had taken a battering on Blue, but she was still trying to put some of the dream into practice: "I actually tried to move back to Canada, into the bush. My idea was to follow my advice and get back to nature."

In contrast to the restrained arrangements of Blue, the subsequent For The Roses (1972) featured the elaborate horn and woodwind arrangements of Tom Scott, though there was still room for Mitchell's doleful piano. Much of the LP dealt with the ambiguities of exploiting one's personal history for fame and fortune. Mitchell's new maturity, however, extended to writing telling songs about other people's experiences as well as her own, such as 'Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire' and her 'Beethoven' number 'Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune)'.

Mitchell's fans had to wait until 1974 for another album. With Court and Spark and the live double album Miles of Aisles - and an extensive tour including two visits to Britain - they were amply rewarded. Working with Tom Scott's elegant jazz-rock combo, the LA Express, Mitchell was now projecting an image closer to night-club chic than folksy hippie. Scott's bright, immaculate arrangements, deftly executed by the band, propelled Mitchell's music to new heights of expressiveness.

Richly melodic and featuring some singularly sharp songs of observation, Court and Spark gave Mitchell an unprecedented commercial success. She still used her songs to reveal her own inner struggles, although a kind of giddy humour now underlay some of the material. This was most noticeable on 'Twisted', an Annie Ross song - the first time Mitchell had sung a song by another writer on her albums, and proof of her increasing desire to jettison rock for jazz.

Summer sophistication

The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) confirmed this change of direction. Exceptional for its dearth of confessional material, it was even more elaborately arranged than its predecessor. It touched levels of sophistication rare in pop, both musically and in terms of its subject matter, for the most part a commentary on middle-class American suburbs.

Mitchell carried off this ambitious experiment with remarkable aplomb. Unfortunately much of her trailblazing fell on deaf ears, particularly in America where the critics sharpened their knives for a ritual shredding.

Undaunted Mitchell's next work, Hejira (1976) was just as adventurous. In sharp contrast to the luxuriant textures of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira echoed the stark beauty of Blue, only this time Mitchell's rhythms derived from jazz and not rock. Named after Muhammed's flight from Mecca to Medina, the LP sprang out of Mitchell's own flight from a relationship. Filled with the restless imagery of travel, the songs indicated an acceptance of the impossibility of reconciling the demands of love and freedom.

In five years Mitchell had made as many great albums. She'd assimilated rock and jazz influences in a unique way. She'd written about a range of subjects and situations with an incisiveness and wit unprecedented in rock. Her more recent work had taken a mystical quality as her desire for musical progress seemed to mirror an inner search.

A reckless release?

It was only on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977) that Mitchell began to show signs of losing her sustained creative momentum. Yet there was much to applaud on the record, particularly the playing of Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius from Weather Report. And Mitchell's poetic consciousness had lost none of its edge, even if she over-reached herself musically on the autobiographical 'Paprika Plains' which occupied an entire side of the album.

In 1979, Joni Mitchell took her preoccupation with jazz to its logical conclusion, collaborating with that giant of post-war jazz, Charles Mingus. The resulting LP, Mingus, her most ambitious yet, proved a critical success but a commercial failure. If Mitchell was to be admired for her audacity in making the album, in truth it failed to match her previous triumphs.

Mingus was followed by a pregnant silence. In 1982 Mitchell returned with Wild Things Run Fast, a hollowish resume of what had gone before. For once Mitchell was not, as she had remarked in 1979, 'pushing the limits………or the perimeters of what entails a popular song'. For once Mitchell had stopped searching. But who knows where her restless spirit will take her next? It is difficult to imagine Joni Mitchell merely reiterating past glories just to satisfy the platinum demands of the record industry.

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