Record Bin: The complex folk idealism of Joni Mitchell's 'Court and Spark'

by Joshua Pickard
Nooga (website)
December 5, 2015

There are voices in our past that called for change. These voices were ragged and determined and all too frequently out of breath from saying so much with so few people listening. But, eventually, these voices were heard, and people began actively responding to what they were saying. It began with artists such as Robert Johnson and Lead Belly, who documented the rural and tragic circumstances of their surroundings. But time and people aren't easily swayed from their courses, and so these troubles shifted from one generation to the next.

The call was picked up in force by musicians in the '60s and '70s, decades where singers and songwriters had an honest voice to call for change in regards to many ideological and societal causes. Among these myriads was Joni Mitchell, a folk singer whose voice wasn't all that ferocious but still had a wrought-iron determination buried in its depths. Her songs played out like many of the other artists of her time, with stories of love lost and found and heartache that left indelible marks on flesh - but she also used her distinctive vocals to lay bare the heart of many different experiences and noteworthy events that occurred in those years.

Roberta Joan Anderson was born Nov. 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod in the Alberta province of Canada. (It wasn't until later that she adopted the name Joni Mitchell.) After a childhood filled with bouts of traveling brought on by her father's involvement in the Royal Canadian Air Force, a case of polio and an education where her free-thinking ideas were at odds with most of her teachers, she discovered that music was the way she could find true contentment and share an unfettered expression of her creativity with those around her. She began performing in nightclubs in Saskatchewan and eventually took to busking in the streets of Toronto.

When she moved to the U.S. in 1965, she began touring and her songs slowly made their way into the hands of people who recognized the talent she possessed. After some of her songs were recorded by popular folk singers, Reprise Records stepped in and offered her the chance to record her debut record, which she did in 1968. Her early records were familiar but striking folk iterations. Her unique voice and penchant for emotional insight caused her songs to be heard as more than just the run-of-the-mill folk narratives that had become so prevalent during the last half of the '60s.

With her debut in '68, she began a run of albums that was as impressive as it was necessary. She released one album a year from '68 to '72, and over the course of these records, her folk rock aesthetic matured and began to find itself resolving into a sound that borrowed from a handful of genres but ultimately coalesced into a singular musical vision. Toward the back half of that run, she began introducing various aspects of jazz into her music. And mixed with the folk and pop that had become her signature style, the music was becoming more confident and sure of its own direction.

She spent 1973 writing and recording what would become her sixth and arguably greatest album, "Court and Spark." Released Jan. 1, 1974, it felt like a culmination of sorts for her - an extended transition from the featherweight (though still capably effective) songs of her debut to a more self-aware state of musical affairs. Alongside producer/engineer Henry Lewy, Mitchell shaped her folk rock sound into something that felt larger than it had ever felt before - while also somehow making it seem more intimate. In this process of refinement, she called on quite a few Los Angeles musicians to help flesh out the record, including Robbie Robertson, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Tom Scott's L.A. Express, members of The Jazz Crusaders - even Cheech and Chong make a brief appearance. But even with these guests, "Court and Spark" still feels resoundingly like a Joni Mitchell record.

These songs are soft-spoken and gentle when compared to many of the more fiery orators that were releasing music around her, but it was Mitchell's ability to be persuasive without resorting to theatrics or argumentative rhetoric that allowed her songs to have the impact they did. Thematically, she was still using her music as a way of peering into some of the more questionable events that needed to be explored. Against this backdrop, she was mining the same avenues of love, hesitating beauty and the effect we have on the world around us.

Mitchell's music has garnered an unfair reputation among certain members of the music community as being too disposable and insubstantial. But that's merely a byproduct of her quiet, unassuming musical presence. "Court and Spark" is a perfect example of how she used this gentle demeanor to unearth some rather startling personal revelations and develop a complex but ultimately relatable idea of our own place in the world. Through these folk and jazz-inspired sounds, she created an album of unparalleled grace and insight. This record was her most successful both in terms of critical and commercial success, and there's a very good reason for that.

These songs are staples of numerous artists' catalog and will continue to be a source of inspiration for future musicians. They're a perfect example of an artist finding that true inner voice and using it to cast a light on topics that might have been left to the shadows. Mitchell and the idealism that fed her imagination may not be remembered as well as some of her more outspoken musical cohorts, but her legacy is just as revolutionary as anyone else's from that time.

Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.


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