Transcribed by Craig Maltby, watch the video here.
Pam Wallin: Joni Mitchell our guest tonight here in Los Angeles. You say you've been smoking since you were about 10?
Pam Wallin: Nine? Ho ho! You were bad!
Joni: Well, I don't know. Was it bad? I mean suppose it is. I mean, I don't want to encourage kids to take the habit up because it's...it's a difficult habit. But, um, I got polio at the age of nine. Um, the epidemic swept across Canada. In '53, that was the last year of it before the Salk vaccine. And uh, I....
Pam Wallin: You tell this story of actually getting up in the morning and looking into a mirror and knowing that something was different.
Joni: Yeah. I got up and all I remember was my first thought was, 'cause I said to myself, "You look like a woman today." Which means something had altered in my face. Either I had dark circles or my face was slightly swollen. Um, something looked different. I dressed myself. I walked to school with a chum. Um, the third block before the school, I had to sit down and take a little rest because I was aching. And I said "Oh dear, I'm getting old. I must have rheumatism 'cause my grandmother had rheumatism. The following day I couldn't get out of bed. I was paralyzed.
When they diagnosed it they shipped me up to a polio colony, um, outside St Paul's Hospital in Saskatoon.
Pam Wallin: And they were like leper colonies, weren't they?
Joni: Yeah. They were annexed trailers, and, they were kind of terrifying, um, in that the sound, not so much in the daytime because the halls were full of activity, but at night, the sound of the iron lungs - that wheezing breathing - it was a terrible sound and we all dreaded the possibility that we could end up in one of those cans.
Pam Wallin: Is that what you thought? That you might never be able to walk? That you might never be able to breathe? That you were going to spend the rest of your life in this iron lung?
Joni: Well, if the disease spread into your lungs you'd go into the iron lung because you'd have to have mechanical aid. And if you got into the iron lung, chances are you'd never get out. And, um, there was a possibility that I would never walk, um, I was frozen, many of the muscles in my back were lost. As a result my spine was crooked, and arched up like a broken doll.
So, anyway, Christmas was nearing and I said to the doctors, "I want to go home for Christmas." They said you can't, you know. I said why not? Well, 'cause you can't walk. Well what if I walk, you know?
They said, well, you can't stand. Well what if I stood and walked? Then they hung their heads and said it wasn't really a possibility.
My mother had put a little Christmas tree in the room and that night after lights out, they let me leave it on for an extra hour and I said to the little tree, emphatically, "I am not a cripple." No way. I'm not a cripple, you know, and I kind of made a promise to the tree or to God or someone that if I was allowed to walk again, um, I would pay it back.
Now someone had sent me a coloring book in the hospital, and it was a Christmas carol coloring book. But, no one sent me any colors. And we had mouths full of cankers and they paint our mouths with gentian violet and they'd sometimes leave the swabs behind.
So I was coloring everything in this book like purple and dark purple; I had one color, you know. And singing Christmas carols to this depressed six-year-old in the room with me, who kept telling me to shut up. So that was my first audience, you know. Anytime I'd open my mouth and sang a Christmas carol he'd go, "Shut up!"
Pam Wallin: But you were bound and determined. I mean, you were going to fight this one, like, it's almost mind over matter, which...
Joni: Yeah. I read about miraculous cures in books, and in nearly every case, the person said emphatically to this very clever organism that is the body, you know, "no way." Somewhere all the cells said, "oh, she means no way!" you know. So that in the weeks that followed, I took my treatments which were hot, scalding rags like a champ, and, you know, I allowed the therapist to bend me, and you know, and, I was very brave and very determined and I walked. And, um, I refused, you know, to be coddled, and, um, I was convalescent for the better part of a year. But I came back a dancer.
Pam Wallin: I mean, when people, when adults deal with this and say that they look into the face of death, that it changes their life and they become, you know, more determined to do things, in a sense, more carefree, if you feel like you've stolen it back. Do you even have that understanding when you're that age?
Joni: Oh yes. Oh, definitely. I celebrated my legs. I would have been an athlete. I lost my speed, you know, so that I was never gonna win a swimming contest. I was never gonna be the fastest again. But at least I was mobile. And, uh, so I turned to grace. I turned to water. Things that didn't require such speed. Water ballet, dance. And I think that it was a blessing in a way because it developed the artistic side.
Pam Wallin: Is that the part two of you that I guess went out and said "I'm gonna live life now to its fullest," because if you look at it that way, then, what have you got to lose?
Joni: Maybe. Life had more blows to deal me, like, it had to knock me down a few times more. You know, each one is a tempering by fire, and I think every time you rise up from some near death encounter, you come back stronger and hopefully more full of life. Either it makes you or breaks you, you know.
Pam Wallin: In 1964 you had, as they say, a child out of wedlock. That was a pretty....
Joni: Oh, that was a terrible thing for a woman, nothing worse. You may have well killed somebody. You know, you were...it was losing face to the max. Yeah.
Pam Wallin: What happened?
Joni: Um, she was given up to adoption. It was 1965. That was the year the pill became available. Every young girl in Canada went to the anonymity of the big city to drop their babies. As a result, there were more children for adoption than the foster homes could handle, let alone the adoptive agencies. So, and I was dirt poor...I mean I was on the street poor. I didn't have a penny. You know, like, and uh. I couldn't get the $160 I needed to get into the musician's union, so there was one scab club in Toronto that allowed by to play. And I was the only good scab artist in town. So when I had to go into retirement, the club collapsed. So I became the housekeeper for these two guys, you know. So with the little money I had ahead, you know I had some friends, and uh, so it wasn't that rough. But it was difficult parting with the child. And like I said, I had no money...for diapers or a room to take her to.
Pam Wallin: I mean that was a decision you had to make...
Joni: I had to let her go. I had no choice. And there was no career, you know, on the horizon. Three years later I had a recording contract and a house and a car. But how can you see that in the future. I couldn't get work. I couldn't get club work.
Pam Wallin: Have you...have you ever looked for her?
Joni: Um, I've started to on a couple of occasions, but I ran into really ugly attitudes and backed off. Mainly owing to the celebrity. Then the Enquirer and my finky friends from Saskatchewan brought it out into the open. The only people I was...I'm not ashamed of it. But I was protecting my parents, you know, who are of the generation that find that still scandalous. You know, so now that it's out in the open, so what? You know like, um, you know, I've thought about the child. I hope her teeth are good and her bones are good. My diet was atrocious and I smoked all through my pregnancy.
Pam Wallin: No one knew any better then...
Joni: Nobody knew, you know. So I hope she's alright. You know, and um, I think about her from time to time. And the foster mother, the last time I was in Toronto since the cat was out of the bag, the foster mother who had her for the first few months - was an old woman by that time - recognized my bone structure on television, sent me all her early baby pictures.
Pam Wallin: So you have those.
Joni: I have that, yeah.
Pam Wallin: You were an only child yourself, so your sense of family is...is narrow in a way.
Joni: My sense of family...I have children family along the way. I have many brothers, and, uh. Blood brothers, but they're not genetic brothers. But they're as close as...you know. And, and a few sisters, and uh, you know, family is the heart.
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