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I Come From Open Prairie... Print-ready version

2014 Biography Series, Part 1 of 16

by Mark Scott
May 8, 2014

No vaccine or cure for polio was available when Joni Mitchell became infected with the disease at the age of nine. Joni has said that she had the body of an athlete at this early stage of her life. During a radio broadcast from 1995, Joni told a story from her childhood, describing herself as a tomboy who longed to play physically active games with the boys in her neighborhood rather than spend time with the girls and their dolls. When she found herself lying in a hospital bed while the potentially debilitating and possibly fatal disease threatened to rob her permanently of her ability to walk, she stubbornly refused to give in to it and began to barter with some higher power that she mentally fixed in a Christmas tree that her mother had brought to her. After a period of painful treatments, she did recover the use of her legs. But whatever athletic potential she may have had was severely limited and she was effectively sidelined from most playground activities. As a result, she developed an acute ability to observe coupled with a propensity to look inward, to question, and to analyze. Exceptional talents began to reveal themselves that would allow for the outward expression of the visions that eventually germinated inside what turned out to be a very fertile mind.

Joni's life began on November 7th of 1943 in the small town of Fort McLeod in the Canadian province of Alberta. She was born Roberta Joan Anderson, the only child of Bill Anderson, a Royal Canadian Airforce officer and a teacher, Myrtle McKee Anderson. After Bill Anderson left the Airforce at the end of World War II, he worked in the grocery business. The family moved to the province of Saskatchewan and Joni spent parts of her early years in the towns of Maidstone and North Battleford. When she was eleven, the Andersons settled in the city of Saskatoon where Joni spent the remainder of her childhood. Roberta Joan Anderson grew up in the wide open spaces of the Canadian prairie in a largely agrarian society comprised of 'sky-oriented people, geared to changing weather'.

In the beginning of her creative life, Joni was engrossed in the visual, rather than the performing arts. Words, guitars, pianos and her multi-octave voice shaped the art that would eventually find its way to a world-wide audience. But in the beginning, paints, brushes, colored markers, paper, and canvas were the tools she used to express her inner life. She still maintains that painting was her first love and that music was more or less incidental. After her bout with polio she felt she could repay whatever power she had bargained with for the recovery of her legs by joining the church choir. However, her sharp intelligence made her a problematic Sunday school attendee. She had a tendency to ask provocative questions such as who the children of Adam and Eve would have married if Adam and Eve were the first and only man and woman on earth. She also says she started smoking when one of the other girls who sang in the choir brought a pack of cigarettes to choir practice. The habit has persisted from that first cigarette to the present day.

As a teenager, Joni taught herself to play the ukelele as a way to secure invitations to wiener roasts which were more or less beer drinking parties. She bought a Pete Seeger instructional record to teach herself how to play the instrument. By this time she was sneaking off to dance halls to indulge her love of rock-n-roll dancing, an activity that apparently had suffered no impairment from polio. Joni's song 'Let the Wind Carry Me' from the 1972 album 'For the Roses' implies that her father was indulgent of her rebellious spirit while her mother was more inclined to take the moral high ground: 'Papa's faith is in people, Mama she believes in cleaning...Papa brought home the sugar, Mama taught me the deeper meaning'. Myrtle Anderson's moral judgment still had the power to sting up into Joni's middle age when she wrote about her mother's reaction to an affair Joni had with Saskatoon songwriter Donald Freed in the 1998 song 'Face Lift': 'She put blame on him and shame on me....She said "Did you come home to disgrace us?"'.

  Joni's senior picture from the school yearbook
Joni showed an early talent for composing music, playing her own musical creations on piano after learning to play the instrument at age seven. But her piano teacher insisted that she stick to her lesson plans and would rap Joni's knuckles when she would play her own compositions. As a result, Joni quit the piano lessons and, consequently, her formal musical education came to an abrupt end. As she grew into adolescence, she began to write poetry. Unlike her experience with her piano teacher, she found a mentor who fostered her talent for composing with words. In the seventh grade, one of her teachers told her if she could paint with a brush, she could also paint with words. This teacher's nurturing but critical teaching style challenged the young Roberta Joan and made her strive for improvement. Under his guidance she learned how to refine her writing and she began to develop a well-crafted, original style.

Printed inside the jacket of Joni's first record album are the words 'This album is dedicated to Mr. Kratzman, who taught me to love words.' It seems highly unlikey that the piano teacher has or ever will be accorded with any such mark of distinction.

With the intent of pursuing her first artistic inclination, Joni enrolled in the Alberta College of Art in Calgary in 1963 at the age of 19, eager to study painting. But it seemed that conventional educational systems could not provide the right environment to stimulate Joni's creativity and intellect. Abstract expressionistic painting dominated the art world of that time. When Joni attended the school, the Alberta College of Art held that style as its standard for aspiring painters. Joni had little interest in abstract painting. She had developed keen drawing skills which led to a natural preference for figurative painting. She felt that her technical ability and lack of interest in abstractionism subjected her to the college's bias toward the type of artist she wanted to become..

Initially, Joni found herself drawn to music as more of a way to pick up some extra spending money than as a means of self-expression. The folk movement of the early 1960s was well underway. There were coffee houses where folk singers performed in the cities of Edmonton and Calgary. Joni's soprano voice which had a range of three to four octaves was well-suited to folk music and she began to perform in these small, intimate venues.

One of these venues was The Depression coffee house in Calgary and John Uren was its proprietor. Prior to acquiring The Depression, John had founded a couple of magazines in Toronto. Since John had worked at a race track, the subject of these two periodicals was horses. In 1963 he agreed to help drive two cars to Vancouver in British Columbia. His trip brought him to Calgary just before the time of the city's annual rodeo-themed Calgary Stampede, and John decided to stick around for the event. John's wife had been a frequent patron of Toronto's thriving circuit of coffee houses. That may have given John the idea of acquiring a failed jazz club in Calgary and transforming it into his own coffee house, The Depression. He eventually enlisted a British folksinger named Peter Elbling to be a regular performer at the the new club. Peter Elbling later became an actor and built a highly successful career, performing on stage, in television and in films. He eventually moved on from acting into directing and writing for films. He has written several books as well.

John and Peter were searching for additional folk singing acts when the young Joni Anderson unexpectedly walked into The Depression with her ukelele. She came purely out of her own initiative with no kind of appointment. Her unscheduled audtion took place right then and there. John was taken with her looks and personality and Elbling recognized Joni's singing ability. The result was that Joni and Peter Elbling were the featured players for the opening of The Depression and she became a regular performer there on the weekends. Uren recalls that Joni's vocal style was very similar to that of Joan Baez. Since John Uren was trying to make The Depression a successful business venture, singers in his club were pretty much relegated to performing the traditional and popular folk-style music of the day. There seems to be no evidence of any stirrings of Joni's songwriting talent at this early stage of her carreer. She was a very charismatic, self-assured performer with an ability to move audiences with nothing more than her ukelele and her clear soprano voice. Although John does not recall Joni doing sketches or bringing her visual art into The Depression, he has said that she was very serious about her studies. He speculates that the immediate gratification Joni experienced as a result of the positive responses from her audiences became a lure that led her further down a musical path. He thought he could see her beginning to think about pursuing two different careers.

At some point, Joni did manage to get enough money together to buy a guitar. In 1964 she traveled to Toronto to see Buffy Sainte-Marie perform at the Mariposa Folk Festival. Buffy Sainte-Marie had been performing and touring since 1962. Her debut album, made up entirely of songs that Buffy herself had composed and written, was released on the Vanguard Records label in 1964, making her an early prototype of the singer/songwriter. Perhaps inspired by Buffy, Joni composed her first song, 'Day After Day' while traveling by train to Toronto. Her natural talent for music combined with her writing skills to provide a new creative stimulus. She decided to stay in Toronto, leaving behind what she had found to be a stultifying educational experience.

But there was more to Joni's move to Toronto than her disappoinment with art school and she did not make the move alone. Brad McMath, another student at the Alberta College of Art, went with her. While still in Calgary, Joni had become pregnant with McMath's child. In a 2013 interview for the CBC with the Toronto based host of the cultural affairs talk program 'Q', Jian Ghomeshi, Joni asserted that pursuit of a career as a folk singer in Toronto was a 'smokescreen' put up to prevent her parents or anyone close to them from finding out about her pregnancy. Although Brad and Joni made the move together, McMath eventually bailed and headed for California. Joni was left on her own in Toronto to fend for herself.

In 1964, unwed and pregnant was a socially unacceptable and shameful situation for a young woman to find herself in. Fearful of the shame and distress the pregnancy would cause her parents, Joni felt she could not tell them about it and remained in the relative anonymity of Canada's largest city. There was a thriving circuit of coffee house venues for folk musicians in the Yorkville district of Toronto in 1965. There was also a musician's union. Union membership was required for performers to play in Toronto's folk clubs. Survival was a struggle for Joni during this time and the $160.00 membership fee was far beyond her financial reach. Joni hung on, living in a roominghouse and scraping by with what she could earn from any performing work she could get. She continued to perform even after her pregnancy must have become obvious to her audiences. On February 19th, 1965 she gave birth to a daughter in a Toronto charity hospital. Joni named the baby Kelly Dale and since she had neither a proper living space nor sufficient means to care for a child, the baby was placed in foster care.

  Chuck and Joni in a 'wedding' photo from a magazine
  photo shoot, not their actual wedding day.
During this time Joni clung to the hope that she would somehow be able to assume custody of her baby. The answer to her dilemma seemed to present itself when she met American folk singer Chuck Mitchell. Joni met Chuck about a month after Kelly's birth. She told him about the baby a few weeks later. The couple became engaged and their wedding took place on June 19th, 1965. But as time went on Kelly Dale remained with her foster parents and whatever the reasons were, Chuck did not assume the role of father to Joni's infant girl. The result was that Joni felt she had no alternative but to put the baby up for adoption. The painful decision to relinquish her daughter would leave Joni with a deep wound that would remain open for many years.

Chuck and Joni Mitchell moved to Detroit in late 1965 where they performed as a duo. They had some success playing the coffee houses of Detroit, particularly at The Chessmate where they were a regular act during the winter of 1965-66. Joni also appeared on the CTV television program 'Let's Sing Out' in October of 1965. 'Let's Sing Out' was hosted by Canadian folk artist and radio broadcast veteran Oscar Brand and was modeled on a US television show called 'Hootenany'. Joni performed the traditional song 'Blow Away the Morning Dew' as a duet with Oscar Brand as well as three of her own compositions. 'Let's Sing Out' was broadcast from university campuses across Canada and Joni performed in several of these broadcasts in 1965 and 1966. Joni had appeared on Canadian television once before in 1963 in Saskatchewan when she was slotted as a one-time replacement for a program called 'For Men Only'. 'For Men Only' was a late night broadcast that was about moose hunting. Joni was interviewed and sang several songs, accompanying herself on her baritone ukelele for her, perhaps less than auspicious, televsion debut. In 1966 she was filmed in color for five segments of a series of what could be described as music videos for a Canadian television series called 'Mon Pays, Mes Chansons'. Joni recorded 'The Circle Game', 'Urge for Going' and three other original songs that have never appeared on any of her records, 'Play Little David', 'Born to Take the Highway' and 'Come to the Sunshine'. Joni accompanied herself on guitar with David Rea adding a second guitar. She was then filmed in various scenic locations across Canada, lip-synching to the recordings of each particular song. The series was originally broadcast as a part of the country's celebration of the Canadian Centennial of Confederation.

Many of the aspiring and established folk artists of the day became friends with Chuck and Joni. Some of these performers used the Mitchell's apartment as their lodging place during the time of their gigs in Detroit. As a result, Joni received the benefit of the knowledge and experience that these musicians had acquired. She began to learn about alternate guitar tunings from fellow performers Eric Anderson and Tom Rush. Joni took to alternate guitar tunings as a way to expand her musical palette and also as a solution to a physical limitation that hampered her ability to play a standardly tuned guitar. The polio that had first stirred her inner life had also sapped some of the strength and agility from her left hand. This hampered Joni's ability to move the hand and its fingers to the strings and frets necessary to form chords in the standard guitar tuning. But what seemed to be a hindrance led her to a different method of playing guitar. By tuning the strings to notes different from the standard EADGBE, Joni found that she could more easily play a wider variety of chords. She also discovered that she could make sounds come out of the guitar that were more interesting to her than what could be played in standard tuning. Alternate guitar tunings would eventually form a key element in the composition of the unique melodies and chords that would be one of the hallmarks of her musical brilliance.

Joni began to write more songs and Chuck Mitchell helped her establish her own music publishing company, a move that served her well as time went on, allowing her to retain the copyrights to all of her original material. Chuck may also have motivated Joni to improve her sketchy education. Joni had never been a good student. She did not read assigned material during her public school years, more often than not using Classic Comics versions to write book reports. Chuck Mitchell had a college degree in English and drama and would make fun of his wife's lack of literary knowledge. Chuck's goading triggered Joni's curiosity. She eventually became an avid reader. Her self education coupled with her fearless curiosity would enrich her writing. Her song lyrics began to show an increasing sophistication and maturity.

  Photo by John McKenzie
By this time, Joni had developed into a striking young woman. She was slender with a head of luxuriant blonde hair that flowed in a straight fall over her shoulders and back with bangs draped across her forehead. Her deep-set blue eyes, off-set by prominent cheek bones combined with her full lips to give Joni Mitchell's face its own unique beauty. The attention of the audiences Joni and Chuck performed for in the folk clubs of Detroit, Toronto, Philadelphia and New York was increasingly drawn to this attractive woman who had developed a winning stage presence. Her songwriting also developed and she began to include more of her own material during her solo interludes within the couple's sets. As she performed more and more of her own songs, she projected a curious mixture of winsomeness, telling funny stories while re-tuning her guitar, and a solemn wisdom that seemed to come from life experiences that belied her relative youth. Joni and Chuck played The Second Fret in Philadelphia in November of 1966. The couple were interviewed at the Second Fret for Temple University's radio station by Barry Bird. The couple performed 'The Circle Game' together during the broadcast. Later, Joni would play several more gigs at The Second Fret. Radio disc jockeys Ed Sciaky and Gene Shay interviewed Joni several times during her visits to Philadelphia and bootleg recordings of Joni's Second Fret shows have been circulated by collectors of her music for many years. They contain recordings of many songs that Joni wrote that have never been recorded in a studio for release on an LP or single. In a 2004 interview, Gene Shay gives the following description of catching sight of Joni practicing guitar at The Second Fret 'She struck me with her talent, beauty and her great loneliness, her image set against the fake stained glass windows which Manny had assembled from theatrical gels and duct tape.'

Eventually the quality of Joni's songwriting began to attract the attention of other performers. Tom Rush began to perform two of her songs, 'Urge For Going' and 'The Circle Game' in his sets. Early in 1967, country and western singer George Hamilton IV released his version of 'Urge For Going'. It went to number 7 on the the Billboard Country chart. Tom Rush eventually recorded 'Urge For Going' as well as 'The Circle Game'. Buffy Sainte-Marie also recorded 'The Circle Game' and 'Song to a Seagull' on her 1967 release, 'Fire & Fleet & Candlelight'. While playing the Chessmate in Detroit, the Mitchells became good friends with Chicago based blues musicians Corky Siegel and Jim Schwall, founders of the blues band 'Siegel-Schwall'. Sometime during 1966 Joni travelled to Chicago and cut demo tapes with Siegel-Scwall of seven of her original songs, including 'The Circle Game', presumably with the intent of shopping them around to record labels. In a 2013 interview with Bob Muller for, Corky Siegel descibes this recording: 'The Circle Game" (laughs) which is hysterical (laughs), talk about coming out of the 60's, I can see the go-go boots when I hear that thing.'

But while the Mitchells enjoyed some success in their professional partnership, their marriage was a dead end for Joni. The union had never had a solid foundation to begin with and Joni left Chuck rather abruptly in 1967, enlisting a stranger's help to move out of their Detroit apartment in the middle of the night. Chuck Mitchell must have felt no small amount of anger and resentment. Upon discovering Joni's departure, he changed the locks on the doors.

She moved to New York City, eventually settling in the Chelsea district. The Greenwich Village folk scene was on the wane by this time. Joni took whatever work she could get in New York and worked the folk club circuit in the eastern U.S. and Canada.

Joni's compositions had acquired chord structures and key shifts that set them apart from those of other songwriters. She was developing an original sound that would become recognizable as uniquely her own. Al Kooper, a songwriter and musician who played keyboards with The Blues Project, was so taken with one of Joni's songs that he called Judy Collins in the middle of the night and insisted she listen to Joni sing it over the phone. Collins was an established, nationally known singer with a record contract by this time. She was impressed enough by the song to record two of Joni's songs, 'Michael From Mountains' and 'Both Sides Now', for her 1967 release 'Wildflowers'. 'Both Sides Now' was released as a single and became a hit, peaking at number 8 on the Billboard chart. The song has since become a well known standard, covered by a multitude of artists and is probably Joni Mitchell's most famous composition.

1967 was an eventful year in Joni Mitchell's life. Her songs were attracting the attention of established performers. Ian & Sylvia, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Judy Collins all recorded songs written by Joni in 1967, giving her music and her name greater exposure. Joni attended the 1967 Newport Folk Festival where she met Leonard Cohen, another Canadian songwriter who was also a protege of Judy Collins. Allegedly, a short-lived romantic relationship was kindled between the two that surfaced in both artist's songwriting at various points of their careers. Curiously, a song that Joni had written in 1966 called 'The Wizard of Is' bears a strong resemblance to Cohen's 'Suzanne' in its melody and chord structure.

Joni also acquired a manager in 1967. Buffy Sainte Marie had recognized her talent and become a staunch advocate of Joni's work. In Buffy's own words, 'Joni gave me a tape of her music and I carried it around with me in Asia, Europe and North America, playing it for anybody and everybody, hoping to get her a deal.' Joni was interviewed for a 2006 documentary about Buffy and acknowledged that Buffy played a key role in moving her career along. She also praised Buffy's generosity given the highly competitive nature of many folk musicians performing at that time. Buffy eventually played Joni's tape for Elliot Roberts who was interested enough to go and see Joni perform at Cafe Au Go Go in New York. He was so taken with Joni that he agreed to accompany her on a three week road tour to convince her to hire him. It was the beginning of both a long friendship and a productive business relationship. Roberts' close friendship with David Geffen brought Joni & David together and eventually Geffen would become Joni's agent.

An important connection that Joni would make in 1967 happened when she played the Gaslight South in Coconut Grove, Florida. David Crosby had recently been ousted from the successful folk-rock band The Byrds. He had left L.A. and happened to be in Coconut Grove at this time to buy a sailboat. He caught Joni's act at the Gaslight and was immediately captivated by her extraordinary talent. He was also smitten with her and the two began a brief romantic relationship. Joni had been contemplating a move to Los Angeles so when Crosby went back to California, she soon followed.

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