At long last, the Joni Mitchell Archive series has begun. Rhino promises a number of editions, chronologically spanning Joni's entire career. We fans have patiently watched Bob Dylan and Neil Young and many other contemporaries release set after set of archival material, hoping that Joni would do the same. After years of resisting, thankfully she changed her mind. Out of the shadows and into the light!
I've not yet heard the bulk of this first series, but just looking at the track listing is intoxicating. The vast majority are things that are not even circulating among serious underground collectors. There are a number of unheard original tunes, the full 3-set Canterbury House date that was recently discovered by the venue, and a couple of home demo tapes. And how about the recording from 1963 at the local radio station in Saskatoon? It's almost certainly the earliest existing tape of Joni performing - recorded before she had ever written a single song. Joni looks back and admits after listening to this tape that "I was a folk singer" after decades of chafing, rightly so, at that seemingly unshakeable label.
Just think of what might be coming out of her vault in subsequent releases. Soundboard recordings of classic concerts? Songs that were written but never made it onto any album? Outtakes from every album session - including perhaps, just perhaps, the 'holy grail' alternate sessions for the Mingus album - with a completely different set of musicians? We can only guess and hope at this point.
The archive series ushers in a new era for those of us who have for decades used Joni's music as the soundtrack for our lives. All the missing dots and dashes will finally be filled in. The second archive release is slated to begin with material from 1968, the year of the release of Joni's first album. Everything prior to that has been covered by this upcoming first release.
Or has it?
As we all know, at one point Joni had a king in a tenement castle. This period in Joni's life - the 'Detroit Years' - is diminuendo, so much so that many casual fans are not even aware of it. And despite, ironically, carrying his last name around with her every day since their wedding day in 1965 - the stunning opening song on her equally stunning opening album offers a rare moment of objective commentary on her first husband Chuck Mitchell:
"There's no one to blame, no there's no one to name as a traitor here," she sings. The song is a clear statement at the start of her career - that was then, this is now. I'm moving on.
The musical duo of Chuck & Joni was always an ad hoc affair. They quickly realized their individual styles (and egos) were not going to evolve into the two preeminent folk duos of the day, Ian and Sylvia, and Jim and Jean. As a duo, they built a repertoire of ten or twelve "surefire" duo songs; Let's Get Together, The San Francisco Bay Blues, Norwegian Wood, The Hippopotamus Song, Blues In The Bottle, Duncan & Brady, When Spring Is O'er The Land, The Circle Game, etc. In the course of an evening (usually two sets) they'd open with a couple and close with a couple, and then each would take the stage for a mini set while the other slipped into the audience.
As Joni's songwriting took off, she did more solo appearances, but so did Chuck. Although he wasn't a songwriter, Chuck had a big following and an attractive style and repertoire that was more cabaret (and saloon) than folk. And there were always some clubs (like their home club, The Chessmate in Detroit), that wanted the duo; although Chuck and Joni The Duo lasted a year, more or less, and ended by mutual agreement after they watched Jim and Jean knock 'em dead on a Saturday night at The Chessmate. So Chuck and Joni shrugged off the duo and agreed to stay married, but phase out sharing the stage.
The marriage itself - whose business is it of mine or yours? Absolutely none. And that isn't the point here. What we know (and care about) from all accounts is that this is two years when the tenement castle is buzzing with activity, when Joni's fledgling talent is exploding exponentially - growing by leaps and bounds in all respects. Joni came to Detroit with one song, "Day After Day". She left with a fifty song catalog, duly published and copyrighted, with lead sheets and recording dubs, other artists seeking licenses to sing her songs, everything straight up and proper and tied with a ribbon that said "Joni Mitchell Publishing Company".
So here's the elephant in the room, and the (perhaps) unintended consequence: there are many excellent recordings from these two years, when Joni and Chuck and other dedicated if unsung individuals in Detroit created Gandalf Publishing and Lorien Productions (with the blessing of J.R.R. Tolkien, and money from an anonymous donor) to publish and copyright and record those fifty Joni Mitchell songs, many of which will never be heard unless the powers-that-be agree to release them.
These recordings offer a fascinating alternate view of Joni's evolution. Joni playing the tiple. Joni playing the kazoo. A session at CBC studios. Joni recording in Chicago with music director/arrangers Jim Schwall and Corky Siegel of the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band - wanna hear an R&B version of The Circle Game? Night In The City in 3/4 time? - all with the goal of Joni landing a recording contract. And Joni, all alone, who'd recently left the castle at the tail end of the 2 years, singing her latest songs into her tape recorder to send from her Chelsea apartment in New York to Gandalf Publishing in Detroit.
And you know there may be more. Enough music to comfortably fill another 'Detroit Years' 5-disc archive set, without a doubt.
Yes, Joni was a folk singer at one time. We can understand her reluctance to admit that over the years as, only a short decade later, she's recruiting jazz musicians to keep up with her. In the context of her career, the 'folk' stuff she's releasing in this archive set is an amazing snapshot of the time. And there's an equally amazing collection from 'The Detroit Years' waiting in the wings.
The beautiful photo chosen for the cover of this first archive release is the absolute perfect metaphor for the disappeared two years in Detroit. Chuck and the Tenement Castle have been digitally removed.
And it's a loss for us all.
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