Music News

Happy Birthday, Joni Mitchell!

Joni Mitchell, born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943, not only defies description as an artist and musician but also set the standard when it came to young, innocent, wide-eyed female folkies dressed in peasant dresses and tattered jeans, obsessed with wanderlust, patchouli, and all forms of winsome sentiments.

Like other Canadian expatriates who were to make their mark on Americana in the late '60s -- Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Ian and Sylvia, the Band, Gordon Lightfoot, etc. -- she would help redefine the essence of folk music and bring it flush and fresh-faced to the Woodstock brigades with all appropriate reverence. Indeed, her personal involvement with the likes of David Crosby and Graham Nash (it's said Nash wrote the song "Our House" to commemorate their domestic bliss) made her the honorary earth mother to the hippie faithful. She even gave them their immortal anthem and signature song, "Woodstock," although it took Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to imbue it into mass consciousness after she wrote it based on news reports, because she failed to make the actual festival.

And while she gave rock and pop any number of sentimental standards --

"The Circle Game," "Both Sides Now," "Big Yellow Taxi," "Free Man in

Paris," "River," and "Urge for Going" being but a handful -- she showed an

uncommon willingness to negate commercial success and boldly venture

into jazz, fusion, orchestration, and avant-garde in her pursuit of her

ever-elusive muse.

Mitchell herself as been equally elusive in recent years, rarely venturing out to make live appearances or new recordings and mostly confining her creative impulses to painting, another realm that shows her possessing an incredible gift. And if the high-cheek-boned prairie princess has now evolved into a more sophisticated chanteuse, her appeal and allure remain undiminished. Still, it's an incredibly tangled path that Mitchell has surveyed from her idyllic origins nearly 45 years ago, and keeping track of those twists and turns isn't all that easy, even for diehard devotees. Here, then, is our guide to a few of her early essential albums. 

Clouds - Clearly indicative of her coffee-house origins, Mitchell's sophomore set defined her far better than her self-titled debut, which was produced by the smitten David Crosby. Herein lie some of her signature songs -- "Chelsea Morning," "Songs to Aging Children Come," and the hit made famous by friend and colleague Judy Collins, "Both Sides Now." A graceful self-portrait adorns the cover, and simple acoustic folk music dictates the contents. Still lovely after all these years. 

Ladies of the Canyon - Mitchell's first venture into more sophisticated realms, with elaborate instrumentation, a few more standards ("The Circle Game," "Morning Morgantown," "For Free"), and a return nod to her new lover, Graham Nash ("Willy"). Her first commercial success and an enduring effort at that. 

Blue - Her undisputed early masterpiece, Blue seems to capture Mitchell at an especially unsettled period of her life. With songs of hypnotic imagery and rumination -- "California," "River," "A Case of You," "This Flight Tonight" -- its idyllic sentiments were anchored by a stripped-down sound comprised mainly of Mitchell's breathless guitar work. It's compelling even today. 

Court and Spark - Mitchell's flirtation with jazz and pop (think Steely Dan in full flourish) was on the ascent with an elaborately arranged set of songs that would again bolster her commercial cred -- among them "Help Me," "Free Man in Paris," and "Raised on Robbery." Aided and abetted by pop/jazz provocateur Tom Scott, Mitchell took the album on an extensive, much-hyped American tour that culminated in the best-selling live offering, Miles of Aisles

Heijira - Written mostly on the road during a cross-country road trip, it found Mitchell indulging in abstraction and mood music, a hypnotic combination that took her several light-years away from her early compact classics. Recorded with the late bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius and jazz guitar great Larry Carlton, Heijira proved to be an album filled with dense atmospheric textures and uncommon song craft. "Coyote," "Amelia," and "Furry Sings the Blues" spin the appeal of the open road and evoke an imagery that's both fluid and absorbing. 

Mitchell would make even more adventurous albums -- her self-titled tribute to jazz great Charlie Mingus was especially obtuse --  in the years to come, but her experimental instincts would also alienate her to a large segment of her audience and make her more of a niche artist. Later offerings like Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm and Night Ride Home still showed flashes of brilliance, but by then, her commercial fortunes had diminished.

Various greatest-hits packages -- including companion pieces titled Hits and Misses -- would serve as reminders of the indelible imprint she had on the boomer generation, but Both Sides Now, a lush set of standards, including a couple of her own, "A Case of You" and the title track; and Travelogue, another orchestrated retread, provided diminishing returns. Her last album of original material, Shine, was delivered four years ago, and her recent revelation that she suffers from a mysterious ailment called Morgellons disease that supposedly leaves its sufferers with psychotic side effects leaves doubts as to whether she'll ever record again. In fact, in one of her last interviews, she claimed she would be leaving the music industry forever. All the reason to hope that she'll play her own Circle Game and somehow make a welcome return.

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Lee Zimmerman