Mitchell, Joni (originally, Anderson, Roberta Joan)

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Mitchell, Joni (originally, Anderson, Roberta Joan)

Mitchell, Joni (originally, Anderson, Roberta Joan), with her distinctive dulcimer and guitar playing and expressive, clear, and full-bodied soprano voice, touched myriads of popular-music fans with her intensely personal, often confessional style of songwriting; b. Fort McLeod, Alberta, Canada, Nov. 7, 1943. Gaining her first recognition in the late 1960s as the composer of the folk-rock classics “Circle Game” and “Both Sides Now” (as recorded by Tom Rush and Judy Collins, respectively), Joni Mitchell developed a devoted following with her first two folk-style albums. In the 1970s Mitchell’s career took her through a variety of styles, always pushing the envelope of the confessional singer-songwriter style. After flirting with jazz she returned to a more rock-oriented sound in the 1980s and 1990s, although with less commercial success.

Joni Mitchell grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where she took up informal singing at age nine and developed an interest in the visual arts. Taking up baritone ukulele during her teens and later learning guitar, she performed in Calgary, Alberta’s best-known coffeehouse, The Depression, while attending the Alberta Inst. of Art. She subsequently decided to pursue folk-style music professionally and moved to Toronto, where she played at clubs in the city’s famed Yorktown district. There she met and eventually married folk singer Chuck Mitchell. They moved to Detroit in 1966 and later toured the East Coast club circuit. By 1967, however, the couple had divorced, and Joni moved to N.Y.C., where she played folk clubs and struck up friendships with Judy Collins and Tom Rush, among others.

Signed to Reprise Records, Joni Mitchell gained her first recognition as a songwriter by means of Tom Rush’s recording of her “Circle Game” and “Urge for Going” on his 1968 Circle Game album, and through Judy Collins’s near-smash hit recording of her “Both Sides Now” that same year. Mitchell soon moved to Calif., and her debut album, sometimes referred to as Song to a Seagull, was produced in a thin and understated manner by David Crosby. Although the album sold minimally, it featured her own cover art and was entirely comprised of her own compositions, including the poignant and brilliantly sung “Michael from Mountains,” “I Had a King,” and “Cactus Tree.”

Joni Mitchell’s second album, Clouds, sported her colorful self- portrait and effectively established her in the forefront of the 1970s female singer-songwriter movement. The album contained her celebratory “Chelsea Morning,” the ominous “The Fiddle and the Drum” and her version of “Both Sides Now,” as well as moving personal songs such as “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” and “Songs to Aging Children Come.” Often using obscure yet sophisticated tunings on her stringed instruments, Mitchell employed a sense of harmony that went beyond the limits of both pop and rock. Her songwriting—more accurately described as song-poetry—explored the themes of romantic love, the independence achieved through love’s loss, and the guarded optimism of the youthful humanitarian ethic in such fiercely personal and incisively honest terms as to be embarrassing were it not for their underlying poignancy. Her next album, Ladies of the Canyon, again featured her art on the jacket. Bolstered commercially by the success of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s version of her classic “Woodstock,” the album introduced her use of the piano and included her own electrifying version of “Woodstock” (far and away superior to CSNY’s rock version); the oft-recorded “Circle Game”; and her first minor hit, the wry ecology song “Big Yellow Taxi.” Containing wide-ranging music and varied emotional nuances, the album also included “For Free,” a joyous look back at her precommerciai days; the gentle autobiographical title cut; and “Willy,” written about former lover Graham Nash.

Joni Mitchell’s final album for Reprise, Blue, showed her flowering as an arranger and continued her string of best-selling, highly personal, and exquisitely performed releases. Among the songs included are “All I Want,” “California,” “This Flight Tonight,” “A Case of You” (her second minor hit), “Carey,” and the disturbing “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” Switching to Asylum Records, she recorded For the Roses. The album revealed jazz influences and included her first major hit, “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” as well as “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire,” “See You Sometime,” and “Blonde in the Bleachers.” Court and Spark, recorded with members of Tom Scott’s jazz-style group L.A. Express, became her most popular album, remaining on the album charts for well over a year. The album yielded three hits with “Raised on Robbery,” “Help Me” (a near-smash), and “Free Man in Paris”; it also contained “People’s Parties” as well as the romantic title song and a version of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’s “Twisted.” Touring for the first time in several years during 1974 with Scott and the L.A. Express, her live Miles of Aisles compiled much of her finest material and produced a major hit with its version of “Big Yellow Taxi.”

With 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell began to move beyond the restrictive role of pop-style singer-songwriter. Eschewing the confessional style in favor of songs both musically and lyrically ambitious and complex, Mitchell suffered critical disparagement for the album in the rock and pop press. Maintaining an even more reduced personal profile, she recorded Hejira with jazz artists such as Jaco Pastorius and Larry Carlton. Regarded by some jazz critics as a masterpiece, this album encompasses a variety of musical textures and nuances, on songs such as “Coyote,” “Black Crow,” and “Furry Sings the Blues.” With 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Mitchell firmly broke with her pop-music past, recording the album with Pastorius, Latin percussionist Airto, and several members of the fusion group Weather Report. Inspiring critics to coin yet another hyphenated label, folk-jazz, the album featured the side-long “Paprika Plains,” recorded with full symphony orchestra.

“Paprika Plains,” heard by ailing jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus, so fascinated him that in spring 1978 he contacted Mitchell regarding the possibility of working together. She consented and Mingus soon turned over to her six tunes to which she was to supply lyrics, plus the Mingus standard “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Mitchell worked on the collaboration for more than 18 months, but it was not completed until after Mingus’s death on Jan. 5, 1979. Recorded with Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, and Herbie Hancock, the resulting album was greeted by equivocal reviews. The album contained “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” three of the six specially written tunes, and Mitchell’s own tribute to Mingus, “God Must Be a Boogie Man.” She subsequently toured for the first time in four years with Pastorius, percussionist Don Alias, guitarist Pat Metheny, and others.

Mainntaining a low profile in the 1980s, Joni Mitchell switched to Geffen Records for 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast, in which she returned to standard song forms. The album yielded a moderate hit with a cover version of “(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care,” recorded by Elvis Presley for his 1957 movie Jailhouse Rock. In 1985 she recorded Dog Eat Dog with English synthesizer wizard Thomas Dolby. The album was highly topical, decrying television evangelists (“Tax Free”), capitalism (the title track), nuclear holocaust (“Fiction”), and consumerism. Her orientation toward contemporary issues continued with 1988’s Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm with “The Beat of Black Wings” and “Snakes and Ladders.” In the early 1990s she recorded Night Ride Home, which was also issued in a limited edition featuring four reproductions of her collages, while pursuing her interests as a painter, photographer, and poet. In 1994 Joni Mitchell returned to Reprise Records for Turbulent Indigo.


J. M. (1968); Clouds (1969); Ladies of the Canyon (1970); Blue (1971); For the Roses (1972); Court and Spark (1974); Miles of Aisles (1974); The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975); Hejira (1976); Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977); Mingus (1979); Wild Things Run Fast (1982); Dog Eat Dog (1985); Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988); Night Ride Home (1991); Turbulent Indigo (1994); Hits (1996); Misses (1996); Taming the Tiger (1998); Both Sides Now (2000).


Leonore Fleischer, J. M. (N.Y., 1976).

—Brock Helander

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Mitchell, Joni (originally, Anderson, Roberta Joan)

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