I grew up listening to Joni Mitchell. This is not something I tell a lot of people, but it’s true. My mom was a huge Joni Mitchell fan and her music was the unofficial soundtrack of the time in my life before you’re old enough to choose what to listen to. Mrs. Mitchell turned 69 today. I called my mom to ask her how she felt about the life Joni Mitchell. She paused for awhile and finally said,“In a word, old.”
Joni Mitchell was born November 7, 1943 as Roberta Joan Anderson, in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada. Neither my mother or I knew she was Canadian. She contracted polio at the age of eight. She spent the nights in the hospital recovering from the disease singing. After calling several places home over her teen and adult years, including Toronto and Detroit, she found some success in New York and released her first album in 1968, Joni Mitchell, with the help of David Crosby from Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The album wasn’t a huge hit, but was popular enough for her to release another. Clouds came out in 1969, and won the Grammy for Best Folk Performance. She went on to win seven more Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award.
I’m obviously familiar with Joni Mitchell’s body of work but never considered myself a fan. Growing up, I never thought it was that great. As I’ve aged I’ve gained more of an appreciation for it and now think of her as a female Bob Dylan – an assertion she would not take kindly. Her music is kind of folksy, which I like. She has more polish than Dylan, and clearly a very different set of pipes. Her newer music is jazzier and poppier, which I don’t really like. Regardless, her first few albums are exceptional. I picked up a dusty copy of Clouds on vinyl about a year ago for $3 and it’s proven to be a great purchase. The last track of the album is probably my favorite Mitchell track of all time, “Both Sides, Now.” This is Mitchell at her best — just her, an acoustic guitar, and a good story.
After the success of Clouds, Mitchell moved to Los Angeles to live with her artistically minded peers. In 1970, Mitchell released Ladies of the Canyon, the beginning of her transition away from her folk roots and towards more piano-based music with pop sensibilities. Ladies featured the environmentally conscious single “Big Yellow Taxi” with its now famous lyric, “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.” Mitchell wrote “Big Yellow Taxi” while on vacation in Hawaii. She was taking in the grandeur of the landscape in the distance, only to see it spoiled by a parking lot right in front of her. Ladies of the Canyon went platinum, and paved the way for her future successes.
“I’ve had Blue on almost every format.” My mom recalls. “I had the cassette tape, the vinyl, and the CD.” Released in November 1971, Blue was Mitchell’s second platinum release in a row, and my Mom’s favorite. “I was 20 when Blue came out and I was crazy about it. It really spoke. I don’t want to say it spoke to me, because that’s sort of corny and selfish. It spoke to everyone. The album was just spectacular.”
Blue was a resounding success. The album was a perfect mix of where her sound had come from and where it was heading towards. A lot of the tracks on the album are simple, most just acoustic guitar accompanied by light piano. Blue was raw Joni. There’s clearly a lot of jazz influence on this album, most evident in tracks like “Carey” and “A Case of You.” The album title could even be a nod to Miles Davis’ famous record Blue Like Jazz. Whatever the origins, Blue is inimitable. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Blue #30 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, higher than any other female artist. Blue is #14 on VH1′s list of the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time, also the highest placement by any female.
Mitchell released two more albums similar in style to Blue, 1972’s For The Roses, and 1974’s Court and Spark. Mitchell found more success with these albums, including Grammy nominations for “Best Female Vocalist” and “Album of the Year” in 1974. My supremely cool mother saw Mitchell in 1974 at The Omni in Atlanta. “I was 23 in 1974. A friend and I made the drive from Spartanburg, South Carolina.” My mom recalls. “It was really cold, and we waited for a long time to get into the venue. Completely worth it. The opening act fell through so it was all Joni. She played for at least two hours. This was right after Court and Spark, so she played a lot of that, with some old stuff mixed in.”
Court and Spark was the last of Mitchell’s albums that received widespread commercial success until her resurgence in the nineties. She remained prolific throughout the 70’s, releasing four more albums: 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1976’s Hejira, 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, and 1979’s Mingus. She was nominated in 1976 for a Grammy for best Pop Female Vocalist, which itself showed the change in her musical style since her 1969 Grammy nod for Best Folk Performance.
“After the 70’s me and Joni kind of lost touch.” My mom laughs. “I still listened to everything she made before the 80’s but I just never got into her music after that. Her work in the 60’s and 70’s was just so great that it paled in comparison. And all the memories tied to her earlier stuff is a big part of it too. I remember your sister (born in 1972) learning to ride a bicycle in the front yard and Joni Mitchell playing on the kitchen radio through the window.”
Mitchell released three albums in the 80’s, three in the 90’s, and three in the 00’s. Her 1994 album Turbulent Indigo won a Grammy for Best Pop Album and sounded more like her work from the 70’s. Her 80’s albums were more electronic and politically-charged, but Turbulent Indigo was a return to the Joni of old. Back were the open-tuned folky guitars and emotional, thought-provoking lyrics. She couldn’t recapture this magic on her later albums, but her guitar prowess was undaunted.
Mitchell’s musical style changes aside, she is truly an under-appreciated guitarist. Almost every song she wrote on guitar uses open tuning. Open tuning allows a guitarist to play a chord without fretting, or putting your hands on the strings. The result of open tuning is different, more varied sounds, which creates different harmonies when played in accompaniment with other instruments. In 2003, Rolling Stone Magazine named her the 72nd greatest guitarist of all time, which I feel is low. Although this placement, like many others in her career, made her the highest ranked female in the list.
While she might not be the coolest musician of the 60’s and 70’s, Joni Mitchell’s music is still solid jams to me. It’s not something I’d put on a mixtape but is enjoyable nonetheless. Eight Grammys and countless other awards validate her place in history. Happy 69th Mrs. Mitchell. I’ll spin my worn out copy of Blue tonight and hope no one hears.