Louis Rosen: 1970-The Singer-Songwriter Comes of Age III—Joni Mitchell

Streamed live though the aegis of 92nd Street Y

Host Louis Rosen opens tonight’s exploration into a singer/songwriter with a 1965 video of  22 year-old Canadian, Roberta Joan “Joni” Anderson (Joni Mitchell). Almost unrecognizable, she has a waved, “Gidget” hairdo and wears pronounced make-up. The voice, however, is unmistakable. It wafts. “I was born to take the highway/I was born to chase a dream/Any road at all is my way/Any place is where I’ve been…” sings the pretty young woman accompanying herself on acoustic guitar.

“By that age, she’d already gone through a lot in her life. At nine, she contracted polio.” When doctors predicted she might never walk again, the patient dug in insisting she’d be on her feet and home for Christmas. And she was. “Her character was defined by fierce determination… Though very intelligent, Joni was turned off to school. Only art class and literature interested her. A sixth grade teacher who would be included in dedications on the performer’s first album encouraged the girl to write poetry.”

Country music was all the rage. Joni taught herself guitar from a Pete Seeger handbook. Jazz was also a big influence. As polio had weakened her left hand, she concocted alternative tunings which would later distinguish her sound from peers. Art superseded music, however, and became the pursuit of higher education. When told technique and abstraction were more important than creative vision, she dropped out of school.

Joni sang self-described “long tragic songs in a minor key” at hootenannies and small venues and busked. She moved to Toronto, worked at a department store, and performed where possible eventually appearing at The Mariposa Folk Festival. Only then did the performer began to sing her own material. At 21, the young woman found herself pregnant by her Calgary ex-boyfriend Brad MacMath. Abortion was illegal, unmarried motherhood a stigma. Joni didn’t tell her parents.

A postage stamp printed in Canada showing an image of Joni Mitchell, circa 2007. (Shutterstock)

“She didn’t want to give up her baby girl and couldn’t afford to keep her, so put her in foster care planning to reclaim the child. The next year she met and married American folk singer Charles Scott ‘Chuck’ Mitchell. They formed a duo. When American folk singers came to Toronto, the Mitchells put them up, broadening Joni’s exposure and network. The couple moved to Detroit, and then New York. Chuck had no intention of raising her daughter. He was condescending and controlling.”

She left him, settled in Chelsea, and began playing gigs in coffee houses up and down the east coast.Though there were allusions in a few of Joni’s songs, existence of her daughter was not publicly known until 1993 when an ex-roommate sold the story to a tabloid. Renamed Kilauren Gibb, the girl had already begun a search for her biological parents. Mother and daughter reunited in 1997.

Joni’s songs were being recognized and recorded by such as Tom Rush, Dave Van Ronk, Buffy Sainte-Marie (a fellow Saskatchewan-born folk singer who’d been on the bill with her at Mariposa) and eventually Judy Collins. She was less well known as a performer.

“It was Sainte-Marie who brought William Morris agent Elliot Roberts to hear Joni. He told her he’d love to leave his job and become her manager. She responded that she got her own bookings and didn’t need a manager. (Roberts worked and was friends with David Geffen who would go into business with him becoming important in Joni’s career.)”

As the story goes and Rosen relates, Roberts showed up at the airport as Joni was leaving on tour. He volunteered to take care of everything and pay his own way in order to prove himself useful. It worked out. “In a Florida club called The Gaslight South, David Crosby, formerly of The Byrds, heard and fell in love with Joni. (She seems to have had this effect on most men.) He took her to the now mythologized Laurel Canyon enclave of artists, poets and musicians in Los Angeles and opened doors.”

Vanguard offered a contract, but she thought the deal was equivalent to slave labor and turned them down. Crosby then convinced Reprise to support the solo, acoustic album Song to a Seagull offering to produce it. “Like previous class subject Laura Nyro, Rosen notes, PR didn’t know how to market the artist. Billboards in Los Angeles declared: Joni Mitchell is 90% virgin. “That’s a glimmer of what she had to put up with at the time.” The album didn’t sell much but record companies at the time believed in building reputation.

The next album was Clouds which would garner her first Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance. “Producer of The Doors, Paul Rothchild, was brought in, leaving Joni miserable after one song. When Rothchild temporarily left to fulfill a commitment to that group, she approached engineer Henry Lewy suggesting the two produce it themselves. And they did. The album is spare – a guitar, a little bit of support instrumentation. It was an effort to reclaim some of her songs recorded by others.”

“A lot of cuts on the first two albums had been written before. The third album, Ladies of The Canyon (her first gold album) would make her a star, but still not be considered commercial. We could call them art songs. She wrote serious, smart lyrics and showed splendid ability to turn a phrase. There were Celtic influences, folk, and blues…” The effort featured overdubs, percussion, and backing vocals (most often herself), and for the first time, songs composed on piano.

We’re treated to a 1970 film of two songs from a BBC show featuring up-and-coming talent. Transformation is obvious. Joni now wears her hair long, straight, and center-parted and no apparent make-up. Her dress is long and vintage-looking, its hem just above boots. Rosen tells us Crosby was instrumental in her new styling. “She embodied a feminine ideal of the counter-culture. It was, as all public images are, calculated.”

On “Chelsea Morning” with emphatic acoustic guitar, Joni dances without lifting her feet. “Cactus Tree” takes us through a series of her lovers. Remember the rippling folk sound of  “She’s so busy being free…?” With proceeds from her first album, she bought a house in Laurel Canyon soon shared with musician Graham Nash. Nash had left The Hollies in order to work with David Crosby and Stephen Stills.

Rosen repeatedly touches on Joni Mitchell’s ongoing issue with fame. He cites a 2013 interview when she read a poem she’d written about how distasteful it would be to be famous like a Hollywood starlet. “She was gradually going to become that person in a fishbowl.” The host notes that after each succeeding album, she retreated, often to another country/ culture and her art. (Most album covers were created by the performer.)  Lyrics in hand (emailed by Rosen), we then begin to listen to Ladies of the Canyon.

There are new percussion grooves from rock and roll, Rosen observes, and spare use of cello, clarinet, flute. Back-up is all Joni except for one song for which she enlisted her friends credited as “The Lookout Mountain United Downstairs Choir.” “You can think of her as a short story writer. This is the first album that would secure the idea she was a confessional songwriter, a term she hated.” “Morning in Morgantown/Buy your dreams a dollar down/Morning any town you name/ Morning’s just the same.”

“Let’s for a moment talk about her musical style,” Rosen says. “She approaches guitar with both folk-based, finger-style technique and a full, syncopated strumming..There’s also modal harmony, utilizing chords from other scales.” He moves to the piano and demonstrates. “All of a sudden A major becomes A minor. This starts to make her sound different.”

“Mitchell also plays incomplete/suspension chords she called “chords of inquiry” and guitar with open tunings. If you don’t have your hand on the neck, it sounds different.” Much of this was dictated by strength of right and left hands.

“For Free” is another example of Joni’s struggle with art and commerce. “Across the street he stood/And he played real good/On his clarinet for free…” Rosen, a musician/singer/ songwriter himself, recognizes the foundation of her essential accompaniment pattern at the piano is a variant of the 18th century “Alberti Bass” pattern, where the left hand plays a chord one note at a time in a steady rhythm. 

In “Conversation,” we hear insistence, iconoclastic, elastic phrasing and such wonderful lyrics as “…sorry sentences, miraculous repentances.” “Just like “Chelsea Morning,” it’s her strumming style that gives it its groove.”

“Ladies of the Canyon” describes the artist’s friends. “Willy” was Graham Nash’s nickname. “The Arrangement” was written at the request of Elia Kazan for his film of the same name, but rejected by him. Inspired by his story, it sets a cynical, Mad Men (TV series about advertising) scenario including the “other” woman. An attendee notes “I don’t think the 20 year-old in me paid attention to that song. It’s a small masterpiece.”

“Even if you know this album, when’s the last time you set aside a couple of hours and just listened in new context?” Rosen replies. “I also want to point out that as a lyricist, she’s not casual. While others thought that if you work something too hard you’d spoil it, she was exacting…Nyro and Mitchell also changed the scene by writing songs from a woman’s point of view.” Another attendee recalls, “Every adolescent girl loved them. I still listen at 61. “I’d argue it wasn’t just girls,” Rosen responds. A male attendee concurs.

The host theorizes that “Rainy Night House” and “The Priest” may have been influenced by mentor/lover Leonard Cohen. Consciously lightening up after “Blue Boy,” “Big Yellow Taxi” was apparently created after or while staying at The Royal Hawaiian Hotel which was, in fact, pink. Rosen calls it perhaps the first “eco-folk song.” “They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot…” resonates still.

“Woodstock” has its own backstory. Joni was on her way to play the festival with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young when televised news fixed on difficulty in getting there, massive crowds, and threatening weather. David Geffen hired a helicopter. A commitment to guest on The Dick Cavett Show kept Joni in New York.

She wrote: “I got left behind, and I … really felt sorry for myself, because it’ll never happen again, of course. They’ll try and recapture it, you know, and it’ll just get worse and worse…It was really something, that people could be so good to each other. Even if it was only for three days…So I wrote a song for that group to sing. Actually I wrote it for myself to sing.”

Instead of evoking a joyous mudslide of sharing, the song paints empty, trampled fields littered with trash. It seems like an ending rather than a beginning. What happened to flower power? “We’ve got to get ourselves/Back to the garden.” To Rosen, the wordless wailing vocal end the end sounds like keening.

The last cut on the album, “The Circle Game” was written to cheer up Neil Young on his 20st birthday. Her friend and fellow musician had been anxiously anticipating reaching adulthood with its advertised freedoms, but found himself shut out of a frequented club because of his age and nostalgic about jump ropes. The charming, timeless song sounds like a children’s sing along. “You have to live to really understand this song,” Rosen muses.

An attendee who prefers the second side wonders why these songs were not put on the first. “I think she was making you earn your way through the album to get there,” Rosen smartly conjectures. “These last songs are a summing up. When you put an album together, you think of key, rhythm, tone, ideas. In theater, they call it routining.”

Our host closes with two anecdotes about meeting Joni Mitchell, one of his own brief, brash experience and one of a friend who knocked on Mitchell’s hotel door a stranger, asked her dancing (she loved to dance), spent two hours wordlessly doing so, then returned her to thanks.

All unattributed quotes Louis Rosen

Louis Rosen’s next Singer/Songwriter class is Wednesday June 17 at 7:15 https://www.92y.org/class/1970-the-singer-songwriter-comes-of-age

About Alix Cohen (816 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.