Four Ages of Joni

Enough of this  computer nostalgia. Time for some music nostalgia. This evening I have been meandering around the YouTube landscape, as you do, and found myself settling comfortably into Joni Mitchell valley. Joni is an extra-ordinary figure. A genuine pop star but also a song writing genius, a poet, and a painter. Joni has been with me most of my life. Its fascinating looking back at the evolution of an artist.

Here she is  – Joni Anderson – on Canadian TV, in 1965. The song is very good, but somewhat like several other folk songs of that era… and she sounds just like Joan Baez ! She is not yet famous, but confidence and charisma is bursting out of her :

Next up, early 1970s, and Joni is a mature and deeply original songwriter. The song is a live performance of “For Free”, from Ladies of the Canyon. Its classic Mitchell in two ways. First, although the lyrics are straightfoward, they are perfectly judged and balanced; and the combination of tune, sentiment, piano and ethereal voice is amazingly moving. Secondly, it shows her discomfort with the celebrity life; but unlike Dylan, she didn’t go off in a huff.

On to the early 1990s and Joni the middle aged woman. (I have zipped straight past what is actually my favourite stuff – the jazzy late seventies records). This is “Night Ride Home” from the album of the same name, performed live for a  TV programme in Amsterdam. Whereas other pop stars, even very good ones, are burned out, or  re-cycling their past glories on endless stadium tours, Joni is producing hypnotic songs different from anything that went before.

Finally, here she is in 2000 at age 57 (same as me now) doing a spooky orchestrated version of “Both Sides Now”, her famous hit of 1969. The impossible high notes have gone; instead she has a smoky haunting voice. I find it hovers between profundity and schmalz; but her humanity wins.

Got to go and wipe my eyes now.

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26 Responses to Four Ages of Joni

  1. Alan Partridge says:

    “That was Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell, a song in which Joni complains they ‘Paved paradise to put up a parking lot’, a measure which actually would have alleviated traffic congestion on the outskirts of paradise, something which Joni singularly fails to point out, perhaps because it doesn’t quite fit in with her blinkered view of the world. Nevertheless, nice song.”

  2. Great stuff. I haven’t been a Joni Mitchell fan up until now, but that black-and-white piece just made me one. (I think her first album is OK but can’t dig the jazzy stuff, much less the 80s Fairlight stuff.) The album covers reflect the decline in the quality of the music. :-) The Baez-sounding stuff is great, though. Reminds me that I need to buy some early Baez stuff. And Judy Collins. Her latest album is getting really good reviews—it seems she still has what it takes after almost 50 years. Of course, I’m a big fan of Sandy Denny, especially her stuff with Fairport convention and Fotheringay. If you like the black-and-white Joni you’ll like Sandy. Early Pentangle with Jacqui McShee is also great—a bit jazzier, but still good. Jacqui McShee still performs, with and without Pentangle, and is still just as good.

    Stuff like this was actually popular in its day. While there are still people, old and young, making good music today, the popular music most young people listen to is so far below the old 60s folk stuff that we should ask ourselves what went wrong.

  3. andyxl says:

    I had a girlfriend who lived in the same village as Sandy Denny, but after she died. Sandy Denny, not my girlfriend.

    Your response has gotten me really confused. I would class Sandy Denny along with Joni Mitchell as an original creative artist, whereas Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Jacqui McShee, good they are, are just very good singers.

    Right, tin hat on.

    • I was just referring to their singing talents here. Yes, Denny and Mitchell are writers. Actually, Denny was good at both her own songs and traditional songs.

    • andyxl says:

      I didn’t mean that Denny was a writer. Even as a singer, Denny was a creative artist – she invented a unique style, and her emotional interpretation was meaningful and moving in the way that a good actor can be. Baez, Collins, and McShee didn’t do anything remotely like this. At the risk of making JAP harrumph, I bracket Sandy Denny with Emma Kirkby

      • I agree with the first part. As for the second part, I don’t know Emma Kirkby. Should I? And who’s JAP?

      • martinstuartelvis says:

        I have to agree, Joni’s a genius artist, right up with Dylan – who’ll give me greater? But Andy, who sang like Baez before Baez? Wasn’t that an artistic creation in itself?

  4. A bit of research indicates that she wrote the song, although it sounds uncannily like a traditional English song (probably intentionally, of course). Note that Bob Dylan stole several melodies from traditional English songs and wrote completely different lyrics for them. When I first got into traditional English music, I was surprised to hear some tunes I had heard first from Dylan. This was called “theft” until Pete Seeger renamed it “the folk process”.

  5. andyxl says:

    Dylan is a magpie. My favourite is “North Country Fair” which is a kind of mangled version of “Scarborough Fair”, but actually an improvement. I believe he just heard people singing it in clubs on a visit to England just before he got famous.

    • Are you sure you’re not thinking of Girl from the North Country? (There’s also a Pete Townshend version called North Country Girl, later covered by Martin Alcock, who used to be in Fairport Convention.) This one pops up in many places. Paul Simon basically nicked Martin Carthy’s arrangement of the tune.

      Compare Nottamun Town with Dylan’s Masters of War, or Lord Franklin with Dylan’s Dream.

      Today’s sad fact: If you own 1000 CDs, and you listen to 1 per day, then you are lucky if you can hear each one just 10 more times before you die. Tempus fugit.

  6. andyxl says:

    Phillip. JAP is a well known Edinburgh clarinet player. Emma Kirkby is an angel descended unto Earth. I’m off to bed. Maybe tomorrow we will find out whether anybody else cares.

  7. martinstuartelvis says:

    Joni, arch-reductionist

    Sometimes, when I’m visiting my mom, things get a little slow, so I thumb through her old Readers’ Digest. Last time I did that I came across an interview with Joni Mitchell by Mary Aikins (July 2005).

    Joni was just over 60 when she did that interview and came across in a way that I found depressing: She’s given up music entirely and devotes herself to painting. OK, I guess after the first 40 years anyone might feel they’ve done all they can with her music and poetry.

    But, worse, Joni’s also given up on romance:
    “RD: Would you love again?
    Mitchell: Ah, no, romantic love has become transparent to me. It’s like a ruse – it’s a trick of nature. In the smitten period the estrogen levels go up in the male, so he becomes tender, and the testosterone levels go up in the female, so she becomes sexually aggressive.”

    Oh no. Say it ain’t so, Joni. You’re more of a reductionist than I am, which is saying a lot. It’s really not that bad. Knowing that chemicals are in a cake, doesn’t make the cake less delicious. The deliciousness of cake, as much as of love, emerges from the less complex substances on which it sits. You can have your chemicals and your love too.

  8. andyxl says:

    Sorry Martin, you are just going to have to give up on that dream of Joni attending one of your seminars by accident and your life changing for ever….

    Meanwhile, just for completeness, here is that other angel, Sandy Denny, singing “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”. Not the album version, but the one recorded for the John Peel show in 1973. She wrote this song when she was seventeen… YouTube doesn’t seem to have “Stranger to Himself” which I like even more.

  9. martinstuartelvis says:

    ah well, sic transit… John Peel too. (Was he an artist according to AXL?)
    PS I wasn’t too keen on Both Sides Now by Sondheim anyhow.

  10. Are you a fan of Bobby Dylan, Andy?

  11. [...] over a year back i wrote a post glue-ing together video-music clips from four ages of Joni Mitchell. There is a strange feeling of resolution tracing the history of creative artists – [...]

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