Friday, December 4, 2020


Until very recently, the idea of Mitchell allowing such an archival release was laughable. Like many artists, she dismissed a lot of her earliest attempts at writing and performing as worthy of public consumption. Other early sources, such as demo tapes and live concerts wouldn't live up to the technical scrutiny given later releases. And Mitchell has very high standards when it comes to her releases. One can't imagine the old Joni allowing a live track where she flubs the lyrics and has to restart a line to be placed on the market.

But flubs, stumbles, slight tuning issues and various youthful transgressions are all on display on this, the first of hopefully several archive releases. Over five hour-plus CD's, we get a full document of the start of her career, leading up to her first album in 1968. There are various sources, including an early radio station tape from Saskatoon in 1963, live coffee house performances from Yorkville Village in Toronto, tapes made at her parents' house, others sent to family and friends, a rejected demo tape for Elektra Records, and shows from her first blush of fame, when her songs were starting to be recorded by others. It's a remarkable set that shows the explosion of her development, from a standard folk singer of the day ("House Of The Rising Sun") to one of the very best new songwriters of the '60's ("Both Sides Now").

Mitchell's career began with the same tug of war she felt throughout her life, trying to decide if she was a painter or a singer. While an art student in Calgary, she was lured to the folk clubs, where she developed her repertoire of standards, from "John Henry" to "Dark As A Dungeon," which she played on a four-string baritone ukulele. Back home in Saskatchewan a friendly DJ recorded a nine-song tape of these standards, proving what a poised and confident performer she already was, even if she hadn't written a song by then. That first real composition, "Day After Day," came during a bus trip to Ontario, as a pregnant Mitchell got out of town to save her family's '60's embarrassment, and go see her hero, Buffy Ste. Marie, at the Mariposa festival. That song, and four others of her early compositions made it onto a demo tape, all wordy and moody and studied, and while they show a serious pursuit, didn't get her a contract or make it past that first trial. 

Meanwhile, her performances show an increased professionalism, and ease with the intimate audiences of the clubs. She banters her way through lengthy tunings, tells jokes and fun stories, and owns the stage. As we start to hear her own compositions, the odd tunings appear, immediately setting her apart from the hoards of singing guitarists. While she's still doing "Nancy Whiskey" in Toronto in 1964, the next time we hear her live, it's on CTV's Let Sing Out folk show in 1965, where she's introducing the original "Favorite Colour." A message song about race, it's a little precious, but still effective, and definitely good enough to get her noticed. Still, she'd do much better, and quite soon.

A tape sent to her mother for her birthday presents new compositions, including "Urge For Going," her first major tune, recorded by friend Tom Rush, and a country hit for George Hamilton IV. Now living in Detroit with her new husband, Chuck Mitchell, she was becoming a known presence in the folk scene there, as well as landing TV and radio gigs in other cities. By 1966, her set lists were now almost completely made up of originals, almost uniformly of high quality. "The Circle Game" and "Night In The City" arrived, and by March of 1967, she was excited to play her brand-new "Both Sides Now" on the Folklore radio show out of Philadelphia.

Things really progress through 1967, as more songs debut that will attract more cover versions, and end up on her first four albums. As well, there are still more originals that she left behind, some inexplicably. "Gift Of The Magi" and "Dr. Junk" deserved better fates, and by this period there's few that she wrote and performed that weren't superior. Most of a complete, three-set show at The Canterbury House, Ann Arbor, from October of '67 has been saved, and by now her debut album was starting to take shape live, with "I Had A King," "Marcie" and "Michael From The Mountains" all in the show.

There are a couple of special moments to highlight, perhaps familiar to those who frequent rare tracks on Youtube or the bootleg world. From the Canterbury show, Mitchell performs "Little Green," a song that wouldn't appear until 1971's Blue album. Although it was known until decades later, the song was about the daughter she had to give up for adoption in Toronto, a single mother alone and without any money. The hints were there, in the lyrics and the final reference to "Kelly Green," the name she had given the baby. And on the Folklore radio show in May 1967, she played a song by Neil Young that had affected her, "Sugar Mountain," a rare occasion where she covered a contemporary. Young's song had inspired her to write "Circle Game," one of the great bits of kismet in Canadian music history.

This is a strong set from start to finish, a gold mine if you like Mitchell's folk years. The book that comes with the set features a new interview with Cameron Crowe, and while he gets to some interesting points with Mitchell, it's a little short on context. I would have preferred some I-Was-There commentary from surviving friends and fans, plus a little more info on the history of each song. But it's nicely priced, and I was pretty shocked when I first heard it was coming out, so it's a win all around. Hopefully there's more to come, now that the taps have been turned on.

1 comment:

  1. It's great having all the background info to put the release in context, thanks! Great read