Then and Now: Joni Mitchel

by Alexandra Pranger

She’s been called many things in her lifetime. ‘The Queen of Country’ ‘The Star of Folk’ ‘The Goddess of Rock and Roll’. Simply put, she is a living legend, for, what else would you call a musician who is an activist, a star, and still has almost the same vocal range as she did when she was 18 after turning 75 years old? You would call her Joni Mitchell, a name that is commonplace in many Canadian and Midwestern- to Eastern-United States households, but here in Los Angeles, many people seem to have never heard her name.

Mitchell made her living in folk, rock, jazz and pop music, and was rarely seen without her guitar, but her true passion ‘has and always will be' painting. She designed most, if not all, of her own album covers and frequently describes herself as a "painter derailed by circumstance".

Rolling Stone calls her "one of the greatest songwriters ever", and AllMusic is reported to have said, "When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century". Her 1971 album Blue is often called one of the best albums of all time and was ranked the "30th best album ever made" in Rolling Stone's list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time". This was the highest entry by a female artist at the time. In 2000, The New York Times chose Blue as one of 25 albums that "represented turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music". In 2017, National Public Radio ranked Blue Number 1 on a list of "Greatest Albums Made By Women". Her first studio album, Song to a Seagull, was released in March of 1968 and her 19th and last studio album, Shine, was released on September 25 of 2007. But Mitchell wasn't always a big-name star. In fact, she didn't even consider her talent for music to be a talent at all at first.

The to-be star was born Roberta Joan Anderson on November 7, 1943 to William Andrew 'Bill' Anderson and Myrtle Marguerite (McKee) Anderson in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada. She struggled in school, as she was more interested in painting than academics. In her early school years she briefly studied classical piano and was told that she had a musical ear, but she dismissed the comment and continued with her art. At nine years old, Mitchell contracted polio in an epidemic and had to be hospitalized for weeks. After the incident, she focused more on her creative talent and considered a musical career "for the first time". At age nine, she was already smoking but she continues to this day to deny claims that smoking has affected her voice. She dropped out of school at grade 12, preferring a "freethinking outlook" to formal and traditional education (although she includes a dedication to one "unconventional" teacher who "made an impact on {her}" in her first album). She started teaching herself guitar from a Pete Seeger songbook as country music began to eclipse rock. Due to the affect the polio had had on her fingers, she had to devise dozens of alternative tunings of her own. This approach later helped her to "break free of standard approaches to harmony and structure in her songwriting" (Mitchell, 1981).

Mitchell reportedly started singing "with {her} friends at bonfires around Waskesiu Lake", (northwest of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan). At 18 she widened her repertoire of folk songs to include her favorite performers (i.e. Edith Piaf, Miles Davis, etc.) "My jazz background began with one of the early Lambert, Hendricks and Ross albums. That album, The Hottest New Group in Jazz, was hard to find in Canada," Mitchell says, "So I saved up and bought it at a bootleg price. I considered that album to be my Beatles. I learned every song off of it, and I don't think there is another album anywhere—including my own—on which I know every note and word of every song."

On Halloween of 1962 Mitchell had her first paid performance at The Louis Riel in Saskatoon, SK, and on the 26th of April, 1962, she met her future husband, Chuck Mitchell, while performing in the downstairs section of The Penny Farthing in Toronto, ON. Her first major appearance before a large audience was on August 6, 1965 when she performed at the Mariposa Folk Festival at Innis Lake Campground in Caledon East, ON. Her last 'official' concert was on November 13, 2002. She was the headliner at a benefit concert for The Walden Woods Project at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. Her last documented public appearance (prior to her 75th birthday concert) was February 13, 2015, when she was interviewed by Liza Richardson for a live recording of KCRW-FM.

Mitchell has been awarded many honors and accolades in her career, including a star on Canada's Walk of Fame (2002), an induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame (1981), an induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (January, 2007), an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1997), 8 competitive Grammy Awards (1969, 1974, 1995, 1995, 2000, 2002, 2007, 2016) and 1 honorary Grammy Award (2007). In the citation for her Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2002), she is described as 'one of the most important female recording artists of the rock era' and 'a powerful influence on all artists who embrace diversity, imagination, and integrity'. In 1995 she received a Billboard's Century Award, which was followed by the Polar Music Prize in 1996. On April 6, 2002, she was honored by TNT Network with a celebration at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City where her songs were covered by all-star performers including James Taylor, Elton John, Wynonna Judd, Brian Adams, Cyndi Lauper, Diana Krall, and Richard Thompson. In 1981 she received Canada's Highest honor in the performing arts: The Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, and in 2002 she joined Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen to become the third Canadian singer-songwriter (and first female Canadian singer-songwriter) to be appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada. This is Canada's highest civilian honor.

On November 7th of this year, Mitchell attended an all-star tribute concert thrown in honor of her 75th birthday. Seal, James Taylor, Rufus Wainwright, Norah Jones, Glen Hansard, Emmylou Harris, Chaka Khan, Diana Krall, Kris Kristofferson, Los Lobos, and Graham Nash performed in what was referred to as a 'homecoming concert' for Mitchell. Joni Mitchell's 'greatest albums' (Blue, Ladies of the Canyon, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Mingus) were supposedly recorded in and/or inspired by Los Angeles. Mitchell has referred to LA as her 'adoptive hometown' and the house in Laurel Canyon that Mitchell shared with Nash -- and two cats -- was the basis for the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young classic, Our House.

So, Angelinos, why doesn’t Joni Mitchell ever show up in our conversations or our playlists? If she was, and still is, so loved, why don’t we ever hear her name? Why do you think she’s been ‘forgotten’ or ‘erased’ from the majority of our musical memories?