What does it sound like?:
Joni Mitchell spent a lot of her career bristling against the label “Folk Singer” but here she is in 1963, at the age of nineteen, recording for her small town radio station in Canada, undeniably a Folk Singer. She is singing House Of The Rising Sun, a year before The Animals transformed it, with a confident yet tremulous voice, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. Everything Joni Mitchell is about is there. The brave yet vulnerable demeanour, the purity of her mezzo-soprano and a strong right hand, her left, weakened by polio at the age of nine, protected by unusual guitar tunings. She has a core inner strength enabling her to stand alone, away from the crowd, her whole life exposed under a spotlight. There is also an innocence soon to be lost.
The recordings on this box are mostly live with some demos, single takes almost without a flaw, documenting a period of personal turmoil up to her first album. They are presented in chronological order and the sound quality is almost uniformally excellent. It starts in her home town radio station, CFQC AM, moves to The Half Beat, Toronto, for two sets, some demos in Detroit, four songs for Let’s Sing Out for CBC TV, then on to the 2nd Fret in Philadelphia, a series of recordings for Folklore on WHAT FM, a birthday tape for Michael in North Carolina, demos in New York and finally culminating in three sets at Canterbury House, Ann Abor, Michigan.
She starts by “singing tragic songs in a minor key” covering other people’s songs, those in the North American Folk canon, including ones written by Ewan MacColl and Woody Guthrie. Her hero was Judy Collins and she was inspired by fellow Saskachewanian Buffy Saint-Marie. Soon, she was seeking better fortune in Toronto. However, she couldn’t afford $200 to join the musicians union, so ended up busking and working in a department store. The two sets recorded at The Half Beat place her calm before a storm. By late 1964, she found herself pregnant, alone and facing a bleak winter. She was fortunate that Chuck Jackson, another Folk singer, was willing to take her on but her baby daughter was put up for adoption, the couple moved to America and their marriage dissolved after eighteen months. It’s here where the wellspring of her songwriting is situated, a conversation with the child she was unable to care for. In fact, when that child finally met her in 1997, she said she lost interest in writing any more. As the songs and her live performance progress over these discs, you can hear her protective core of steel solidify but it cannot obliterate the sadness that is within her compositions.
By the time she gets to Canterbury House in 1967, her command of the stage is underlined by her inter-song chatter. She speaks in precise, eloquent sentences, reflecting her lyrics, in a crisp Canadian accent that must have sounded almost British to the audience. Normally, introductions are intrusive and lose any interest after one listen, but here they add character to the recordings. As in her songs, it’s the small details that count. They are witty and charming mini anecdotes opening a window on her life and family, such as the one about her father’s rusty trumpet lip. There is no moment of doubt, no hesitancy in her performances. She has absolute belief in her ability, her songs and her stage presence. When they are the quality of The Circle Game, Both Sides Now and Chelsea Morning, her belief is entirely justified.
This is the woman who blazed a trail for female singer-songwriters in a male dominated world. In the sixties, most female songwriters wrote for other artists and those that sang relied a lot on covers. Bobby Gentry was perhaps her closest comparable peer. Mitchell’s songs were covered by other artists, including her heroes, Buffy and Judy, but they weren’t written for them. She wrote for herself, unrepentantly personal and poetic. She quickly moved on, progressing with breathtaking speed, her sets varying greatly, repeating herself infrequently. There are a total of 29 songs in the box that she has never otherwise recorded herself and others had to wait some time before making it onto one of her albums. From the Folky beginnings and nods to Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young, she develops a warmth and vividity, her syntax as graceful as Leonard Cohen’s. She sees rainbows in the windows of her grubby apartment. Her doomed marriage is depicted as a fairy tale. These are songs of life and love and hope. The grief within them is cleverly disguised. She chokes back a tear at the conclusion of Songs To Aging Children Come at Canterbury House. We also hear Little Green being sung in a husky voice, tellingly without an introduction, a long time before it finally appeared on Blue released in 1971. A close inspection reveals the reason why. Her secret is at the centre of the song, almost too painful to bear.
As a youth, Joni studied art. Her work adorns many of her albums and the drawings and paintings inside this box are quite beautiful and match the content perfectly. How many singer-songwriters were creating their own cover art in 1967/8? There are those who think she made it on the back of David Crosby. The truth is, as demonstrated in Archives, that she learnt little from him, except, perhaps, how to work a studio. Crosby produced her first album and Paul D. Rothschild, the Doors producer, her second but thereafter she did her own.
The five CD box comes with a wonderful 40 page booklet including a frank interview with Cameron Crowe. On vinyl, you can buy the triple LP Live At Canterbury House 1967, which consists of all three sets she recorded there and/or a single LP of the 1963 CFQC AM tapes.
The modern music business is led by supremely talented young women. Many of them owe a tremendous debt to Joni Mitchell. Anyone who picks up an acoustic guitar to write a song can learn from her. Archives Volume 1 is a fascinating historical document of one of the late 20th Century’s finest artists. She was dirt poor when she was beginning as an artist and song-writer but she oozed talent and was clear-sighted from the very start. All she needed was a microphone in a room with decent acoustics and she was spellbinding.
What does it all *mean*?
Life is complex and sometimes it’s really shit. We all adopt coping mechanisms. The world should be grateful that Joni Mitchell chose to write songs.
Goes well with…
The Studio Albums 1968 – 1979 box, containing her first ten LPs.
Might suit people who like…
Witnessing a flower about to bloom.