There was a time in my life when I could do a fair imitation of Joni Mitchell singing “Big Yellow Taxi.”
Those were in my days of university coffee houses and the repertory of the student performers tended to reach back to the heydays of folkie rock: Lots of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Simon and Garfunkel, and Joni.
She had already gone on to far more experimental albums, exploring jazz and pushing boundaries. But, initially at least, I was drawn to those early performances of the flaxen-haired lass from Alberta. Her 1970 album, Ladies of the Canyon, is the one I’ve listened to most of my life.
She was an artist of immense complexity, writing, playing, singing and later becoming known as a painter of note. She was part of a 1960s’ wave of Canadian performers who became international music stars and whose careers all spanned decades: Leonard Cohen, Buffy Saint-Marie, Neil Young, The Guess Who, and The Band.
Her young voice had the pure tone of a flute, if the breathiness of a flute tone was burned away by fire. It was a remarkable instrument – very different than the kind of from-the-diaphragm big, round sound that is the goal of a classically trained or choir singer. The few times I sang a Joni Mitchell song in public, I remember feeling like I had to narrow and hone my voice, which made the leaps and on-a-dime turns of her melodies all the more challenging to sing.
Even with that distinct voice, her songs have often been adopted by other singers. Articles about Mitchell agree that her most-covered songs are 1967’s “Both Sides Now” and 1971’s “The River” – the Christmas song of the cool and hip – each being recorded several hundred times by other performers.
Mitchell’s life has been as complex as her artistry. Media stories made much of her revelation that she had given up a daughter for adoption, reunited with her 30 years later, and then the relationship apparently soured. She had polio as a child and in the latter part of her life has struggled with ill health. And she may be among the most tobacco-addicted people ever to live.
The only time I have seen Joni Mitchell in person was in 2013 at Toronto’s Luminato Festival. It was billed as a tribute evening to Mitchell, then 70, and she was scheduled to attend, but not perform. However, at the end of the evening, she came out on stage. The piercingly sweet and agile voice of her youth no longer exists, replaced by a husky, rough tone with only a few notes’ range. She moved slowly, kicked off her flat shoes and swayed interpretively to the music beat, often closing her eyes. Even for those few moments, she needed to, or chose to, smoke an electronic cigarette onstage as a dodge for Ontario’s strict anti-smoking laws in public places.
My other Canadian singer-songwriter hero, Bruce Cockburn, is near Mitchell’s age but his playing and singing are as strong, if not stronger, than in his youth. The carousels of time have spun faster for her, but oh the journey she sees when she looks behind from where she came.