Sprung from a $36 Ukulele: ‘Joni: The Anthology’

If Joan Baez was the purest folkie, Judy Collins the chanteuse, then Joni Mitchell was probably the siren.

The least a reader can reasonably expect from the presentation of an anthology collecting criticism of and interviews with a legendary artist is a clear narrative path about the personality in question. Barney Hoskyn’s Joni: The Anthology certainly provides that and much more in this compelling, highly readable, and at times emotionally gripping tale of this singular, idiosyncratic, determined musical and visual artist.

Saskatchewan native Roberta Joan Anderson was 15 in 1958. She bought a $36 baritone ukulele with money she’d earned from modeling, played through the usual apprenticeship of coffeehouses and folk clubs in the small window space that had opened when Elvis went into the Army, Chuck Berry went to prison, and mainstream “rock” became purely vanilla. Ten years later, now Joni Mitchell (taking and keeping the name she’d assumed from the brief marriage to her first husband), with a collection of originals that had been covered by others, she released her first album.

What happened in the space between first getting that ukulele, releasing her debut album in 1968, and the release of her most recent album in 2007, is the expected path taken by this anthology. The best way to summarize the packaging and presentation of Mitchell in the first seven years of her recording career can be heard in her 1974 hit “Free Man In Paris”. She was a product of the “star-making machinery behind the popular song”. Apparently written for and about her friend/former manager record mogul David Geffen, the hero of that song was a man who had willingly entered that business of finding and presenting artists. Mitchell was among many North Americans in the early ’60s who saw an opportunity to strum a few chords and put their twist on the popular song, except in the case of the folk movement that had surfaced to replace what Mitchell saw as rock ‘n’ roll’s “really dumb, vanilla period”, the popular song was generations old.

The first chapter, “Beginnings”, is an interesting look at young Joan Anderson’s early growth, how it seems to have mirrored that of her regional and ideological contemporaries Neil Young and Bob Dylan. She was conveniently placed with Joan Baez and Judy Collins, but only while she covered the folk standards.

“‘Once I began to write,’ she admitted, ‘My vocal style changed. My Joan Baez/Judy Collings influence disappeared. Almost immediately, when I had my own words to sing, my own voice appeared.’”

What we learn in this chapter, and what we see as the main element throughout Mitchell’s career, is that she was always seen within the context of others, at first measured against the noble justice folk of Baez and the high-voiced chanteuse sparrow voice of Judy Collins, or the presence of Chuck Mitchell. “I was developing as an original, unschooled thinker [with] the gift of the blarney [and the gift of the metaphor… there was this educated pride versus the uneducated and the marriage didn’t last very long.”The growth in these early days included songs like “Both Sides Now” and “Urge for Going”. Her classic “The Circle Game”, a song of hope and uplift through the cycle of years after years, was written in response to fellow Canadian Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain”, which seemed to suggest that life ended after you turned 20.

The hopefulness and innocence of this scene, nicely evoked here, is untarnished by the surprisingly (and embarrassingly) purple prose that would pollute the bulk of her early concert and album reviews. It’s here where Joni: The Anthology manages to rise above the sexist drivel of pioneer rock writer Paul Williams’s review of Mitchell’s debut album Song to a Seagull. Consider these lines:

“I have yet to meet a girl who doesn’t feel that Joni speaks for her… the way the vocal struts and stumbles…”

Williams risks drowning in the hot poetic wax of this rhapsody, and in a parenthetical aside not just about Mitchell’s voice but about the voice of women in general, he adds “…have you ever noticed how much more important is the sound of a woman’s voice than what she says with it?” There’s no need to saddle this comment with the benefit of retrospect, to forgive Williams his trespasses. It’s unapologetically sexist. “She plays guitar like someone smiling at you… and she is pretty, which means her words and voice and face and music.

Writers like Williams seem to be trembling under the mere presence of Mitchell. If Baez was the purest folkie, Collins the chanteuse, then Mitchell was probably the siren. Writer Ellen Sander reflects on Mitchell in a 2012 article by noting how, in those first few years, the problems were clearly sexist. Warner Brothers, her label at the time of her debut, released an ad (quickly pulled) with the headline “Joni Mitchell is 100 percent virgin”. In 1971, Rolling Stone, complete with a chart diagramming and identifying the liaisons of this muse of Laurel Canyon (Graham Nash, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen, and others), called her “Old Lady of the Year”.

This early section of the Anthology, “Our Lady of the Canyon (1968-1972)”, nicely balances the time capsule reviews of the time with retrospective memories from writers and friends. Hoskins understands that the purple prose cannot and should not be ignored, which probably explains why we read this line from Geoffrey Canyon’s review of an April 1970 Mitchell concert: “Joni could sadden only a man irreversibly alone.” A Reprise Records ad for Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon album reads like a time capsule flash fiction short story of a groovy chick sitting by her stereo, getting lost in Crosby, Stills and Nash, Neil Young, and Mitchell. In a March 1971 Rolling Stone profile, Mitchell offers an observation that probably rings true for many when assessing her perspective and rare but sharp contemporary interviews:

“She leaned forward suddenly and said ‘I feel like I’m going to be an ornery old lady.’”

It’s a long piece that serves as another angle at her early days and sets up the reader (informed or not about Mitchell) for what would follow.

There are more painfully misguided reviews here. Their presence probably serves many purposes, primary among them being to prove that informed paid listeners at the time just didn’t get it. Geoffrey Cannon’s review of 1971’s classic confessional album Blue mentions only “All I Want” before speculating about the role of Graham Nash in the narrative.

In Part III, “A Dream to Fly” (1972-1977)”, the anthology effectively captures Mitchell truly coming into her own. We read early reviews of 1974’s Court and Spark, featuring “Help Me” and a cover of the Lambert Hendricks and Ross hit “Twisted”. Johnny Black’s 2004 “Blender” piece about the genesis of “Free Man In Paris” offers this gem from Madonna: “‘In high school I worshipped Joni Mitchell and sang everything from Court and Spark, my coming-of-age record.'” In his review of a 1974 show, writer Ian Dove notes the energetic jazz arrangements by the LA Express and how Mitchell’s voice dealt with the comparative noise, calling her “…folk-rock’s Ethel Merman”. This period seems comparable (perhaps in not such a cataclysmic way) to Dylan going electric. The once solo Mitchell, accompanying herself only on guitar, piano, or dulcimer, was now with a jazz band. The audience resistance then is felt through these pages, and it only adds to the reader’s respect for Mitchell’s tenacity.

In Part IV: “Singing Clear Notes Without Fear (1978-1988)”, we meet a Joni Mitchell who seemed to willingly dive into the depths of controversy by the late ’70s, with Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, a sprawling double LP, with a 17-minute song like “Paprika Plains” taking up and entire side. It seemed stubbornly anti-commercial, especially the cover art, a collage of Mitchell in costume as a Native American, an African-American (here a zoot-suited pimp), and an adoring white woman groupie. “Joni goes Jolson; how could it miss?” Her 1979 collaboration with (and named after) jazz legend Charles Mingus, who would die soon afterward, is reviewed here by Sandy Robertson, who offers this troubling yet perceptive observation of Mitchell as cultural appropriator:

“As it is… a maddeningly white attempt at blackness… Joni helps Mingus to be some kind of mystical black saint figure… Joni Mitchell the little white girl in awe of the big black man.”

The ’80s were not kind to Mitchell, but in retrospect, the decade featured some of her more interesting recordings, like 1982’s Chinese Café/Unchained Melody, an original reflection on days gone by mixed with the old pop classic. In a 1983 show review by Wayne Robins, her performance of “Big Yellow Taxi”, accompanying herself on electric guitar, “evoked a latter-day Eddie Cochran”.

Part V, “Doomsday Joan (1991-1998)”, might prove difficult to fans, detractors, and newcomers to Mitchell. It’s hard to enter her career at this point devoid of context, unaware of the journey this woman had taken. Her voice was still strong and arrangements shimmering in albums like Night Ride Home (1991) and Turbulent Indigo (1994). Songs like “Magdalene Laundries”, from the latter, proved she was still determined to shine a light on darkness. In Hoskyn’s own “Conversation”, previously unpublished (from September 1994), Mitchell speaks of writing a song about Job:

“…I searched among them [the Scriptures] for rhymes, so I had to rearrange much of the thinking sequentially, but I don’t think I disturbed the general idea or condition of this man being tried for his soul.”

Mitchell has been accusatory (in interviews not include here) aboutDylan’s legitimacy, but for the most part, he comes off well in this volume. His “Positively Fourth Street” made her think “‘Oh my God, we can write about anything now.’… So that changed my direction, and after that my songs got real.”

Dave DiMartino’s article, “The Unfiltered Joni Mitchell” (MOJO, August 1998) is a long, detailed, and at times compelling look at this woman in her quieter years, reflecting on visual art and still fuming about the state of the music industry. There are thoughts about a recent tour with Van Morrison and Dylan, and how the latter complimented her in her open tuning, how he wanted to learn that style. It’s interesting how her competitiveness is matched with her gratitude about being recognized by an equal as an equal. Later, she adds this:

“Everybody’s a singer-songwriter now but not everybody should be, not everybody can do all of these things and yet everybody does. And that’s why I think music has gone downhill.”

Mitchell, as listeners understand, explored the American Songbook herself, with full orchestra, through her album Both Sides Now (2000), and Travelogue (2002) re-purposed her own catalog with full orchestral arrangements. The end of the ’90s and into the 21st century saw the death of Frank Sinatra and a re-assessment from the ’60s generation of musical performers about songs themselves. What do they mean? Mitchell’s smoky voice was probably more a result of chain smoking than an affectation suitable for marketing to fans her age, but the results were still powerful.

In an interview included in Part VI, “Both Sides Then (2000-2014)”, JMitchell reminds us that Prince was a huge fan of “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”. It’s a strange interview (Robin Eggar’s “How Joni Mitchell Got Her Groove Back”, Rolling Stone Germany, May 2007) in which Mitchell goes on at length — quite defensively — about her black fans:

“I have a big black audience, fans who are warriors around the world. The second in command of the Crips in L.A. is a three-hundred pound black man and he is a fan. They are emotional people who do not fear to listen to me.”

It’s peculiar and frustrating, but it works well near the end of this volume. Her reflections on her guitar playing and visual art, in the same interview, serve to balance the weirdness, the impression that she protests too much. Mitchell’s frail health over the past few years has been a cause for major concern amongst listeners who knew only pop cover versions of “Big Yellow Taxi” (like Counting Crows), interpolations (like Janet Jackson’s 1997 song “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”) or long-time fans who’ve taken a deep dive into the catalog. Joni: The Anthology is a rich exploration of an artist whose work has informed, challenged, entertained, and inspired generations of people who — as she suggested in Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970) — only want to “get back to the garden”.

RATING 8 / 10