Joni Mitchell’s Salad Days

The Early Years (1963-1967) offers a generous glimpse at the genesis of Joni’s genius

Joni Mitchell (Art: Ron Hart)

During the early to mid ‘60s, America found itself on the musical defensive on two fronts.

While most folks refer to the so-called British Invasion as the major challenge to Stateside superiority, there was a secondary incursion coming from the Great White North, one that people paid little heed to at the time. The Canadians came across the border and effectively assimilated, allowing for the establishment of such indelible icons as Neil Young, the Guess Who, Gordon Lightfoot, The Band, and any number of other countrymen that would quickly follow in their wake.

Joni Mitchell was a prominent part of that initial wave, and although it took her somewhat longer than the others to etch her identity, she would, in a matter of years, become the ultimate symbol of ‘60s songcraft, a beguiling, waif-like minstrel with the perquisite flowing blond hair and homespun features. She emitted the essence of patchwork, patchouli and innocence in an era where audiences actually took the time to listen. Her music was wistful, willowy, and unadorned, flush with imagery, idealism and circumspect. It was, in summation, a sound able to fuel the folkies’ fervor while instilling fascination and flourish in the process.

In the succeeding years, Mitchell veered towards the mainstream and her songs were quickly covered by others — Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Fairport Convention, and her guy pals CSNY among them. Yet to hear them in their seminal state, sans added embellishment and with the earnest intent provided with the prototypes is something of a revelation. It’s here for all to witness in a massive five CD set, one that boasts an ample array of unreleased recordings that include standards as well as originals, all culled from early live performances, home demos, television appearances, and radio broadcasts which have never been available in any format before.

Joni Mitchell Archives Volume 1–The Early Years (1963-1967), Rhino 2020

It’s worth noting that during the period these recordings encompass — specifically 1963 through 1967 — Mitchell was still an unknown artist. Her debut album Song to a Seagull wouldn’t be released until 1968, but the songs that would become the hallmarks of her later catalog were already being sown. Nevertheless, she relied on traditional tunes early on, and the material on disc one, sourced from her first-known recordings on radio station CFQC-AM and at the Half Bear club in Toronto, lean heavily on familiar fare and songs of a vintage variety — “House of the Rising Sun,” John Handy, “Deportee,” “Pastures of Plenty,” and the like. With the discs that follow, Mitchell quickly comes into her own, and the material accedes to more of a familiarity factor, courtesy of organic originals such as “The Circle Game,” “I Don’t Know Where I Stand,” “Both Sides Now,” “Urge For Going,” and “Morning Morgantown,” all of which set her apart even early on. 

Despite the variety of sources, the recordings are of decent quality, although some of the earlier sessions show the evidence of age. There were technical limitations that had a decided effect on the proceedings, and naturally, home and club environs offered audio challenges of their own. Still, given the fact that Mitchell utilizes such a simple set-up — consisting only of vocal and guitar — the essential experience is captured as cohesively and completely as possible given the limitations. Her introductions add further enlightenment to the proceedings as do the wealth of photos and commentary from those who were there, various other astute observers and, of course, Mitchell herself. “The early stuff, I shouldn’t be such a snob against it,” she states. “A lot of these songs, I just lost them. They fell away. They only exist in these recordings. For so long I rebelled against the term, ‘I was never a folk-singer.’ I would get pissed off if they put that label on me. I didn’t think it was a good description of what I was. And then I listened and…it was beautiful. It made me forgive my beginnings. And I had this realization…I was a folk singer!

Well, not just a folksinger of course. Consider this the starting point of Mitchell’s magic.




Lee Zimmerman
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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville, Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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