I didn’t grow up listening to Joni Mitchell. In fact, other than hearing one or two songs as a young adult, I didn’t own anything by Joni until I was well into my 20s. I’ve never been a big fan of female folk singers with crystal clear voices, so for years I lumped her in with other names I was vaguely aware of: Joan Baez, Carly Simon, Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris, Laura Nyro, etc. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with these singers, but I was probably a little narrow-minded at the time. I’ve become more musically open-minded as I’ve gotten older, and as a result my appreciation for these artists has grown, none more than Joni.
The two Joni songs I was aware of from early on were “Chelsea Morning” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” Because these are both centered on acoustic guitar with minimal accompaniment and sparse arrangements, you can see why I had a very narrow view of her output. By my late-20s that view hadn’t changed, until Reprise Records released two compilations of her music. One was a collection of her hits and best-known songs, which she agreed to on the condition that she could compile a sister compilation of lesser-known songs that she deemed worthy. These were released simultaneously as Hits (1995) and Misses (1995). In addition to the two songs with which I was already familiar, Hits introduced me to such timeless gems as “Woodstock” (I knew the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young version but had never heard her original), “The Circle Game,” “Help Me,” “River” and “Both Sides Now,” a song that would become more powerful as she…and her fans…grew older.
Misses was a slightly more adventurous compilation, and probably not the best place to start for a novice (like I was), but as I listened to it numerous times that year I began to understand the breadth of her artistry. Songs as diverse as “A Case Of You,” “Dog Eat Dog,” “Harry’s House/Centerpiece,” “For The Roses” and “Hejira” were clearly not meant for the pop charts. Not only did I discover her jazzier side, but I also noticed how her voice gained character as her career progressed. I was equally impressed by the musicians she played with, from popular artists like James Taylor, Robbie Robertson and Stephen Stills to incredible jazz players like Joe Sample, Wayne Shorter, Tom Scott, Vinnie Colaiuta, Robben Ford and especially the troubled but brilliant bassist, Jaco Pastorius. As a musician myself, and a fan of all kinds of jazz, I knew she was special if all these people wanted to play with her.
Over the next few years I acquired the bulk of her catalog, and I gravitated to her most popular albums (Blue, Court And Spark) as well as some of her more challenging ones (The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Hejira, Mingus). I guess I went through a “Joni phase” for a year or two, and since then I’ve only gone back sporadically, so it’s been a long time since I’ve really listened to her music. Also, I tended to focus on the instrumentation and her vocals more than the words, which means I’ll be spending more time listening to the lyrics as I revisit her catalog over the next month or so. The only album in her catalog that I don’t own is 1998’s Taming The Tiger, so I won’t be including that here unless I come across a copy of the CD or LP during this reappraisal.
As always, I welcome your feedback. I don’t claim to be an expert, so I hope to hear from fellow Joni fans who should be able to offer insight into her music, and perhaps share useful information that I might overlook. Thanks for reading.