Joni Mitchell turns 70 today. A child of rural western Canada, Mitchell endured a series of early hardships that might have crushed a more timid soul — polio, teen pregnancy, an unhappy marriage — but she always managed to follow her muse.
Mitchell made a lifelong habit of guarding her artistic freedom and turning adversity into advantage. When a childhood piano teacher slapped her on the wrist with a ruler for the offense of playing by ear, Mitchell decided she didn’t want any more formal music education. When she found it difficult to form guitar chords with her polio-weakened left hand, she learned to explore alternative, open-chord tunings that have given her music an extra dimension of richness and variation.
As a folk singer in the 1960s, Mitchell managed to fulfill both sides of the Bob Dylan/Joan Baez dichotomy: In one person she was both the songwriter of genius and the woman with the golden voice. And like Dylan, Mitchell didn’t remain a folk singer for long. “I looked like a folk singer,” she once said, “even though the moment I began to write, my music was not folk music. It was something else that had elements of romantic classicism to it.” She went on to explore jazz, collaborating with Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and others. “Impossible to classify,” says her biography at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “Mitchell has doggedly pursued avenues of self-expression, heedless of commercial outcomes.”
As a musician, Mitchell is mostly retired now. She continues to paint and write poetry. To celebrate today’s milestone we bring you a pair of great performances from her younger years. In the clip above, from the January 21, 1968 episode of the CBC’s The Way it Is, a 25-year-old Mitchell plays her classic early songs “Both Sides Now” and “The Circle Game.” Even after 45 years, the songs can send a shiver down your spine. And below, from the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, Mitchell’s evolution as a writer and performer are evident in the lilting, melodically inventive “Big Yellow Taxi.” In a previous post, we have also highlighted Mitchell playing a 30-minute set on British TV in 1970.