See Classic Performances of Joni Mitchell from the Very Early Years–Before She Was Even Named Joni Mitchell (1965/66)

A pho­to­graph of two old friends—Joni Mitchell and David Hockney—holding hands at Hockney’s L.A. solo exhi­bi­tion took over the inter­net for a moment, for sen­ti­men­tal rea­sons Guy Tre­bay laid out in The New York Times. These include the fact that “Ms. Mitchell has sel­dom been seen in pub­lic since she says she was giv­en a diag­no­sis of Morgel­lons dis­ease, and suf­fered a brain aneurysm in 2015,” and “despite the pres­ence of the cane she uses since hav­ing learned again to walk, Ms. Mitchell appears radi­ant and robust.”

Tre­bay does not include anoth­er rea­son that comes to mind: the two elder­ly artists, in their sweaters and adorable match­ing snap-brim hats, look like reg­u­lar old folks on the way to a week­ly chess match in the park. It’s a human­iz­ing por­trait of two giants of the art and music world, two peo­ple who, despite their wealth and fame, seem immi­nent­ly down-to-earth and approach­able; a warm and cheer­ful image, says Irish poet Sean Hewitt, who first shared it on Twit­ter, of “two suc­cess­ful peo­ple enjoy­ing their old age.”

Does­n’t every­one espe­cial­ly want that for Joni Mitchell? Of all the beloved sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­an stars on the public’s radar these days, Mitchell gar­ners more well-wish­es than anyone—rallying gen­er­a­tions of stars and musi­cians for a 75th birth­day trib­ute con­cert last Novem­ber. The show appeared in the­aters (see a trail­er below) and has been released as a superb album of live cov­ers called Joni 75. So much of the love for Mitchell—her undis­put­ed bril­liance as a song­writer, gui­tarist, and per­former notwithstanding—has to do with the amount of per­son­al pain she over­came to make it as an artist.

Born Rober­ta Joan Ander­son in Alber­ta, Cana­da, her ear­ly strug­gles gave her musi­cal voice so much poignan­cy and authen­tic­i­ty. As she her­self has said, “I wouldn’t have pur­sued music but for trou­ble.” A bout with polio at age nine, a push against her par­ents’ expec­ta­tions to claim her iden­ti­ty as a visu­al artist and musi­cian… then, at age 20, Mitchell’s boyfriend left her, “three months preg­nant in an attic room with no mon­ey and win­ter com­ing on,” she lat­er wrote. She gave up the baby for adop­tion, and the deci­sion haunt­ed her for years. In 1982’s “Chi­nese Café,” she sang “Your kids are com­ing up straight / My child’s a stranger / I bore her / But I could not raise her.”

The fol­low­ing year, 1966, she mar­ried Amer­i­can folk singer Chuck Mitchell, took the name we know her by, and left Cana­da for the first time to make musi­cal his­to­ry. But first, she appeared on a Cana­di­an tele­vi­sion pro­gram called Let’s Sing Out, host­ed by folk singer Oscar Brand and record­ed on col­lege cam­pus­es across the coun­try between 1963 and 1967. The first ’65 episode at the top cap­tures Mitchell—then Joan Anderson—singing her unre­leased “Born to Take the High­way” at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Man­i­to­ba, a pre­scient song that “imag­ined cars and women dif­fer­ent­ly” than the typ­i­cal road songs of “pow­er­ful mus­cle cars” and “jacked-up mas­culin­i­ty and sex­u­al con­quest,” writes the blog Women in Rock.

“I was born to take the high­way / I was born to chase a dream,” she sings, cer­tain­ties that rever­ber­ate through her music and her life. Brand intro­duces Mitchell as an exam­ple of the move­ment in folk music toward the “self-writ­ten song.” She appears with him lat­er on that same broad­cast to sing “Blow Away the Morn­ing Dew” (a young Dave Van Ronk also appeared on the show). In sub­se­quent broad­casts in the com­pi­la­tion, we see “Joan Ander­son” more con­fi­dent­ly inhab­it the per­sona that would pro­pel her to fame first in Cana­da, then the States, then the world. She per­forms solo and with the Chap­ins, then, final­ly as Joni Mitchell, in two 1966 broad­casts. Find a track­list of each clas­sic per­for­mance below, and, if you haven’t already, take some time out to cel­e­brate Mitchel­l’s 75th by revis­it­ing the begin­nings of her career over fifty years ago.


Octo­ber 4, 1965 — With The Chap­ins and Dave Van Ronk

00:00 — Open­ing

01:22 — Born to Take the High­way

04:25 — Blow Away the Morn­ing Dew


Octo­ber 4, 1965 — With The Chap­ins and Patrick Sky

07:52 — Open­ing

09:05 — Favorite Col­or

12:00 — Me and My Uncle


Octo­ber 24, 1966 — With Bob Jason and Jim­my Drift­wood

15:08 — Open­ing

17:20 — Just Like Me

20:15 — Urge for Going


Octo­ber 24, 1966 — With Bob Jason and the Allen-Ward Trio

24:08 — Open­ing

25:05 — Night in the City

27:55 — Blue on Blue

30:30 — Let’s Get Togeth­er (Allen-Ward Trio)

33:37 — Prithee, Pret­ty Maid­en


Relat­ed Con­tent:

For Joni Mitchell’s 70th Birth­day, Watch Clas­sic Per­for­mances of “Both Sides Now” & “The Cir­cle Game” (1968)

Stream Joni Mitchell’s Com­plete Discog­ra­phy: A 17-Hour Playlist Mov­ing from Song to a Seag­ull (1968) to Shine (2007)

Joni Mitchell Sings an Aching­ly Pret­ty Ver­sion of “Both Sides Now” on the Mama Cass TV Show (1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Janie Massry says:

    What an amaz­ing priv­i­lege it is to be able to have seen an heard Joni Mitchell sing .
    Very hap­py to see so many cel­e­brate Joni’s Birth­day!
    Beau­ti­ful peo­ple , words and music.
    Open Cul­ture has giv­en me very enjoy­able moments

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