Joni Mitchell Biography - 1961 to 1964 (Chapter 5)


Page 125 - Joni enters the coffeehouse world

The coffeehouse was the Louis Riel, Saskatoon's only folk club.  Walking for the first time into the dark room with it's twinkling wall lights, Joni might have felt as if a curtain had just been slashed open on her future.  At top volume, the record player blared Edith Piaf singing "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" followed by a Lenny Bruce album, as coffee boy Ralph Martin manned the noisy grinder.


Page 127 - Mainstream Ascendance of Folk Music

The 1960 mainstream ascendance of folk music, by way of Joan Baez (hit album, Time cover) was actually two years in the making.  The Big Bang had been the Kingston Trio's 1958 surprise #1 hit, Tom Dooley, and before that the Weavers' version of Goodnight, Irene had reached #10 in 1948.

It was through the congenial, wholesome trio that a whole generation of college students began singing Michael, Row the Boat Ashore and Kumbaya at fraternity campouts and incorporating a watered-down version of the folk ethos into their sensibility.


Page 128 - Female folk storytelling emerges

What was so quietly significant about the rise of folk music among North American youth in the late 1950's was that it kicked wide the door to female storytelling - and storytelling based on an exaggerated version of real, not imagined, experience (family treachery, mating and pregnancy, all larded with troubling consequences).

The new female American folksingers in the mid-1950's, were Jean Redpath, Judy Henske, Bonnie Dobson, Peggy Seeger, Carolyn Hester (whose sensual good looks paved the way for phenomenom that was Joan Baez).  These women sang Child Ballads such as Barbara Allen, Maid of Constant Sorrow, Geordie and Mary Hamilton.


Page 132 - Joni takes to the stage

Joni was eager to express her creativity through music than through art - and publicly.  So one day she strode up to the mic at the Louis Reil's Sunday night hootenanny.  She started strumming her ukulele, she opened her mouth to sing - "and she sounded unlike anything we'd been used to hearing," D'Arcy recalls, "Everybody thought she sounded very weird and off-key.  People were raising their eyebrows, like, 'This is folk music? - this is really odd.'"

Still, Joni was committed to performing, and she made her case to the two owners.  They agreed to let the pretty waitress sing.  Her audition yielded sharply divergent opinions.  Holliday-Scott recalls, "I thought, 'Oh my God, she's awful.  She's a laughingstock, this girl with this ridiculous voice.'  It was so different, not mainstream; she would change her pitch a lot."  But Rene Gold vehemently disagreed.  He said, "Colin, I think this girl has got something.  It was agreed to let Joni play for two weeks and those young people really liked her."

Now Joni was determined to improve her musicianship.  "I distinctly remember telling her that anything she could do at the lower end of the guitar neck she could do higher up", recalls Shawn Phillips.  "I think she was intrigued by my use of nonstandard chords that I used on The Bells of Rhymney," in which Pete Seeger later recorded.


Page 139 - Hootenannies with Joni

Soon hootenannies were set up in the auditorium at lunch hour and after classes, and Joni - in her shelf pageboy and her proper skirt and blouse - was the main performer.  A teacher who was also an amateur folksinger - a man named Eric Whittred - formed a duo with her.  "Ours was a very strictly off-the-cuff presentation, but she certainly had talent and a lovely voice." Whittred recalls.  "Joni did a beautiful job on a Kingston Trio song, Oh, Sail Away - it moved me, and many of us.  We would sing Sloop John B, Jamaica Farewell, Tom Dooley, Michael, Row the Boat Ashore, The Whiffenpoof Song, Lemon Tree and Bob Dylan's Blowin In The Wind, which had been a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary the previous summer."


Page 139 - Dylan's influence on Joni

Joni was aware of Dylan by now, though it would not be until be blared out "You got a lot of nerve, to say you are my friend...." in the opening bars of Positively 4th Street in September 1965 that it came to her, like a lightening bolt, that "'you could write about anything.  It was a different kind of song than I had ever heard."


Page 151 -  Joni answers Neil Young with The Circle Game

Joni was still living in the boardinghouse around Christmas and six weeks away from her due date.  As the new year, 1965, loomed, Joni's lugubrious eight-months girth rendered her unable to perform in clubs.  Penniless, she went to live in Vicky Taylor's aerie over the Lickin' Chicken restuarant.

There, Vicky played Joni her friend Neil Young's song Sugar Mountain, and the song's premise - that Winnipeg boy felt so unhappily "old" at nineteen - led Joni to begin to write a kind of "answer" song about the value of age.  Months later, she would pick up the song again and complete it.  It would be called The Circle Game.

Note: Neil Young had suffered polio during the same epidemic that had felled Joni.


Page 152 - Joni gives birth to Kelly (Little Green)

Joni has said that she was fiercely judged by the staff in the charity ward at Toronto General Hospital. "The time of her birth was traumatic for me.  That's why I could identify with the women who were sent to the Magdalene Laundries" - the punitive Irish home for "wayward" girls that she wrote about so stirringly in her song of the same name. 

On February 19,1965, Joni gave birth to a healthy girl (Kelly Dale Anderson).  As she explained in the wrenching song Little Green (sometimes, early on, she forthrightly sang the words as 'Kelly Green'), written about the birth: "Call her green for the children who've made her".