Joni Mitchell 101: A Crash Course by Thea Kohout ’14

I grew up listening to Joni Mitchell because of my mom, who instilled in me at an early age a love of folksy women like Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris, and of course, Joni. My dad and older siblings are all on the spectrum neutral-to-anti on Joni, and thus my memories of her always involve my mom and me being alone in the house, usually in our cheerful red kitchen, listening to Hejira as we sang and swayed through those songs while making dinner together.

My dad introduced me to all the boys I still love today: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, the Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the like. But Joni was the first musician I can remember listening to who felt like she was singing to me. She was sensitive and vulnerable, but there was a power behind her fluttering voice that absolutely floored me. Her lyrics reminded me of Leonard Cohen’s: beautiful songs that stood on their own as beautiful poems when the music was subtracted. She doesn’t shy away from her emotions; rather, she seems to meet them head-on in her songs. No one writes about longing like Joni, but no one writes about joy like her either. No one writes about heartbreak like her, no one writes about love like her.

I started out trying to make a brief playlist of good introduction to Joni Mitchell songs, but it turned into a not-so-brief disorganized list, so I decided to pick a couple songs from each of the seven albums I have of hers to highlight:.

Song To A Seagull, 1968.

This was Joni’s debut album and is mostly classically-influenced, although you can definitely tell this was when she was starting to break into the folk scene of the ’60s. A lot of it deals with her disastrous first marriage to Chuck Mitchell. Excellent songs: “I Had A King,” “Night In The City,” and “Cactus Tree.”

Clouds, 1969.

Joni’s second studio album, much more folk-rock influenced than the first. The album cover is a painted self-portrait (in addition to being a musician and a poet, Mitchell is also a painter and a dancer) and is probably one of the more famous Joni Mitchell images. Contains several Joni classics that went on to be covered by a lot of different musicians. Excellent songs: “Chelsea Morning” and “The Gallery.”

Ladies Of The Canyon, 1970.

This was my favorite Joni album for a long time, before I got really into Blue and Court And Spark. It will always hold a very special place in my heart, though. This is really the height of her folk phase and very much highlights her relationship and collaborations with the members of Crosby, Stills & Nash (she and Graham Nash were together for a significant amount of time and a lot of the songs are probably about him). Excellent songs: “Morning Morgantown” and “Woodstock,” later famously covered by CSN&Y.

Blue, 1971.

This album came about after Joni and Graham Nash called it quits, and she wrote a lot of the songs while traveling solo through Europe and the United States directly after their tough breakup. It’s incredibly introspective, incredibly raw, and incredibly beautiful. This is everyone’s favorite Joni Mitchell album. Excellent songs: all of them, but especially “All I Want,” “California,” “This Flight Tonight,” and “A Case Of You.”

For The Roses, 1972.

Joni’s fifth studio album shows her starting to turn from purely folk/singer-songwriter influences to a more band-friendly, commercial sound. Excellent song: “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio,” which is awesome, but which she wrote kind of as a snarky fuck-you to her producer, who wanted her to write a pop love song.

Court And Spark, 1974.

This is everyone’s other favorite Joni Mitchell album, and it’s also the one where she starts sounding a little less lady-with-a-guitar and a little more jazz rock. It was certainly her most commercially successful album, although there’s a story that when she played it for Bob Dylan for the first time, he fell asleep. What an asshole. Excellent songs: “Court And Spark,” “Help Me,” and “Raised On Robbery.”

Hejira, 1976.

This is my parents’ favorite Joni album, and I love it because all the songs were written when she went on a roadtrip from Maine to Los Angeles. It’s a restless, moody album, and is of course perfect for long car trips. It kind of lures you into that driving hypnosis you need to get through several twelve-hour days of driving, or finals week, or whatever. Excellent songs: “Coyote” and “Black Crow.”

Unfortunately, this is where my Joni Mitchell discography stops, but she has released many, many more albums than just these; her latest was released in 2007. After Hejira, she began to explore jazz much more in depth, even collaborating on an album with Charles Mingus. During the ’80s, she began to experiment with pop music and synthesizers, and during the ’90s and ’00s she began releasing retrospectives and re-orchestrations.

For further research….This piece on Rookie is also a great primer on Joni, and includes several great live clips of her. Also, this documentary on Joni’s life is free for your viewing pleasure on Vimeo and will make you really appreciate her life (but be warned, it made me very sad because the current Joni doesn’t resemble the past Joni very much).

6 thoughts on “Joni Mitchell 101: A Crash Course by Thea Kohout ’14

  1. Thea–
    What a wonderful piece– and full of your family which I just love. Great writing, great selections, and great writer. Sounds like family gifts here! Love, Susan

  2. So I’m a crusty old Kenyon alum, at least the age of your parents, and I happen to be streaming WKCO today from my home in Colorado. Stumbled on to your wonderful piece on Joni and had to comment. First, I am an amalgam of your folks: a Deadhead and big fan of all the classic stuff your dad turned you on to, and also a huge lover of all things Joni MItchell. Next, great selections from each LP. I wonder if you ever heard her live one, “Miles of Aisles,” with concert versions of many of the tunes you mention? Like you and your mom, I’m very fond of Hejira. There’s an interesting backstory to ‘Coyote’ having to do with actor/playwright Sam Shepard and Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue that might interest you.

    I was also a DJ on WKCO back in the day. In fact I pretty much chose to attend Kenyon because I could get on the air quicker than at another school where I was accepted. One of my shows that ran during the afternoon was called “Daydreams with Doug” (theme song was a Lovin’ Spoonful tune) and the very first cut I ever played when I signed on the air was “You Turn Me On (I’m a Radio).

    My other big activity at KC was as the concert guy. This was pre-Summer Send-off, and we brought in bands to the old Wertheimer field house and Rosse Hall. My first experience was hauling gear for New Riders of the Purple Sage (their amps still had Grateful Dead stenciled on them), and I was behind bringing Arlo Guthrie and Pat Metheny to the Hill. As big a concert fan as I have long been – with over 50 Dead shows and way too many others to count – I was never able to see Joni live. One time I had tickets for her tour date (1983) on Red Rocks but I moved away (to work back in the Kenyon Admissions Office) before the show; another time I heard about a tour she was headlining, rushed out and got a front row seat, only to have her cancel. I got a refund.

    Your paean to Joni Mitchell has obviously brought back some memories for me, so thanks for your patience as I tripped down Middle Path. What strikes me as a fan of much of today’s best indie, alt country, and good new alternative rock-n-roll, is that so many artists – especially a gob of women – owe so much to Joni…yet so many fail to acknowledge the debt they owe her. One great new voice who does credit Joni is Laura Marling. Have you heard her?

    Great blog, Thea. You write so well – Kenyon proud – and have wonderful taste in music. Enjoy and keep it up.

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