May 6, 2011 • 3:54 am

No last name is needed for the woman (b. 1943) who may be the greatest popular singer/songwriter—as writer, instrumentalist, and vocalist—of the last forty years.  She wrote beautiful, complex, and personal music, was a great guitar player and pianist, and had a fantastic voice. (I use the past tense here, as her more modern stuff doesn’t resonate with me.) And she is a creditable painter.

That’s a triple play, matched only, and arguably, by Stephen Stills and James Taylor.

Here are two of her live performances [Note: if the videos are temporarily down here, I’ve also linked the the YouTube videos.]



Back in the 60s, she was the woman every guy wanted.

I will entertain comments about other rock/folk musicians who can match all of her musical talents.

66 thoughts on “Joni

  1. Noone can match her. The song Amelia from the album Hejira is an absolute top five-of-all-songs-in-the-world favourite of mine. So beautiful, so sad, so human. Like a sigh realizing that life once again is ful of dreams and dreams shatter.
    I listen to Hejira when I’m driving alone in the car.
    So, so beautiful.

    1. Of all my collection of music, Joni’s Hejira is the one that I’d consider my favorite of all time. So many great songs. Coyote, Song for Sharon, Black Crow, and of course Amelia. But then there’s the title song of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter album which is unbelievably good too. Turbulent Indigo and Night Ride Home were both fabulous cds and the list could keep going. Not only can few match her musical talents, who can match her poetry?

      1. Her rendition of Coyote on The Last Waltz was the first I’d heard of her. It stuck in my teenage brain like a religious screed. Thankfully.

        Woman of Heart and Mind was, still is, excruciating – to the male of the species.

      2. I, too, think of our great songwriters as poets, and, to be honest, some of the few poets I care to listen to…

  2. The earlier work of both Mitchell and Dylan knocks me out in the amazement, admiration, and appreciation departments though I recognize that their long careers say much about their profound creativity, talent, and commitment.

    Mitchell also showed that it was possible to be very feminine and make it in the often crazy male rock world. And she did it by doing it, not by making talking points.

  3. I’ve been on a Laura Nyro kick recently, who was a beautiful and prodigiously talented singer/songwriter. I’m not sure she ever was a painter, but think of what a major impact she had on pop music and how ironic it is that today she is gone and all but forgotten.

    1. It is funny how some bands/singers can pass you by (unless you actively seek out lots of different music to either embrace or dislike). For example I have never knowingly heard a Killing Joke record though I used to go to endless Goth gigs in the 80s (Sisters of Mercy etc) where it seemed half the ‘youf’ present wore leather jackets with ‘Killing Joke’ on the back!

    2. She was more than eclectic, she had top 40 hits “Help Me”, “Free Man in Paris” and “Big Yellow Taxi” to name three.

      I think the lack of knowledge of her is die to age as she was really at her peak in the 70’s, and country, as I assume you live outside of NA.

      She still gets radio play here, both on CBC radio and the local stations.

    1. Such exquisite lyrics. A favourite line (or two) from my favourite song:
      “Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain.
      It was the hexagram of the heavens
      It was the strings on my guitar”

  4. Folk singers?
    Jean Ritchie, from the Appalachians.
    Jeannie Robertson, from one of Scotland’s ‘travelling’ families (that is to say, probably gypsies)
    Elspeth Cowie, another – much younger – Scottish woman singer.

    And a more modern,and American sort of folk:
    Patti of ‘Tuck and Patti’ – perhaps the best duo for this kind of music anywhere.

  5. I really should love the music of Joni Mitchell. I play guitar in various styles, mainly folk and jazz and I am really into alternative tunings – something Joni is renowned for in guitar circles. She is a ‘musician’s musician’, an accomplished guitar player and someone who is able to write really personal and musically complex pieces. And yet it just doesn’t hit me. I like a few of her early albums but they never really reach me on an emotional level and her later stuff completely passes me by. I guess it is really subjective as to how music reaches us. I only got into music in the late 70s and early 80s when I became a teenager and that seems to be just a little too late for me and Joni to have connected. The ‘current’ Joni Mitchell stuff I heard at that time didn’t have the power of her earlier recordings.

    1. You might want to check out the video “Shadows and Light”, which is essentially “Joni meets Weather Report”.

      In addition to Joni, there’s Jaco, Pat Metheny, Don Alias, Wayne Shorter, Lyle Mays & Michael Brecker.

      I’m no major Joni fan, but this work sends me.

      1. Shadows and Light (great live album, not just in video) is just Brecker. Wayne Shorter played on a bunch of her studio albums though.

          1. indeed!
            I didn’t mean to imply otherwise: was talking about the sax chair only.

            Metheby’s solo on that album (and, I guess, video) is truly sublime.

    2. But your point about timing is an excellent one. So much can depend on our personal state of mind, level of maturity, idealism or jadedness, etc.

      As someone contemporaneous with the last heyday of folk & the then nascent folk-rock synthesis, I have trouble not sounding too fogy-ish about some of today’s musicians…sigh.

  6. Nobody stopped to hear him
    Though he played so sweet and high
    They knew he had never
    Been on their T.V.
    So they passed his music by
    I meant to go over and ask for a song
    Maybe put on a harmony
    I heard his refrain
    As the signal changed
    He was playing real good for free

  7. If you don’t mind my pilfering a religious term, Joni’s the Alpha and Omega for me in terms of popular music. If I ever met someone who had no conception of what popular music was, I’d play them a Joni Mitchell album – probably Blue or For the Roses.

  8. Back in the 60s, she was the woman every guy wanted.

    “back in the 60s”?

    I’ve been in love with her for decades. Shadows and LIght and Hissing of Summer Lawns are my favorites. If you’re a jazz fan, start with those and check out Mingus and Hejira and Don Juan’s next.

    Don’t imagine, btw, that her “recent stuff” is all of a piece. Some are a lot better than others.

    1. I’m definitely a fan of Neko Case – a good modern choice for a talented female singer/songwriter.

  9. I don’t think any short list of American singer/songwriters should omit Hazel Dickens. She was extraordinary.

    Among more current singer/songwriters, I really enjoy Eilen Jewell. Went to one of her shows in Hampton VA at a small bar/restaurant recently. Wonderful.

    1. I saw her in Somerville, Mass around five years ago. There’s a comment on her www which I agree with:

      “Queen of the Minor Key sounds like sex and coffee”

      Here she is at SXSW, 2009 ~ somehow she has that lonesome tone I associate with the sainted Hank Williams (R.I.P)

      BTW… You write: “American singer/song writers” ~ you do realise Joni is Canadian (Fort Macleod, Alberta) ?

  10. Ah, when you posted about Joan Baez yesterday I was like, meh, she’s no Joni. And so today I get to gush about Joni.

    There are many entire songs that I love, but what I like about Joni Mitchell’s music is the way some lines create such vivid visuals. Sometimes they resonate because they mirror my own experiences, but sometimes they simply describe a situation so well that I can identify with it without ever having been there myself. Two of my favorites:

    I awoke today and found
    the frost perched on the town
    It hovered in a frozen sky
    then it gobbled summer down
    When the sun turns traitor cold
    and all the trees are shivering in a naked row
    I get the urge for going

    On the back of a cartoon coaster
    In the blue TV screen light
    I drew a map of Canada
    Oh Canada
    With your face sketched on it twice
    Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine
    You taste so bitter and so sweet
    Oh I could drink a case of you darling
    Still I’d be on my feet

  11. I can’t believe I’m the first to mention Linda Ronstadt. Equal to better song writer than Joni and much better vocalist.

  12. Joni Mitchell – one of my favorite topics. Simply miles ahead of anyone in the pop music field right now, or for many years for that matter. So many of her albums can be counted among the best of all time. My personal favorite is Blue, but Ladies of the Canyon, For the Roses, Clouds, and Hejira are on the list, too. I grew up during that era, and compared every girl I met to Joni – they all suffered by comparison. I eventually figured out that I wasn’t going to hook up with Joni and grew out of that phase fortunately. But I will always love her and her music.
    Jerry also mentioned Stephen Stills, another of the all-time best singer/songwriter/musicians – certainly one the best guitarists of the age. Posted is a Crosby, Stills, and Nash performance from Woodstock of Stills’ song “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” about his former lover Judy Collins. The video is poor, but the incredible performance both vocally from all three and Stills’ guitar playing, more than makes up for it. And, as most know, this threesome also covered Joni’s song “Woodstock” giving it a very different interpretation than her original.
    Music has always played a huge part in my life. I don’t know what I would do if I lost my hearing….

    1. Music has always played a huge part in my life. I don’t know what I would do if I lost my hearing….

      I so identify with that! But music has also always scared me in a way…it’s the one art that can tweak my emotions and…something even deeper and rather indescribable (esp. to an audience of scientists) in a way I almost hate to admit can happen. I’m often suddenly brought to tears by how ineffably beautiful a certain riff can be…it’s almost like a feeling of losing control; and I don’t like to feel I’m losing control!

  13. The link did not post in my previous comment so I will try again. Crosby, Stills, and Nash doing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” at Woodstock.

  14. I have to respond to Jamie’s post above about Linda Ronstadt. Certainly one of the best pop vocalists ever. But she wrote very few songs, and she didn’t write any of the songs she is best remembered for. If someone can point out songs written by Linda that were among her best recordings, please do.

  15. The comment above about Neko Case reminded me of a great show I saw last year – an episode of Elvis Costello’s terrific show “Spectacle”. The show featured four singer/songwriters including Neko and Sheryl Crow (not bad herself!), and another one of my all time favorites Jesse Winchester. Jesse left the US for Canada during the Vietnam War because he refused to fight. His first album, the self-titled “Jesse Winchester”, was produced by the leader of The Band, Robbie Robertson and featured members of The Band. It contains some of the best songs of that decade although he never became very well known sadly. If you are not familiar with his music do yourself a favor and look for these songs from his first album: “Payday”, “Yankee Lady”, “Black Dog”, “Biloxi”, and “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz”.
    He is still alive and kicking as shown by this terrific live performance of “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” from his most recent album “Love Filling Station”. You’ll notice toward the end of the video that his performance brought Neko Case to tears.

  16. Yes to Joni, of course.

    Life before Google: I had a couple of Laura Nyro albums in the 70s, thought she was a great and underappreciated singer/songwriter, but had no idea she wrote all those 5th Dimension songs, the only one of which I even remotely liked was “Stone Soul Picnic.”

    I mean, 5D was what your parents played when they wanted to put on some ‘rock’ music for the youngsters at family gatherings.

  17. I got the Light and Shadows DVD for Xmas last year. Can’t begin to conceive of the amount of rehearsal and preparation that must have gone into it.

  18. @ Stan #24

    You’re right about Ronstadt’s song writing. I don’t know what I was thinking.

    But, I stand by my claim of her singing virtuosity … and as for being the woman every man wanted, just ask our (California’s) current governor …

    1. Fond memories of Governor Moonbeam! Who says there’re no second acts in American politics?

  19. She is indeed one of the greatest singer/songwriters and like her fellow Canadian contemporary Neil Young have managed to inspire generations of people including myself.

    I’ve found myself listening to a great deal of her music lately and have rediscovered Blue after loving Court and Spark for so long. “Down to You” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written and “Case of You” (from Blue) is a perfect love song.

  20. Miles of Aisles is my favorite.

    I love Joni.

    I also love Stills and James Taylor.

    Stills had more to do with the CSN and CSNY sound that anyone else. Fantastic songwriter and blues/folk/rock man.

    What about Bruce Cockburn?

    What about Neil Young? Bob Dylan? A “fine” voice isn’t everything. At least they could deliver a song (unlike breathy persons eating mikes nowadays.)

    Leonard Cohen?

    I urge all to also consider:
    Patty Griffin
    Martin Sexton
    Patti Larkin

  21. i came across a really great cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” by Jason Falkner. this was released on a double rarities disc in Japan a while back and, quite frankly, this is an amazing version of this song, in my opinion.


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