If you’d seen Joni Mitchell in the early 60s, playing in small coffeehouses and nightclubs in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, you may have assumed she was one of many other wannabe folk singers, with her delicate voice and gentle guitar numbers. Would it have been possible to imagine just how rich and varied a career she would have as a songwriter?
Certainly, there were some people present in the early years who recognised the promise Roberta Joan Anderson had – not least other folk musicians – including Judy Collins, Fairport Convention and Tom Rush – who heard her self-penned songs, including Chelsea Morning, The Circle Game and Both Sides, Now, and knew the value of what they heard. Mitchell’s songwriting talent alone would draw intrigue, and lead to her signing to Reprise for her debut album, Song To A Seagull.
A love for words: setting the bar
It wasn’t a perfect start. The album, produced by The Byrds’ David Crosby, suffered from tape hiss, the poor audio quality underselling Joni’s talent and taking some of the shine off the pearls within. Reprise didn’t realise that the birds on the album cover spelt out the title, Song To A Seagull, and cut the sleeves too small, leaving first pressings reading “Son To A Seagu”.
Still, it didn’t Joni hold back. The beautiful sleeve design – one of the best 60s album covers – would set the bar for all Mitchell’s subsequent records. And if there’s one thing fans should note, it’s the credit she gives on the album to her English teacher: “… dedicated to Mr Kratzmen, who taught me to love words”. Because by 1968, we had barely seen Joni’s love of words.
Lady of the canyon: a flourishing songwriter
With a work ethic like no other, Joni Mitchell managed to find the words for almost an album a year from the late 60s and throughout the 70s, her songwriting flourishing across 1969’s Clouds and 1970’s Ladies Of The Canyon – the latter of which brought about some of Mitchell’s first great songs, including Rainy Night House, Ladies Of The Canyon and Morning Morgantown, as well as Big Yellow Taxi.