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A Tribute to Joni Mitchell

On March 31, Joni Mitchell—who helped launch Greenpeace with a 1970 benefit concert, and emerged as one of the greatest songwriters and performers of the last 50 years—experienced a brain aneurysm. Friends found her unconscious at her home in Los Angeles. She regained consciousness in the ambulance and entered intensive care at UCLA Medical Center. She was alert and communicating before and after treatment.

"Joni is a strong-willed woman," her friend Leslie Morris said, "and is nowhere near giving up the fight." The public may send messages to Mitchell at We Love You, Joni!. Joni is now at home in Los Angeles and undergoing daily therapies. Although her condition is serious, a recovery is expected.

Vulnerable Young Artist

I first heard Joni Mitchell's music in the summer of 1969, when Stephen Stills introduced her at the Big Sur Folk Festival in California. A year later, I saw her at the Isle of Wight festival in England, with some 600,000 other music fans drawn by stars of 1960s music: The Doors, The Who, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Donovan, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell.

Joni Mitchell, Isle of Wight Pop Festival Britain, 1970. © Brian Moody/Rex

By Saturday, when Mitchell played, fans outside the fence—who could not afford the £3 (about £30 or €40 today) weekend ticket—had grown restless. They stormed the corrugated iron barriers and broke through, as Mitchell sang her new song "Woodstock … we are stardust, we are golden …"

A young man rushed onto the stage shouting that the festival should be free. A visibly shaken Mitchell—26, and just beginning her career—stopped her performance. "Look, I've got feelings, too," she pleaded in a trembling voice. "It's very difficult to lay something down before an audience like this. Please be respectful." The vulnerable young artist broke down into tears and left the stage, but returned to perform her current radio hit, "Big Yellow Taxi," singing, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." She then left the stage, weeping in her manager's arms. The scene felt heartbreaking.

A year later, Mitchell headlined the concert in Vancouver, Canada that launched Greenpeace.

Canadian Prairie Girl

Joni Mitchell was born Roberta Joan Anderson, on Nov. 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod, Alberta, where her Norwegian father instructed young World War II pilots at the Canadian airbase. Her Scots/Irish mother inspired a love for literature, her father urged her to study piano, and she taught herself guitar from a Pete Seeger instructional record.

Joni Mitchell youth in Saskatoon, Canada. © Blu-rayDefinition.com

Polio struck her at the age of nine, and in the hospital, she performed songs for other patients. She recovered, but the polio limited her dexterity, and she found normal guitar fingerings difficult. She devised alternative tunings to make complex chords easier to play. By 1961, she was performing in Saskatchewan nightclubs and attending art school. In 1962, Joni played her first paid gig at the Louis Riel folk/jazz club in Saskatoon.

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In 1964, at the age of 20, she left home to become a folk singer in Toronto, and wrote her first song, "Day After Day," on the train ride east. She became a well-loved phenomenon in Toronto clubs, met Michigan folk-singer Chuck Mitchell, married him, and began touring with him in Michigan, at the Rathskeller in Detroit and the The Folk Cellar in Port Huron. She appeared on the CBC folk music show, "Let's Sing Out."

By 1967, her marriage had dissolved, and Joni moved to New York City, performing as a solo artist at Cafe Au Go Go, the Gaslight and other clubs. She learned more sophisticated guitar tunings from American musician Eric Andersen, and other artists began performing and recording Joni's songs. Tom Rush recorded "Urge For Going," Buffy Sainte-Marie covered "The Circle Game," and Judy Collins had a top ten hit with "Both Sides Now."

Joni Mitchell became known for her wide-ranging contralto voice; her use of modal, chromatic, and pedal tone harmonies; exotic guitar tunings; and extraordinary, lyrical songs. Throughout her career, Mitchell wrote songs in over fifty different guitar tunings that supported her unique harmonies.

As Mitchell's fame spread, Joan Baez attended her show in New York, and at a Florida club, she met David Crosby, who invited her to Los Angeles and convinced Reprise Records to record her first album, Song to a Seagull, produced by Crosby, with Stephen Stills, playing bass.

A year later, in 1969, she released her second album, Clouds, which earned her first Grammy Award. The collection includes hit songs "Chelsea Morning" and "Both Sides Now," the haunting chromatic "Songs to Aging Children Come" and the anti-Vietnam-War anthem "The Fiddle and the Drum." Later that year, she sang harmony vocals on David Crosby's first solo album and on James Taylor's inaugural album, Mud Slide Slim. She would help launch Taylor's career at the Greenpeace concert.

Stop the Bombs

In Vancouver, Canada, in June 1970, the fledgling Greenpeace organization made plans to sail a boat into the U.S. nuclear test zone in the Aleutian Islands. To raise money, co-founder Irving Stowe decided to stage a benefit concert, and wrote a letter to Joan Baez. Although Baez could not attend, she sent a check for $1,000, recommended he call Joni Mitchell and stalwart anti-war activist Phil Ochs, and gave Stowe their phone numbers. Both agreed to perform, and the date was set for Oct. 16, 1970 at the Vancouver Coliseum.

A week before the concert, Mitchell phoned Stowe at his home and asked if she could bring a guest. Stowe covered the phone and whispered to his family, "She wants to bring James Taylor. Who's James Taylor?" His fourteen year-old daughter Barbara thought he meant James Brown. "He's that black blues singer!" she said. Stowe nodded, and spoke into the phone, "Yeah, sure. Bring him."

The next day, they visited a record store and discovered that James Taylor had just released his second album, Sweet Baby James, already at the top of the charts, with hit song "Fire and Rain." The local producer added British Columbia band Chilliwack, with a hit single of their own, "Lydia Purple." There was no public advance notice of the mystery guest, James Taylor, but tickets sold out quickly.

Phil Ochs, opened the show and spoke directly to the raison d'etre of the evening with his song "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore." Chilliwack got the crowd into a rock-'n'-roll frenzy. James Taylor stunned the crowd with his cryptic "Carolina On My Mind" and "Fire and Rain." Joni Mitchell appeared visibly nervous, still uncertain about her headline status, but her popular songs "Chelsea Morning" and "Big Yellow Taxi" brought shrieks of joy from the audience. James Taylor joined her for an encore, singing Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Irving Stowe raising the peace sign and delivered flowers to Mitchell on stage. After expenses, the event netted $17,000. This money, and the attention from the concert, lifted the nascent Greenpeace to a new stature. Attendance at the meetings swelled, and money poured in.

Joni Mitchell, Amchitka benefit, 1970. © George Diack, Vancouver Sun

In 1973, after the first two Greenpeace anti-nuclear campaigns, Joni Mitchell returned to Vancouver and appeared at an opening of her photographs, with Graham Nash, at the Gallery of Photography in North Vancouver. Greenpeace was still a modest group, planning the first whale campaign. We told Mitchell about our plans, and she promised to help if she could. Three years later, in 1976, after two successful whale campaigns confronting Russian whalers, Joni appeared at the "California Celebrates the Whale" benefit concert in Sacramento, with legendary jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius, and world music percussionist Bobbye Hall, signalling a new direction in her extraordinary musical career.

Beyond Folk-Rock

At the time of the Sacramento whale concert, Mitchell was recording the spectacular Hejira album with Pastorius on bass and Hall on percussion. The innovative artist was blazing a new musical trail, inspired by classical and chamber jazz and rock-inspired jazz-fusion, driven with Latin and African rhythms.

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She had recently released three jazz-inspired albums. For the Roses included Hall on percussion, Tom Scott from the jazz-fusion band L.A. Express on woodwinds and reeds, and Wilton Felder from Jazz Crusaders on bass. Some of these same musicians played on Court and Spark, with rock musicians David Crosby, Graham Nash and Robbie Robertson, plus famed flamenco and bolero guitarist José Feliciano. The album sold more than 2 million copies, earned "Best Album of the Year" from Village Voice, reached #1 on the Cashbox Album Charts, and won her second Grammy Award. The following album, Hissing of Summer Lawns, released in 1975, featured jazz pianist/percussionist Victor Feldman on congas and vibes, with John Guerin on the new Moog synthesizer.

Joni toured with L.A. Express, and released a live double album from their shows at the Los Angeles Universal Amphitheater. The 18 songs included jazz-influenced re-workings of her popular hits, "Big Yellow Taxi," "Woodstock," "Carey" and "Both Sides Now."

She appeared on the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Review with Joan Baez, and then in 1976 performed at the Band's famous The Last Waltz concert, singing a version of "Coyote" in an unusual C9 tuning with extended chords, pushing the musicians and raising the energy of the star-studded event.

Roger McGuinn, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Rolling Thunder tour. © AP 1975

In 1977, Mitchell released the spacey, improvisational, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, again mixing rock forms with jazz, accompanied by Pastorius, legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and percussionists Manolo Badrena and Alex Acuña.

Upon hearing this recent work, jazz legend Charles Mingus (right, photo by Sue Mingus, 1978) asked Mitchell to work with him. Mingus died during the recordings, but Mitchell completed the album, Mingus, released in June 1979, which rose to #17 on Billboard album charts. She then toured the Mingus material, accompanied by Pastorius, Shorter, jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, pianist Herbie Hancock, and percussionists Peter Erskine, Don Alias and Emil Richards. The tour included a duet with the Persuasions on Motown classic, "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"

Joni Mitchell and Charles Mingus. Photo credit: Sue Mingus, 1978

In 1982, Joni married Larry Klein, bassist on the album Wild Things Run Fast, who co-produced five albums with her and won Grammys for his work on Turbulent Indigo (1994) and Both Sides Now(2000). In 1983, they toured Japan, Australia, Ireland, UK, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia and the U.S., producing the live video/DVD, Refuge of the Roads. Mitchell and Klein divorced in 1994, after 12 years of marriage, but continued to work together musically.

I last saw Joni in Vancouver, in 1998, when she toured with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, a stunning show by perhaps the three greatest songwriters of the rock era. Mitchell played with a jazz-based band, including Klein, sang "Black Crow" and "Amelia" from Hejira, an adaptation of the William Butler Yeats poem "The Second Coming," and performed an encore of "Big Yellow Taxi" (with a Dylan impersonation) and "Woodstock." The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Mitchell in 1997. In 2005, she released "Songs of a Prairie Girl," a compilation of her songs that referenced Saskatchewan, and in 2007 she released her last studio album, Shine, with James Taylor playing guitar on the title track.

As of this writing, she remains at home in Los Angeles. She is not yet walking, but appears to be improving daily. Since her hospitalization, musical performers around the world have offered tributes to Joni Mitchell, one of the seminal musicians of our age, and an enduring advocate for the natural world.

Rex Weyler is an author, journalist and co-founder of Greenpeace International.

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