Moar Joni

This half-hour video of Joni Mitchell is from a BBC special in 1970, when she was only 27, yet already a hugely accomplished singer/songwriter.

Why is she the best? It’s the combination of skills, one that not even Bob Dylan had. She could write fantastically complex and inventive songs (often about her loves [“My Old Man,” in this video, is about Graham Nash], but with infinitely more panache than the minimally-talented Taylor Swift), her voice is absolutely gorgeous, with a huge range, and she could play guitar (she invented many of the open tunings that made her sound so distinctive), dulcimer, and piano. (She could also paint, and very well.)  Bob Dylan, whom someone suggested as her male equivalent, could do one thing well: write songs.  He couldn’t sing (his voice always irritates me), and his ability to play guitar is, well, limited.

Don’t get me wrong: Dylan was enormously talented as a songwriter, and perhaps the biggest influence on the music of the last five decades. But in terms of musical greatness, I think there are others who are superior.

Anyway, Mitchell demonstrates all her skills in this video, playing many of her great songs.  The best, “California,” starts about 16:30.

It’s so sad what’s become of Mitchell lately; I don’t even want to talk about it.

Her best album? “Blue“. Second best: “For the Roses“, followed by “Court and Spark“.


  1. Posted April 23, 2014 at 4:28 am | Permalink

    Agreed completely, both about Joni in general and the album rankings in specific. However, IMHO, two of her lesser-known albums – “Hejira” and “Dog Eat Dog” have aged well. In the former, the bass work of Jaco Pastorius is superb. And the latter is, in many ways a quintessential early 1980’s album.

    • Posted April 23, 2014 at 4:58 am | Permalink

      Some of my favorite work of hers was the stuff with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Pastorius, Metheny, Michael Brecker… essentially working with the pantheon of my favorites. Not sure which countries this will be blocked in, but Shadows & Light is an hour and a quarter well-spent, IMHO. I’m not liking it that Michael Brecker, Don Alias & Jaco are gone now — all way too damn young.

  2. Ian Hewitson
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    Although I’m just a young ‘un (almost 51), I’m very familiar with Dylan but Joni Mitchell pretty much passed me by. Apart from, of course, Big Yellow Taxi which I suspect her fans will say is not one of her finest moments. However, I’m now intrigued. What HAS become of Joni Mitchell lately?

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted April 23, 2014 at 5:02 am | Permalink

      On the weirder side, Mitchell has some sort of controversial disease in which you delusionally believe that you are infested by parasites, and a few years ago made some very negative remarks about Bob Dylan (whom she had worked with a lot in the past) which she later denied making.

      On the positive side, she had a emotional reunion with her long-lost daughter (whom she gave up for adoption as a teen), and acted as an adviser to a Canadian ballet company that choreographed a dance to her songs from the 2007 album “Shine” which is IMO good if not as impressive as her early work.

      IMO, more generally, even Mitchell’s weaker material is still engaging and passably pretty good. While Dylan has written some of my favorite songs of all time, he’s also written some songs that are just plain bad.

    • jwthomas
      Posted April 23, 2014 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      Joni Mitchell recently turned 70(!) and is still writing and performing. I’m fond of the albums and songs mentioned here but check out YouTube for some of her more recent performances.

  3. Posted April 23, 2014 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    You’re right. Charles Mingus contacted her. For everyone else it would have been the other way around.

  4. estraven
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    I have been a Joni Mitchell fan for decades. I wrote a research paper on her once! A few years ago I saw her in concert when she was with a 70+ piece orchestra. I still dug it. “For the Roses” is my favorite album.

  5. ljrTR
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    I like a few of Joni’s songs well enough. So glad you enjoy them, Dr. Coyne. What’s become of her lately?
    Back in the day, I preferred Judy Collins.

    • Merilee
      Posted April 23, 2014 at 6:13 am | Permalink

      I liked the album on which Judy recorded some Dylan songs but generally feel that while Judy’s voice can be clear as a bell, Joni has infinitely more emotional range. Judy’s later songs are just plain boring. As for voices, some of the “worst” singers, (Dylan, Cohen, Waits, Neil Young), can be the most powerful.

  6. Ben McKelway
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    I’m a big Joni fan as well. Really tough to pick a favorite album, but I think mine is “Hejira.”

  7. docbill1351
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Notice the wristwatch?

    Today she would be sporting a tattoo on her wrist and not even own a wristwatch.

    Who needs time, anyway?

  8. ehecatl
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    I like Joni as well, although my wife seems to be the bigger fan.

    Some much younger female singers I enjoy lately are: Eilen Jewell, Zoe Muth and Diana Jones. All of them more folk and less jazz.

  9. Posted April 23, 2014 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    I cannot disagree with anything above except to say that Hejira is my favourite album and I believe her best one. She has written some amazing songs over the years. Chinese Cafe is a masterpiece if you ask me. And, yes, her art is much better than Bob’s.

    But I will question one thing: Dylan can sing. Listen to 69 through 75 Dylan and you actually hear him properly singing. Sometimes in that country croon style, sometimes in quite a mellow if still nasal voice. But I can see how his singing can irritate.

  10. JimV
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Dylan’s songs were so good that I didn’t mind his voice. His harmonic playing did irritate me, though. His guitar playing was okay – better than mine – but I was better on harmonica.

    “Clouds” was the first JM song I heard and it blew me away but in a clever way, not the heart-wrenching way that BD’s did. I’m a better person for listening to BD. (Who in turn I think was inspired by Woody Guthrie.)

    That’s what we need instead of religion – just people like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and Martin Luther King to inspire us to be better people. (Bearing in mind that there are no saints – no perfect people.)

    • JBlilie
      Posted April 23, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Dylan was inspired by Woody Guthrie. He met him. He described himself (Dylan) as a “Woody Guthrie juke box” when he was a young man.

  11. mordacious1
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Dylan’s voice fits the type of music that he writes. Do we really want Mel Torme’ singing protest songs? Had Frank Sinatra (or Joni Mitchell for that matter) performed “Hurricane”, then Rubin Carter would have died in prison this week.

    • Owen Recognizance
      Posted April 23, 2014 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      I believe that Dean Martin once performed ‘The Draft Dodger Rag’, a Vietnam protest song by Phil Ochs, on his TV variety show. He crooned it straight, as if it were not ironic. That gives this sort of material a whole larger dimension, IMO.

  12. JBlilie
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    I have to disagree on Dylan’s guitar playing (though I agree with all your other opinions in this piece, Joni rules).

    Dylan is/was actually quite a good acoustic guitar player. He could pick and sing very well; better than most pop musicians, by far.

    Open tunings usually make the playing much easier, which is why they are used (along with getting a lot of open strings, whichs give s a certain ringing sound to the instrument).

    (Speaking as a pretty experienced and competent guitar player who has used many tunings.)

    • JBlilie
      Posted April 23, 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      His singing voice never impressed me — but he could do both, together.

  13. revelator60
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I have to agree with the commenters who stood up for Bob Dylan. The first time I heard Dylan sing I was as irritated as anybody else, but I realized that what irritated me was Dylan’s refusal to sing conventionally. Dylan can in fact sing well and prettily–check out Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, Another Self Portrait and New Morning for evidence. But he usually chooses not to (or rather chose–his voice is now blown out, though he makes good use of the husky remains).
    And Dylan does not have just one voice–he’s used several over the years, ranging from old-before-his-time dustbowler (Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), sneery rock God (Highway 61 Revisted), country crooner (Nashville Skyline), 70s folkie (Blood On the Tracks), whiny gospel preacher (Slow Train Coming), and wizened roots musician (Time Out of Mind). His guitar playing is also underrated (check out World Gone Wrong) and his live albums with the Band (Live ’66 and Before the Flood) are among the best concert albums ever recorded.

  14. dale
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    This is special. Joan Anderson (Joni Mitchell)

    • Lars
      Posted April 23, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      When and where was this recorded?

      • dale
        Posted April 24, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        This is from the Canadian TV show “Lets sing out” hosted be Oscar Brand. It aired from 1963 to 1966 on CTV, then moved to CBC until 1968 (from wiki). As for when this episode aired I don’t know, except to guess earlier in the run rather than later.

        • Lars
          Posted April 24, 2014 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

          Thank-you, Dale.
          Guess it was when she was playing the Riverboat and places like that.
          I wonder what she thinks of Yorkville as it is today.

  15. MDH
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I cannot agree with you concerning your elevation of Ms. Mitchell to “greatest female singer/songwriter”. I find her voice sometimes grating, her guitar playing often repetitious, and her frequent register jumps annoying. Perhaps it’s because I am not comfortable with the 70s California folk-rock genre.

    If anybody deserved that title, it would have been Sandy Denny, whose great-ranged and very expressive voice is the only one that has managed to bring a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes in the time it takes for one song to play (Who knows where the time goes; Meet on the ledge; She moves through the fair; Farewell, Farewell; &c., &c.)…although Maddy Prior and Jacqui McShee come close.

    The world lost a great one in 78 when she died of an aneurysm after a fall down the stairs.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted April 23, 2014 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

      Yes, Sandy Denny really was something – though I don’t want to make comparisons with Joni Mitchell, whose work I hardly know.

    • Denis McDaniel
      Posted April 23, 2014 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

      Her duet with Robert Plant (“Battle of Evermore” from Led Zeppelin IV) is one of my favorite Sandy Denny recordings.

  16. Posted April 23, 2014 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    OK, Dylan is/was not the greatest singer or guitar player, but his guitar playing s better than he gets credit for, and his singing is an acquired taste which I’ve acquired. Imagine any other voice singing, “How does it feeeeel?” It wouldn’t be the same, or as good.

  17. Filippo
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Well, forgive my injecting my “square” predilections heah, but attention is congenially invited to the a cappella version of “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” by the vocal jazz quartet, The Singers Unlimited, found easily enough on Youtube, featuring a virtuoso performance by the vocal goddess in the group, Bonnie Herman. You’ll easily-enough hear the dubbing of multiple tracks. (There’s a nice live 1973 version by Barbra Streisand to be found there also.)

  18. mark
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    Your answer is incorrect. Hejira is Joni Mitchell’s best album. The answer is Hejira. (Partial credit for Blue, which is 2nd best.)

  19. Jim Sweeney
    Posted April 23, 2014 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    I’ve long been a Joni fan, but never having seen her perform I had no idea just how good a guitarist she was until I saw an early video.

    It’s just not fair! Great lyrics, pretty damned good music, pretty damned good voice, pretty damned good guitar. Most great performers have only one item from that menu.

    Like many others, she eventually ceded the guitar work to specialists.

  20. splendidmonkey
    Posted April 25, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    Here Both Sides Now is used to great emotional effect with the brilliant acting of Emma Thompson:

    • splendidmonkey
      Posted April 25, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      Hint: it wasn’t the gift she hoped for.

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