Today (November 7, 2023,) one of our greatest musical treasures, Joni Mitchell, turns 80. From the release of her first album, Song to a Seagull, in 1968, to her final studio album Shine, in 2007, Mitchell has flourished as a fearless singer-songwriter who sails into uncharted musical waters, finding treasures in whatever cove she comes to rest.
She came onto the scene in the mid-1960s as a folk singer, and many of her early songs — “The Circle Game,” “Both Sides Now,” “Woodstock,” “Chelsea Morning” — were first sung by other artists, including Tom Rush, Judy Collins, and Dave Van Ronk. On her albums, Mitchell combined the personal with the political, delivering playful pop-oriented songs such as “Big Yellow Taxi,” which became an anthem for many in the environmental movement.
By the early 1970s, Mitchell, already exploring innovations in open tuning and arranging, followed her curiosity and her instincts into jazz, releasing some of her most acclaimed albums — including Blue (1971), Court and Spark (1974), Hejira (1976), and Mingus (1979) — and enlisting numerous renowned jazz musicians such as Tom Scott, Joe Sample, Jaco Pastorius, and Charles Mingus as collaborators.
Mitchell turned from jazz to pop in three albums in the 1980s—Wild Things Run Fast (1982); Dog Eat Dog (1985); Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988), a collection of duets with artists as diverse as Don Henley and Willie Nelson. By the 1990s and early 2000s she had returned to the strains of jazz in albums such as Turbulent Indigo (1994) and Shine (2007).
In 2015, Mitchell suffered a rupture of a brain aneurysm that sidelined her for several years. Through a rigorous program of therapy, Mitchell started making public appearances again in 2021. When Mitchell appeared on the stage at Newport Folk Festival in June 2022, she was greeted with thunderous applause when she sang “Both Sides Now.”
The winner of 10 Grammy Awards, Mitchell was awarded a Kennedy Center honor in 2021 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. Over the past five years, the Joni Mitchell Archives has begun to release previously unreleased material from Mitchell’s career.
Happy birthday, Joni Mitchell!
Here are a few songs to help us celebrate:
“Hejira” (Hejira, 1976)—This hypnotic song evokes the shadowlands into which pilgrims on a journey, or exodus, enter. It features Jaco Pastorius’ bass weaving under and around Mitchell’s shimmering guitar work and her crystalline vocals.
“Chelsea Morning” (Clouds, 1969)—Bright guitars Mitchell’s lilting vocals and stirring harmonies welcome the dawning of a beautiful day and a beautiful relationship.
“For Free” (Ladies of the Canyon, 1970)—Mitchell’s cascading piano arrangements flow underneath her poignant cinematic tale of a street musician.
“Blue” (Blue, 1971)—“Blue” conveys the depth of Mitchell’s evolving songwriting and vocals, and the song’s sparse arrangement—Mitchell accompanying herself on piano—captures the exquisite pain of love.
“You Turn Me On I’m a Radio” (For the Roses, 1972)—Mitchell’s freewheeling instrumentation and her infectious vocals belie the song’s lyrics, which she wrote as a sarcastic response to her record label’s request for a radio-friendly song,
“Raised on Robbery” (Court and Spark, 1974)—Chugging rhythms—kicked off by Robbie Robertson’s wah-wah guitar—scamper around Mitchell’s vamping vocals in this carnivalesque romp in which rock and roll meets Mitchell’s Andrews Sisters-style harmonies.
“Both Sides Now” (At Newport, 2023)—Mitchell revisits her iconic song in this moving vocal performance from 2022’s Newport Folk Festival.
“Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” (Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, 1977)—Mitchell’s swirling jazz improvisations open spaciously in this wheeling, atmospheric song.
“Turbulent Indigo” (Turbulent Indigo, 1994)—Percussive rhythms and looping instrumental strains propel Mitchell’s haunting meditation on depression and artistic creation.
“Shine” (Shine, 2007)—From her final studio album, Mitchell’s sparsely arranged song sparkles delicately like a tranquil lullaby.