Roberta Joan “Joni” Anderson was born in Alberta, Canada, on November 7, 1943. She is almost exactly 9 years older than me, and her music was a soundtrack of my high school and college years. Her light, incredibly high soprano voice was always impeccably in tune, though she wasn’t afraid to bend a note when she wanted to. She didn’t need scores of musicians backing her up; on many of her songs, she accompanied herself on guitar or piano–that’s it, so simple, so lush, so perfect. She was a gifted songwriter from an early age, and other major performers recorded her songs before she became a star in her own right.
At age nine, Joni contracted polio and was hospitalized for several weeks. The polio permanently weakened the muscles in her left hand. (A few years later, when she taught herself how to play guitar, she compensated for her fingering challenges by using alternate tunings for the strings. These tunings contributed to untraditional harmonies in her compositions.)
Chelsea Morning, recorded live at Carnegie Hall, NYC, February 1, 1969:
In school, Joni struggled with academics. She was more interested in art. (After high school, she went to art school for one year and didn’t really like the focus on technical skill, abstraction, and commercial art. Though she dropped out, painting has always been a major part of her life. She did the artwork for many or all of her album covers.)
By the time she was eleven, she loved singing and dancing and writing poetry, and thought maybe she could be a performer. In October, 1962, just before she turned 19, she started performing folk music in small clubs and coffeehouses.
Big Yellow Taxi:
In 1964, she discovered she was pregnant. Her boyfriend bailed on her, and after she gave birth to her daughter, she placed her in an adoption, because she didn’t have the financial resources to raise her. She needed to go back to performing. (Joni reunited with her daughter in 1997.)
In 1965, Joni met the American folk singer Chuck Mitchell, and they began performing together. They went on tour in the US, and soon married; Joni Anderson officially became Joni Mitchell. The marriage only lasted a couple of years. In 1982, she married bassist Larry Klein. They divorced in 1994.
The Circle Game:
Joni has always had a lot of support from other musicians. Her friendships are a veritable Who’s Who of the folk, rock, pop, and jazz artists from the 1960s through today. She was linked romantically with the likes of Leonard Cohen, David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor, and Jackson Brown, among others.
Around 2000, Joni’s voice began to deepen. Although she was a smoker all her life (she started when she was 9), she believes that the loss of the top of her range is due to nodules on her vocal cords, changes in her larynx, and lingering effects of polio.
Coyote, recorded live at Gordon Lightfoot’s house, with Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn:
Below is an interview from 2013. It is worth your time to watch. One thing she says that really got to me is, “If you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, it’ll probably make you cry, and you’ll learn something about yourself, and now you’re getting something out of it.” I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve listened to Joni Mitchell’s music with tears streaming down my cheeks. The combination of her pure voice, simple accompaniment, and poignant lyrics touches me deeply. These days, when I listen to her, I long for the bright, vivacious young woman she was (and for the bright, vivacious young woman I was).
In 2015, Joni suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. Her injury caused a great deal of damage, and she worked very hard at her physical therapy to regain her mobility.
When Joni Mitchell was celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2021, I was heartbroken to see how frail she was, and I wondered if she’d ever perform again.
But you can’t keep Joni down. She recently appeared at the Newport Folk Festival with Brandy Carlile.
Both Sides Now, 2022 Newport Folk Festival: