Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Roberta Joan Anderson, 7 November 1943, McLeod, Alberta, Canada) Singer-songwriter, guitarist. After decades, with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, she is one of the most enduring of the troubadours who began in the 1960s, showing pop music how to become an art form. Her songs have been covered by Dylan, Fairport Convention, Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Nazareth, Gordon Lightfoot, Johnny Cash, Crosby Stills & Nash and countless others.

She studied art in Calgary, began singing in local folk clubs, moved to Toronto, married folksinger Chuck Mitchell; they moved to Detroit '65 and the marriage ended '66; she moved to NYC and signed with Reprise. Debut Song To A Seagull '68 was above average folk fodder for the time, produced by David Crosby; her songs began to be widely noticed and Clouds '69 (with just guitar accompaniment) included 'Songs To Aging Children Come' (heard in film Alice's Restaurant) and 'Both Sides Now', covered by Collins for a top ten hit in '68; Rush had covered 'The Circle Game'; the lyrical maturity of her work was obvious. Her romantic attachments were as widely reported as her music; she wrote 'Willy' for Graham Nash. Ladies Of The Canyon '70 included 'Big Yellow Taxi', her first chart single; those who liked the song could not understand why it rose no higher than no. 67, but album sales were already far more important than singles in artistic terms. Canyon included contributions from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and also jazz musicians Jim Horn, Paul Horn and Milt Holland. She was using more colors, and as a guitarist she was becoming what Crosby later described as 'one of the most advanced tuning specialists I knew. It was like she was saying, "I want denser, stranger chords".' Canyon also included 'Woodstock': Mitchell had not attended the famous festival, but wrote the song moved by CSN&Y's description of it: there were three hit versions in the USA; Matthews' Southern Comfort took it to no. 1 in the UK.

Blue '71 featured James Taylor, including 'My Old Man', a long song-poem on which she accompanied herself at the piano: years later she thought that 'the Blue album, for the most part, holds up'. Critics and public alike made it one of the top albums of the year. For The Roses '72 included 'You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio'; she moved to the Asylum label and her next two albums both reached no. 2 USA '74: Court And Spark included 'Help Me', her only top ten single, also Annie Ross's jiving 'Twisted', her first cover marking an increasing eclecticism; live two-disc Miles Of Aisles featured Tom Scott's highly rated band LA Express. The Hissing Of Summer Lawns '75 was as radical and experimental as its evocative title, yet it reached no. 4; Hejira '76 and two-disc Don Juan's Reckless Daughter '78 were also examples of her disregard for commercial considerations ('Paprika Plains' occupied an entire side on the latter). Mingus '79 was a noble failure, the intended collaboration with the jazz giant foiled by his death early that year, yet her treatments of his themes still made a top 20 album. Two-disc live Shadows And Light '80 featured backing by Pat Metheny, Jaco Pastorius and Michael Brecker, and included the timeless 24-year-old Frankie Lyman hit 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love', chart hit 'In France They Kiss On Main Street' and the luminous, sardonic 'Coyote' (which she also did in the Band's concert/film/album Last Waltz).

Marriage to bassist Larry Klein accompanied a change of label to Geffen for Wild Things Run Fast '82, another accessible album, with guests Taylor, Lionel Richie, and a cover of '(You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care', the Leiber and Stoller hit for Elvis Presley, along with elegant originals. Dog Eat Dog '86 was produced by a committee including Klein and Thomas Dolby, with guests Don Henley and Michael McDonald; the album and the video took full advantage of studio technology, but there were still wit and musical imagination. She painted her own sleeve illustration, as she has often done; a successful one-woman show of her work had taken up much of her time and she was undecided whether to concentrate on painting or music. Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm '88 and Night Ride Home '91 on Geffen were a tad too studio-bound; Turbulent Indigo '94 back on Reprise seemed to be a return to form.

She also exhibits her photography. In an interview with David Sinclair '91 she complained, 'I've pretty much been stricken from the history of rock'n'roll in America,' which means that her albums only sell half a million; the Laurel Canyon set always did feel sorry for itself. But despite an unhealthy '70s obsession with the strains of stardom, she in fact transcended the narcissism of her era to become firmly established as one of its giants; her records will still be selling when Guns N' Roses have been forgotten. Hits and Misses '96 were compilations roughly of early hits and later work, missing most of the experimental period from Hissing through Mingus. Taming The Tiger '98, Both Sides Now 2000 (standards, her own and others, included torch songs like 'You've Changed'), and Travelogue 2002 were followed by compilations The Beginning Of Survival, Dreamland, and Songs Of A Prairie Girl, and a box of the complete Geffen recordings. Shine 2007 was her first album of new material in some years.

Crosby said, 'In a hundred years, when they ask who was the greatest songwriter of the era, it's got to be her or Dylan. I think it's her. And she's a better musician than Bob.' [Some quotes are from an article in the Wall Street JOurnal by Jim Fusilli making Mitchell's 65th birthday.]