Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell

An Excerpt

Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell by David Yaffe1 ¦ ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I’D RATHER BE DANCING

One more time, she had to explain how she was born, and how the stage would be set for her to be the hero of her own life. The more unlikely, the more heroic. Things conspired—extraordinary things, things no one back home or anywhere else—could have ever imagined. She said she did not grow up playing air guitar in the mirror. But she painted, she danced, nearly died, came back, danced again, and began to unfold.

Roberta Joan Anderson was born on November 7, 1943, in Fort Macleod, Alberta. Her mother had been a teacher and her father was a military man who later became a grocery store executive. The world would come to know her as Joni Mitchell, winner of eight Grammy Awards (including one in 2002 for Lifetime Achievement), inductee into the Rock and Roll and Canadian Songwriters Halls of Fame. She wrote a song—“Woodstock”—that named a generation, and routinely makes critics’ top ten lists of the greatest singer-songwriters of the twentieth century. “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Help Me” still play on classic rock radio every day, high school students still quote “The Circle Game” in yearbooks, and recordings of Blue are downloaded, Spotified, Pandora’d, and snapped up with mocha lattes at Starbucks around the world. “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” has become so familiar it’s almost a cliché. In 2017, “Free Man in Paris” played, in its entirety, on the HBO series Girls, and “Both Sides, Now” was sung at the Oscars in 2016, in tribute to a year in which the world lost a stunning array of creative luminaries ranging from Prince (who loved Joni) and Leonard Cohen (who was Joni’s lover), to David Bowie, Gene Wilder, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carrie Fisher. In the contemporary imagination, Joni Mitchell is more than a 1970s icon or pop star. She is our eternal singer-songwriter of sorrows, traveling through our highs and lows, the twentieth-century master of the art song tradition that stretches to Franz Schubert. Joni is as introspective and eloquent as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, but she went beyond them in melody and harmony, exploring chords only jazz virtuosi could play to her satisfaction. She has stopped performing, but her records keep playing, documents of beauty and imperfection. As long as people can listen to music, her story will be told in her voice, her weird chords, her inimitable way.

In her songs, big stories become gloriously condensed. And the story that began all the others—the story of her mother’s life and marriage, and of her own birth—are all told, briefly, beautifully, and powerfully in an astonishing song, “The Tea Leaf Prophecy.”

“It’s a lot of history in a small space, shorthanded,” Joni told me. “My mother, Myrtle McKee, had been a country schoolteacher and she came into the city. She was working in a bank next to the police station, and the windows of the cop shop looked down into the tellers’ area, and they were always flirting from the windows. But the tellers found Mounties and cops distasteful. She and her girlfriend went to the fancy hotel, and they had a tea leaf reader, a palmist also. They wore white gloves and hats and it was very la-di-da, because it was the tail end of the Canadian Anglophile era. So it was a kind of poshy thing to do. And when he read her tea leaves, he told her three things: you’ll be married in a month, you’ll have a child within a year, and you’ll live to an old age and die a long and agonizing death, which is a terrible thing, even if you see it, to say.”

When Joni first recorded the song for her 1988 album, Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm, she used a pseudonym for her mother: Myrtle McKee became “Molly McGee.” First she tells the story of her mother’s visit with the tea leaf reader:

Newsreels rattle the Nazi dread

The able-bodied have shipped away

Molly McGee gets her tea leaves read

You’ll be married in a month they say

“These leaves are crazy,” says Molly McGee. It’s a joke. Consulting the leaves isn’t crazy; they’re just not making sense. And Joni’s musical mind emerges here figuratively. There are no men, just boys “talking to teacher in the treble clef.” The next verse is a beautiful, lyrical telling of her parents’ unlikely wartime romance. The man in this love story is, like Bill Anderson, a sergeant on a two-week leave. They meet and their fate is sealed. Joni imagines her young parents making love—a topic that would be awkward for most—with tenderness:

Oh these nights are strong and soft

Private passions and secret storms

Nothin’ about him ticks her off

And he looks so cute in his uniform

This romance is immediately followed with the locked-in domesticity of long hard winters in the Canadian prairies that is her mother’s life. There are endless chores, and the cycles are relentless, banal, with endless drudgery. And even her stated intention to flee becomes monotonous, too:

She says “I’m leavin’ here” but she don’t go

The story of Joni’s parents is one she attempted to unravel throughout her lifetime and in her music. Why had the stars aligned for Myrtle McKee, who had taught in a one-room school and was clerking at a bank in Regina, and William Anderson, on leave from the Royal Canadian Air Force? Anderson’s family hailed from Scandinavia. When a grown-up Joni asked him why his name didn’t have the usual Swedish spelling of “Andersen,” he said the name was changed at Ellis Island from “Amberson.” Joni suspected from her high cheekbones that she had Laplander blood. She also wondered if her father’s family was hiding a Jewish name.

She came of age in the postwar baby boom, but she was an only child. Her mother’s unhappiness with marriage and motherhood is threaded through “The Tea Leaf Prophecy”: “She says ‘I’m leavin’ here’ but she don’t go.” There is also, in the song, Myrtle’s advice to her only daughter:

“Hiroshima cannot be pardoned!

Don’t have kids when you get grown.”

It was a line from real life that Joni found baffling. “She used to say it to me all the time: ‘Don’t have kids when you get grown.’ I was an only child and I found it insulting. She meant that I was a pain in the ass. I was in conflict with her. She was a bigot, she was very cautious and conservative and wouldn’t take any chances, no displays of emotionality or anything.”

Joni sized up her parents and found them wanting. As a toddler, she had a recurring dream, more like a nightmare, of being in the car with her parents and her father losing control of the car. “I would wake up with the most horrible emotion,” she told me. “And I would have never been able to figure that dream out, and I can usually interpret my own dreams easily, because I’m in touch with my own symbolism. This was a real incident that stored like film. I thought, ‘Okay.’ My dream was a stored photograph of what preceded his irrationality. The road ahead was flooded after we came on a bright, sunny day. The slough was overflowed, and you could see there was water lying across the road. We were in danger. And as an infant, I could see: What is he acting like that for? Turn the fuckin’ car around. And I sucked my thumb and gave myself an overbite. My parents—their judgment was so sucky all the time. These people are not thinking and I’m small and in their care. Help! So I had to be my own person very young.”

* * *

Many years later, she and her friend Tony Simon were with her father, talking about dreams; her father usually had an uncanny ability to interpret them. Joni, who was still unable to understand the dream, brought it up. Her father hung his head in shame.

“Well, that really happened,” he said. “I behaved irrationally.”

For Joni, it was a powerful affirmation of her childhood suspicion that she was being raised by adults who were not up to the task. She would veer back and forth between feeling contempt for them and the deep desire to protect them. “So, I was two and a half years old and I discovered that my parents were nuts—that they had really bad judgment. But that they were acting like they were in danger. After that incident, I perceived him as vulnerable, and I was kind of his champion. Because in school, people would say, ‘If you talk about your dad one more time, I’m going to punch you.’”

She had similar memories of her mother’s own shortcomings. Sharon Bell (who is now Sharon Veer) remembered, “Joni and I were hanging out at her house, and Myrt went to get groceries. She was buying liver for supper because Joni liked liver, which I could never understand at that age. Myrt went down to the basement, she tripped, she fell, and this liver splattered out and Myrt fell on the floor. We were all standing there looking down the stairs at her. [Our friend] Marilyn said, ‘Is she dead?’ And Joni said, ‘I don’t know, but I don’t think we’re having liver for supper.’ For whatever reason, Joni thought that was just hilarious, and I bet she told that same story every time I saw her.”

The near accident and Joni’s traumatic recurring nightmares about it confirmed her feeling that her childhood was an ongoing car crash. She was alone in a house with her simple and conservative parents, in a countryside whose beauty she embraced and whose provincialism she abhorred. Nobody else could tell Joni how it felt when her parents’ slights and shortcomings made impacts. No one knew how many times she felt the vehicle of family life flip and turn and crash.

Joni felt her parents lacked vision—figuratively and literally. As soon as Joni could identify her colors, she already had an advantage over Bill and Myrtle Anderson. “My parents are both color-blind and I’m color acute,” Joni recalled. “I don’t know how they got through traffic. My father wanted to fly and they grounded him, which broke his heart. But he wouldn’t be able to see the color of the landing lights. They never tried to paint or anything. You could paint color-blind, but you’d be making green skies and blue water, which is okay. They’d think you were being very modern, daring.”

* * *

Joni’s mother was a housewife, and her father was the merchandising coordinator for Shelly Bros., owners of the OK Economy grocery chain. They led a modest life and never wanted to attract too much attention. And then they had Joni. In the words of Philip Roth: There is a God, and his name is Aristophanes.

“I knew her parents very well,” said Tony Simon, her friend from Nutana Collegiate High School and the Y dances in Saskatoon. “They were friends with my parents. They were not friends with a lot of people. My parents were very social. The Andersons weren’t. They were very nice. They didn’t energetically mix with a lot of people, but they were always very receptive to anybody that Joni brought over. They paid attention. Her father especially, if you met him at any age from sixty-five up, you’d think, what a laid-back nice guy. But what you’d be missing was that he was an intensely competitive guy. Not many people have shot their age in golf. He has. He was a championship tennis player, and I think some of Joni’s competitiveness came from that. He was quietly competitive. Saskatchewan during the war and right after was not a very competitive place. Being a grocery store owner in those days was a pretty prestigious job. They didn’t have [a lot of] money, but in those days, people were careful with resources. Living was pretty goddamn good for Joni compared to what’s going on today. Did she have to scrape along? Not really.”

Growing up in the years after World War II made an impression on Joni. They made her a rebel, with a strain of Rosie the Riveter in her DNA. At the same time, she was a young woman of the 1950s; she came of age in the Mad Men era when happiness seemed just a purchase away. “There were only two stores in town,” Joni explained. “My dad ran the grocery store and Marilyn McGee’s dad ran the general store. She and I called the Simpsons-Sears catalogue ‘The Book of Dreams.’ It was so glamorous when I was a child … We’d be down on our bellies looking at every page, and she and I would … pick out our favorite matron’s girdle and our favorite saw and our favorite hammer. ‘I like that one best.’ Every page, ‘That’s my favorite.’ So in that way you learned to shop before you have money, you learn the addiction of the process of selection.” The love of shopping stayed with Joni. So much so that even today, she says, “You could take me anywhere on any budget level and I’ll go into ‘That’s a good thing for that much money. That’s a beautiful thing.’”

She always loved music. “The Hit Parade was one hour a day—four o’clock to five o’clock,” she recalled. “On the weekends they’d do the Top Twenty. But the rest of the radio was Mantovani, country and western, a lot of radio journalism. Mostly country and western, which I wasn’t crazy about. To me it was simplistic. Even as a child I liked more complex melody. In my teens I loved to dance. That was my thing. I instigated a Wednesday night dance ’cause I could hardly make it to the weekends. For dancing, I loved Chuck Berry. Ray Charles. ‘What’d I Say.’ I liked Elvis Presley. I liked the Everly Brothers.”

She called herself a “good-time Charlie” and her school friends still confirm it. The laughter at the end of “Big Yellow Taxi” was as familiar to them as a telephone call from an old friend. “I was anti-intellectual to the nth,” she explained. “Basically, I liked to dance and paint and that was about it. As far as serious discussions went, at that time most of them were overtly pseudo-intellectual and boring. Like, to see teenagers sitting around solving the problems of the world, I thought, ‘All things considered, I’d rather be dancing.’”

She was anti-intellectual, in part, because she had little faith or interest in rote learning. As a little girl she attended Parish Hall, which was associated with the Anglican Church. Canadian culture was deeply shaped by the English influence, and in the 1940s and ’50s when Joni was growing up, nearly half of all the immigrants were British. Joni remembered, “Because of the Baby Boom population, I was there. It was grade three. We were marked and given grades. And this old lady that was brought out of retirement to teach this class was cheerful and well-meaning, but old-fashioned in her teaching methods. She examined us and broke down all the rows. She put the A students in one row and called them Bluebirds. She took the B students in a row and called them Robins. All the C students in a row and called them Wrens. Then the flunkies were lined up and she called them Crows. I looked at the A students with their hands clasped on the desks, looking like they’d won something important, and there wasn’t a person in that line that I thought was smart. They were all looking so proud, and I remembered looking at them and thinking, ‘All you did was she said something and you said it back.’ So I broke with the school system at that moment and I had this thought, ‘I’m not even gonna try from here on, until they ask a question that nobody knows the answer to.’”

This push and pull between not giving in to what she felt strongly were inferior metrics of success and the desire for other people to know and acknowledge her gifts would play out throughout Joni’s career. She would later say, “I don’t know how to sell out. If I tried to sell out I don’t think I could. By that I mean, to make an attempt to make a commercial record. I just make them and I think, ‘If I was a kid I would like this song’ … You have to have a certain grab-ability initially and then something that wears well … for years to come. That’s what anything fine is. It’s recognized in painting [but] I’m just working in a toss-away industry. I’m a fine artist working in a commercial arena, so that’s my cross to bear.”

Just how she would bear the cross of being different was something that Joni wrestled with from her earliest days. She took solace in what she could. For example, when she began to explore astrology, she found what she considered a good reason for her interest in difficult questions. “I got into the zodiac and found out I’m born on Marie Curie’s birthday [November 7], the day of the discoverer, the week of depth. So it’s the deepest week in the year and I have an ability to discover. I have a scientific ability, really not just an artistic ability. The stars give me a scientific ability, too.”

Just as she wasn’t going to parrot back answers to a teacher, she had no interest in taking the Bible for gospel. “I broke with the church because I asked questions they found embarrassing,” she told me. Then she proceeded to tell about the day she raised hell in her Sunday school class with all of her questioning.

“Adam and Eve were the first man and woman, right?”

“Right,” said the teacher.

“They had two sons, right?”

“Right, Cain and Abel.”

“And Cain killed Abel and then Cain got married. Who did he marry? Eve?”

The teacher “just went sour in the face from that,” Joni recalled. “I only knew that there was only one woman. And then he got married. He had to marry the only woman. That shorted out my Sunday school teacher, so I didn’t go back there. She made me feel so shabby that I just refused to go back.”

She had so much courage and yet there’s that telltale Joni vulnerability, too—she’d called the teacher out, but what she remembered was that in return the teacher made her feel shabby. It was a pattern that would be repeated with friends and lovers, music industry execs and a fickle fan base. Joni could roar, but many people had no idea how easily she could be wounded, how she would see and feel daggers that other people didn’t even know they had thrown.

She had determined that she had the soul of a scientist and the heart of an artist; she was always trying to wrap her mind around what could be called the truth. She remembers telling her mother, “I like stories, but there’s pages ripped out of them.” Meaning, the stories seem somehow incomplete. Decades later, Joni stood by her younger self and that girl’s view of the world. “That was a really good call,” Joni told me. “Because there were literally pages ripped out of the Bible. At that point, you couldn’t ridicule me or dunce cap me or anything to make me try. I drew clothes. I was going to be a fashion designer. I drew cartoons, I wrote funny things. I lived in my own world.”

Joni wasn’t the only girl growing up in the provinces of Canada rejecting the world around her and creating her own. When Margaret Atwood paid tribute to Joni Mitchell at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2007, she spoke about their parallel childhoods. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing,” Atwood quipped. Then she went on to say, “Joni Mitchell and I have some things in common. Though I’m older and she’s blonder. For instance, we were both members of the Canadian Lunatic Generation. That was in the early sixties back when Canada was a blank spot on the map of global culture. If you said, ‘Say, I’m a novelist.’ Or you said, ‘Hi, I’m Joni Mitchell and I’m going to be a world-famous singer-songwriter!’ Other people said, ‘You’re a lunatic.’” Atwood added that you should “multiply that by ten for being from the prairies. But Joni did it anyway. And aren’t we all glad that she did?”

Joni laughed hard at the lunatic joke, but you could also see in the way that she held Atwood in a loving, knowing gaze that she ached for her younger, isolated self. It would have made a world of difference if she had known that she wasn’t really a lunatic when she picked up her first ukulele and wouldn’t let it go although her friends begged her to stop. It would have been nice to know that she wasn’t merely loony, but rather a high-flying loon, part of a far-flung flock that included brave, imaginative women like Margaret Atwood.

* * *

Joni did not know Margaret Atwood, but she found a kindred spirit in a girl named Sharon Bell, whom she met when her family moved to Maidstone, in 1946. The girls lived close to each other up until the age of five, then Joni’s family moved again, to North Battleford. But Sharon came to North Battleford every year for musical competitions that lasted for ten whole days. Joni remembered, “You could go to the church and listen to choirs compete or you could go to school. I went to the church.” She didn’t consider herself a musician in those days. She hadn’t yet picked up an instrument. Art was the gift she’d identified in herself. “I could draw the best doghouse,” she said. “We had to use perspective. Everyone else’s was too skinny or cockeyed. They had their perspective warped. Mine was a good, solid little doghouse with a U-shaped door. It showed a cognizance of perspective, and a steady hand. So that moment, I did something well. I did it the best. So I said, ‘I’m an artist.’” But her teachers (for the most part) solidly refused to give Joni her due. One sixth-grade teacher carped on her report card, “Joan should pay attention to other subjects than art.”

Joni attended the musical competitions—but just as an audience member and as a supportive friend. But as was her style, she was interested in how excellence was construed in the competition. She had three friends who competed regularly. “Sharon was one, and Peter Armstrong—he went into an Italian opera company. And Frankie McKitrick—he was a precocious piano player. Frankie and Peter were my best friends in North Battleford. Sharon would come to town, and I’d go and watch them in competition and I’d see what the adjudicator was going to say—what was bad about it and what was good about it. I’d sit out there, listen closely, and the game was to see if I could figure out what the adjudicator was going to say. And a lot of the time we were on the same page, but a lot of the time she didn’t pick up on things that I would pick up on, that I thought were flaws in the performance. So it was a kind of vicarious musical education.”

Frankie, in particular, was a great influence on Joni’s early consumption of music, and “He and I went to some pretty far-out movies together. My mother was horrified that the principal, his father, let us play hooky to go and see them.” Among them was a movie called The Story of Three Loves, starring Kirk Douglas and James Mason, and its theme song was a “gorgeous nocturnal melody,” which so moved Joni, she told me, that it made her “want to be a musician.” It was Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” “The ballet in it looks dumb to me now, but I loved it as a child. It’s so flitty.

“And that piece of music thrilled me to no end. It was the most beautiful piece of music that I ever heard. I had to hear the record of it. I asked my parents to buy it for me, but it wasn’t in the budget. It would be seventy-five cents or something. So I would go down to Grubman’s department store, take it out of its brown sleeve, and go in the playback and play it maybe two or three times a week and just swoon.”

At the age of eleven, Joni moved to Saskatoon, and there was more to be joyful about when she got to study with Arthur Kratzmann, who was developing quite a reputation at the Queen Elizabeth School. “He was a hero [to me] as a child, and … he sparked a lot of things in me. He read us Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. He entered the room and said, ‘This curriculum is a lot of crap. I’m gonna teach you what I know. I don’t know much. I know my name. And I’m Australian, so we’ll concentrate on Australia for part of the course and then you’ll all pass with flying colors, but until then, I’m going to teach you about Australia.’ He was kind of a creative character, and he swore, which I loved.”

Joni would go on to dedicate Song to a Seagull, her first album, to him: “To Mr. Kratzman [sic], who taught me to love words.” Joni walked into Arthur Kratzmann’s class full of confidence, but then would receive Cs on her creative writing assignments. She remembered in particular one poem that she wrote and Kratzmann’s reaction: “I wrote this ambitious epic poem for his class, and it went, ‘Softly now the colors of the day fade and are replaced by silver grey as God prepares his world for night and high upon a silver-shadowed hill, a stallion white as newly fallen snow stands deathly still, an equine statue bathed in silver light…’ I got this thing back, and it was circled all over with red. He had written, ‘Cliché, cliché, cliché…’ and gave me a B. I read the poem of the kid next to me who got an A+, and it was terrible, so I stayed after school and said, ‘Excuse me, but how do you give an A+ to that when you give me a B?’ He said, ‘Because that’s as good as he’s ever going to write. You can write much better than this. You tell me more interesting things when you tell me what you did over the weekend.’”

“‘By the way,’ he added, ‘how many times did you see Black Beauty?’”

Joni never forgot the lesson. In the ’90s, Joni gave the guitarist Robben Ford some songwriting advice: “When you see a cliché, circle it and replace it with something that isn’t a cliché.”

Sharolyn Dickson was in that grade-seven class with Joni and Mr. Kratzmann, and she knew how much Joni looked up to him. “I don’t think she ever saw herself as an academic, but in truth, I felt like he brought that out in her, because he got us heavily into creative writing,” recalled Dickson. “So when she says he taught her to love words, I really think that’s where it came from. When he marked us, he was tougher on her than he was on the others. He marked according to our abilities, and his expectations of her were so high. If she didn’t meet that expectation, he didn’t mark her as well.”

At the time, Joni understood this pedagogical method, but throughout the years, especially as she was fine-tuning her bitterness toward an increasingly large group of people from her past, she began to question whether that had been fair.

“But he would often use her work as an example to teach us,” Dickson told me. “He’d put it on the board. We felt like she was a really outstanding writer even then. He was totally unconventional. We had caught wind of his class when we were in sixth grade, and we were all excited to get him. If our parents had known some of the things he was saying, they would have been on his doorstep. He was very outside the norm.”

Kratzmann, alluding to Nietzsche, would tell Joni, “You have to learn to paint and to write in your own blood.” “She picked up on that,” said Kratzmann, “and started to write little things about her life and, of course, now you couldn’t believe that Joni Mitchell was ever somebody who wasn’t creative.”

In Susan Lacy’s American Masters documentary on Joni from 2003, Joni recalled Kratzmann telling her, “If you can paint with a brush, you can paint with words,” which was the guiding principle of her televised concert Painting with Words and Music.

Kratzmann, who became the dean of education at the University of Regina and passed away in 2015, recalled Joni as someone at the very start of her creative exploration. “[Joni] wrote well … She used to copy a lot of stuff. She’d see a painting of a landscape and she’d duplicate it, and, when we’d be writing poetry, she’d have a tendency to sort of, like, pick Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ and write a poem about tulips but use the same rhyme scheme and style.”

Copying was a big part of how Joni taught herself. She needed to write the words, draw the pictures, play the notes herself—or at least try. She saw her first Picassos and Matisses at the home of a classmate whose grandfather was a Canadian industrialist and art collector named Frederick S. Mendel. Mendel would go on to be the chief financial backer of Saskatoon’s first major art gallery. Joni loved Picasso. She loved that he was a troublemaker, and admired, she said, “his constant creativity, his restlessness.” Her relationship to music would also be personality-based. She loved Duke Ellington and had an intuitive relationship with the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. “So flirty,” she would say. As a girl, Joan Anderson picked apart paintings, poems, literature, and songs the way some kids took apart toasters.

* * *

With the exception of Kratzmann, her classroom experience would be a series of disappointments, but she found a way to be an engaged troublemaker. “The way I saw the educational system from an early age was that it taught you what to think, not how to think. There was no liberty, really, for freethinking. You were being trained to fit into a society where freethinking was a nuisance. I liked some of my teachers very much, but I had no interest in their subjects. So I would appease them—I think they perceived that I was not a dummy, although my report card didn’t look like it. I would line the math room with ink drawings and portraits of the mathematicians. I did a tree of life for my biology teacher. I was always staying late at the school, down on my knees painting something.”

She did not write much poetry in those days, but one poem stands out: “The Fishbowl,” written at age sixteen.

The fishbowl is a world diverse

where fishermen with hooks that dangle

from the bottom reel up their catch

on gilded bait without a fight.

Pike, pickerel, bass, the common fish

ogle through distorting glass

see only glitter, glamour, gaiety

and weep for fortune lost.

Envy the goldfish? Why?

His bubbles are breaking ’round the rim

while silly fishes faint for him.

Joni remembers that she wrote the poem about the celebrities in the teen magazines she devoured at the time. “I felt sorry for celebrities with talent when I wrote that poem,” she said. “Sandra Dee was breaking up with Bobby Darin and all the magazines had pictures of her with mascara running down her face, all paparazzied out.” (Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin actually broke up in 1967, when Joni was twenty-four, but point taken.)

But it is also easy to see the poem as an allegory of how she is comparing and contrasting herself with the kids around her, wondering how far she might go or how stuck she might be in the rural world that surrounded her. Joni remembers that when she wrote the poem, “I never felt like I had any talent. I was a painter, but the musical and writing gift hadn’t come in—even though that poem is pretty precocious.”

* * *

The biggest gift of her Canadian childhood for Joni was the gift of nature: it was, in a way, its own religion and it would give her the truest compass she would ever know. “I lived in the tail end of a horse-drawn culture,” Joni remembered. “We still had our water and the milk delivered by horses, and at Christmas a mound of packages would come on an open sleigh.” Sharon Bell remembered that, as kids, she and Joni would go out and wander the prairie, with open sky as far as the eye could see. Simple pleasures like squishing mud between your toes—and then the simple scolding of having them washed by Joni’s mother, the ever proper Myrtle—were priceless memories later on. “It was a simpler life and simpler times,” said Bell. “We all go back to simpler times from time to time, but Joni more than others, because she had become separated from that.”

In 1969, when she was just becoming famous, Joni told The New York Times, “My poetry is urbanized and Americanized, but my music is influenced by the prairies. When I was a kid, my mother used to take me out to the fields to teach me bird calls. There was a lot of space behind individual sounds. People in the city are so accustomed to hearing a jumble of different sounds that when they come to making music, they fill it up with all sorts of different things.”

“I always thought I’d marry a farmer,” Joni recalled. “I loved the country. But I don’t think I would have been happy as a farmer’s wife. It’s a hard job and a lot of work. I’m naturally nocturnal, so farmers’ hours would have been pretty tricky for me.” She was a country girl who loved wide-open spaces, who loved to draw and to dance, but it was the 1950s and Canada was, as Margaret Atwood described it, still “a blank spot on the map of global culture.” Joni found it hard to dream beyond a marriage that would let her live the way she wanted to. Was there another way to make a living that allowed you a big country house and a view of fields and prairies as far as your eyes could see? She didn’t know, but she aimed to find out.

Copyright © 2017 by David Yaffe