The author begins by writing “Joni Mitchell painted with words. . . . The songs were like brushstrokes on a canvas, saying things that were not only happy or sad but true.”
But before the songs, Alko writes, there was a restless and not always happy girl named Roberta Joan Anderson. Alko tells readers what this little girl was like and what happened during her life growing up in Canada, including a bout with polio.
As a young adult, Joni attended art school in Calgary, and immersed herself in “a world of coffeehouses and poetry and a captivating music scene.” She sang songs in the cafes, but at first, they were songs written by others. At age 21 she met Chuck Mitchell, married him and took his surname, and moved with him to Detroit. There she began performing her own songs for the first time. They divorced in 1967, and Joni moved to New York City. She played venues up and down the East Coast, performing frequently in coffeehouses and folk clubs. She became well known for her unique songwriting and her innovative guitar style.
She turned her thoughts and feelings into music. Even looking up at the clouds became the song “Both Sides Now” in 1968. Who hasn’t gone up in an airplane for the first time and thought of her lyrics?
“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all. . . .”
In 1969, she did not perform at Woodstock, but wrote about it in the song “Woodstock” that became an iconic expression for a generation, along with her other big hits such as “Big Yellow Taxi.” In 2020, the New York Times chose her 1971 album “Blue” as one of the 25 albums that represented “turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music.” In 2020, Blue was rated third in Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
She told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1979:
“The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.”
Fans will want to read the New York Times tribute to “Blue” on the 50th anniversary of the album, in which twenty-five musicians speak about the LP’s enduring power, here. Contributors include James Taylor, Rosanne Cash, Judy Collins, David Crosby, Bonnie Raitt, and more. The author of the article writes: “Half a century later, Mitchell’s “Blue” exists in that rarefied space beyond the influential or even the canonical. It is archetypal: The heroine’s journey that Joseph Campbell forgot to map out.”
Joni Mitchell became famous, and traveled all over the U.S. and Europe, still expressing her feelings through music. She once said, “I sing my sorrow, and I paint my joy.”
Alko writes, “Her songs show us the way by telling us her truth. Truth gives us freedom. And freedom gives us wings to fly.
The book ends with an Author’s Note, a discography, and a biography.
The illustrations, also by Alko, are gorgeous creations in mixed media using acrylic paint, pencil sketches, collages, and ink stamps. Birds, flowers, musical notes, and lyric excerpts accent the double-page spreads.
Evaluation: This lovely story will appeal to readers whether they know who Joni Mitchell is or not; her childhood journey and turn to the arts to express herself are not only interesting but inspirational. Her music, including songs from the album Blue, are available on Youtube.
Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2020