Born in Fort MacLeod, Alberta in Canada, a young Joni Mitchell (born Joan Anderson) moved to North Battleford, Saskatchewan with her parents shortly after World War II. Inspired by an older friend, she begged her parents at age 7 to allow her to take piano lessons which lasted for a year and a half. After moving to Saskatoon, Mitchell contracted polio, which she recovered from with the care of her family and her interest in music. As she recalled in a Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe in 1979, “I guess I really started singing when I had polio. Neil [Young] and I both got polio in the same Canadian epidemic. I was nine, and they put me in a polio ward over Christmas. They said I might not walk again, and that I would not be able to go home for Christmas. I wouldn’t go for it. So I started to sing Christmas carols and I used to sing them real loud. When the nurse came into the room I would sing louder. The boy in the bed next to me, you know, used to complain. And I discovered I was a ham. That was the first time I started to sing for people.”
In her teens, Mitchell scraped together enough money to buy a ukelele and performed regularly at parties and coffeehouses in Saskatoon. Following high school, in 1964, Mitchell attended the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, but only for a year. Instead, she preferred performing at a local Calgary coffeehouse called The Depression—she moved to Toronto soon after in search of success as a folk singer. In 1966, she managed to secure a spot on the bill of the Newport Folk Festival. It was at this time that her marriage to fellow folk singer Chuck Mitchell ended, and with nothing to tie her down, Mitchell moved to New York City to be closer to venues on the U.S. eastern seaboard. With the recording of The urge for going by Tom Rush and other cover versions by a variety of artists, she was able to get bookings west to Chicago and south to Florida. New York was still elusive but with the help of manager Elliot Roberts she landed gigs in town. While performing in Coconut Grove, Florida she met David Crosby of The Byrds who was impressed enough with her talent to convince Reprise Records to record and release the Joni Mitchell album in 1968.
Mitchell’s early records mapped the sexual terrain of the mid-1960s–the period during which premarital sex lost its taboo status and became a normative part of maturation and development–from a woman’s perspective. Mitchell’s songs employed a strong storytelling component, putting into popular circulation narratives of sexual freedom that engaged with emerging social practices in a manner consistent with countercultural values while helping to legitimize the new choices available to young women of the 1960s.
Learn more in “Feeling free and female sexuality: The aesthetics of Joni Mitchell” by Marilyn Adler Papayanis (Popular music and society XXXIII/5 [December 2010], 641–656) and in an entry on Joni Mitchell in The Canadian pop music encyclopedia (2020) in RILM Music Encyclopedias.
Below is Joni Mitchell’s 1969 performance of Chelsea Morning, a song addressing the moral codes governing so-called appropriate sexual conduct for women.