This is the fourth disc of a five disc set released on October 30th 2020. The five discs comprise of 93 songs recorded between 1963 and 1967. Disc Four is in two sections – the first 10 songs are home demos recorded in June 1967 and the other nine songs were recorded at a gig at the Canterbury House, in October 1967. A year after she played at this venue, Neil Young played an astonishing set which has been released as Volume 00 in his Archives project, called “Sugar Mountain – Live At Canterbury House 1968”. Disc Five consists of two more sets from the same venue, on the same day (!), and these three sets have been released separately on three vinyl discs.
Canterbury House is part of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In the 1960s, “The Students For A Democratic Society” met in the basement to plan protests against the Vietnam War. It is still a progressive music venue and describes itself as “a radically welcoming Christian community”.
One of the songs from the set at Canterbury House is called “Play Little David“. This song is previously unreleased and is about a guitarist and draft dodger called David Rea who used to tell a story which Joni Mitchell turned into this song. The story concerns a musician called David who used to play harmonica in the courtyard of a king, hoping that he would get noticed. Sure enough, one day the King stopped to talk to him but rather than invite him into the court of the royal family, he told him to go and slay someone called Goliath who, although he hadn’t caused any trouble yet, was widely feared throughout the land. David replied that he didn’t want to do this but the King insisted. So it’s a song about a draft dodger who sung a song about unsuccessfully dodging the draft.
Another unreleased song is “The Dowie Dens Of Yarrow” which is a traditional song (Child Ballad 214) in which a knight called John Scott met a gruesome death in the valley of the Yarrow Water in the Scottish Borders. Joni Mitchell may have heard this song from either Ewan MacColl or Carolyn Hester; she sings this song unaccompanied and is unlike any other song in her canon.
”Free Darling” is another unreleased song in which the singer has been set free from her relationship to reinvent herself. She sings about the opportunity to “dance in dark cafes” which, only a few years later in “The Last Time I Saw Richard” will be the venue for her to be hiding behind a bottle before she gets her “gorgeous wings and flies away”. Another version of the song is in the first half of this disc.
“Come To The Sunshine“, another previously unreleased song, was shown on a French-Canadian TV programme called “Mon Pays, Mes Chansons” (My Country, My Songs). When the filming was due to take place, it was raining in the morning but in the afternoon, when the sun came out, the film crew and Joni Mitchell rushed to a place called The Big Rock. The idea was that she would sing the song and turn to walk through a field of wheat towards the rock in the distance. However, the rain meant the field was slippery and she kept falling over. The song is more interesting than that story and contains some great singing and lines like “All words seem wrong from the start/So I will tell with my eyes/Say it with a kiss/Silence that asks and looks so wise/And needs no answer on a day like this.”
“Gift Of The Magi” is the fifth unreleased song that Joni Mitchell played at Canterbury House. In the song, two poor people find that their love of material objects cause them to spend Christmas joylessly. The first half of this disc (the demos that she recorded in June 1967) also includes a version of “Gift Of The Magi”.
“Dr. Junk” was a dentist that Joni Mitchell came across in North Carolina. He collected junk and built a house from parts such as car bodies and tractor hubs. Joni Mitchell set the lyrics to a Bo Diddley rhythm.
As well as these unreleased songs, Disc 4 contains early versions of eight other songs including “Cactus Tree” which was to appear on her first album, “Song To A Seagull“. It’s one of my favourite songs of hers and concerns several men who are in love with one woman who can’t reciprocate their love because she’s too busy “being free“. In many ways, this informs many of her future songs – her need for freedom and how that need has changed the course of her life.
There are no words to adequately describe the genius of Joni Mitchell. What was it about the Sixties that saw the flowering of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Brian Wilson, Van Morrison, Keith Richards, Paul Simon, Robbie Robertson, Lou Reed and Joni Mitchell all in the space of a few years? I don’t believe in a higher power or alien lives but when I consider the synchronicity of these artists, it makes me wonder. Just consider the years of their birth. Maybe the human race was compensated for all the horror of war by giving us these musical Gods.
- John Lennon 1940
- Bob Dylan 1941
- Paul Simon 1941
- Brian Wilson 1942
- Paul McCartney 1942
- Lou Reed 1942
- Joni Mitchell 1943
- Keith Richards 1943
- Robbie Robertson 1943
- Neil Young 1945
- Van Morrison 1945