Everyone knows Joni Mitchell. She’s the singer of Love Actually tear-jerkers, the one-time lover of Leonard Cohen, and a Canadian hippie prairie waif. Put on Both Sides Now towards the end of a dinner party and chances are more than one person will start crying. But put on Big Yellow Taxi and you’re liable to have a sing-a-long on your hands.
In the fifty-two years since the release of Song to a Seagull (1968), Mitchell has become a favourite: from tentative covers of folk songs, to vulnerable, intimate evocations of relationships, to experimental-jazz-vocal-poetry. Her reach and fame have travelled far beyond her native small-town Saskatoon.
And so, when she is introduced on stage at The Half Beat, Toronto, 1964 as “Joan” or “Joni Anderson”, it is understandable to do a double take: exactly who is singing? She giggles and remarks “it’s sure refreshing to have a mic for a change” and then goes on to sing Nancy Whisky about what happens when a man “thinks his liquor is a woman”. The voice is higher and breathier than the Mitchell we know, but compelling all the same.
Nancy Whisky is one of the first songs in The Joni Mitchell Archives: The Early Years (1963-1967) which was released at the end of October. The album is nearly six hours of previously unreleased material from her first years of performing; it moves from little-known folk ballads, to early classics such as Urge for Going and The Circle Game, before ending with many of the songs that appear on her first two albums.