The ascent of Joni Mitchell from obscure Canadian songwriter to America’s leading folk singer might have seemed rapid, but the reality was that it was actually years in the making. The mid-1960s saw her transitioning from ukulele to guitar, from country and jazz to folk, and from a novice cover artist to a full-fledged songwriter.
By the end of 1967, Mitchell had been noticed by The Byrds’ David Crosby, who quickly got her signed to a recording contract with Reprise Records and began working as a producer for her first album, Song to a Seagull. Mitchell’s songs were already well known within the folk community, and she was primarily known as a lyric writer who was struggling to find her foothold as a singer. Her songs were successful when taken in by other artists, but Mitchell herself found it difficult to put her own name out there.
Once the album was completed, Mitchell did what she had done for nearly two years by that point: she toured like crazy. All throughout North America, from coffeeshops to folk clubs to dive bars to tiny theatres and everywhere in between, Mitchell was singing her songs to increasingly rapt audiences. Unlike the relatively new slate of songs she chose to record for Song to a Seagull, her live repertoire incorporated some of her best-known songs that became hits for other artists like ‘Chelsea Morning’ and ‘Urge for Going’.
When Mitchell arrived at the CBC Studios, a place she knew well from her numerous appearances on shows like Let’s Sing Out while she was still in a duo with her first husband, Chuck Mitchell, she decided to sing an old favourite and a new song. The old favourite was ‘Both Sides Now’, which Judy Collins had included on her Wildflowers album, and a new song about lost youth inspired by her friend, Neil Young.
During her show at the Royal Albert Hall in London during October 1970, Mitchell described the genesis of ‘The Circle Game’, explaining: “In 1965 I was up in Canada, and there was a friend of mine up there who had just left a rock’n’roll band (…) he had just newly turned 21, and that meant he was no longer allowed into his favourite haunt, which was kind of a teeny-bopper club and once you’re over 21 you couldn’t get back in there anymore.”
Mitchell added: “So he was really feeling terrible because his girlfriends and everybody that he wanted to hang out with, his band could still go there, you know, but it’s one of the things that drove him to become a folk singer was that he couldn’t play in this club anymore. ‘Cause he was over the hill. So he wrote this song that was called ‘Oh to live on sugar mountain’ which was a lament for his lost youth. And I thought, ‘God, you know, if we get to 21 and there’s nothing after that, that’s a pretty bleak future.’ So I wrote a song for him, and for myself just to give me some hope.”
Check out the performances of ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘The Circle Game’ down below.