The Sunday Listens: Ladies of the Canyon, Joni, Joan and Judy

Joni Mitchell is one of those musicians who've been around so long you almost assume you know what they're about.  How many times have you heard "Big Yellow Taxi"?  I'm approaching several hundred if I count the times it's been playing in the grocery store while I shop.

Yet, she's also a prolific and varied artist.  Joni gets mentioned in passing by friends every so often and each time, a different album is cited as influential.  Counting only studio albums, she's written and released 19, ranging from the quintessential sound of the 1960's folk revival to visionary jazz interpretations.

It's the early Joni Mitchell that I assumed I had already heard and understood, but in reality, I used to get her confused with Joan and Judy.  Baez and Collins, that is.

All three women wrote meandering, soprano folk tunes with deep messages and lovely finger-picking techniques.  All three were a part of an artistic scene, and that's what I want to talk about today: the era that united these voices as well as the aspects that make these individual voices distinct.

Joni Mitchell bought a home in Laurel Canyon, outside of L.A., in the 60's and immediately began hosting get-togethers for her musician and artist friends.  Creativity flowed and in turn continued to inspire itself.  Sometimes referred to as the "Queen of Laurel Canyon" she hosted the likes of Crosby, Stills and Nash; The Byrds; The Mamas and the Papas; The Doors; and Judy Collins. 

Perhaps in tribute to this vibrant time, her third studio album, "Ladies of the Canyon", was released in 1970.  It includes her best known hit - the one about painting paradise and putting up a parking lot - but I like the title track especially well.  It tells the story of a young woman that fits nicely into our nostalgic ideas of the time.  It also demonstrates Joni's unique guitar style and something else she is known for - playing in strange tunings, so that her chords can't quite be pinned down.  Her young voice demonstrates light, airy high notes that seem to float above the song and exist in the periphery, yet equally command attention.  It is the sound that made her name a household one, and securely positions her in the early 1970's cannon.

On the opposite coast, Joan Baez was becoming known as a part of the Greenwich Village scene, along with another person you may have heard of, Bob Dylan.  Joan was a skilled guitar player and had a knack for sensitive covers of her contemporaries' tunes.  She also wrote songs that tended to tell stories begging for social justice.  

Joan was bilingual, having learned Spanish from her Mexican father as a child and in 1974 she released an album of exclusively Spanish tunes, "Gracias a la Vida".  It is a diverse offering including darker, deeper songs, with light-hearted traditional songs, such as "De Colores".  True to the title, she brings much color to her rendition.  This album is one of my go-tos when I need a pick-me-up. 

It was risky to expose oneself as mixed race at the time.  She was advised by industry people that such a move could cost her fans, but she believed that being honest about her identity was itself a way of fighting for social justice.  In her original tune, "Las Madres Cansadas", she addresses the mistreatment of migrant farm workers - a song that reverberates equally in 2016..  Her voice is distinctively resonant and strong and her vibrato is unrestrained, giving the effect of deep emotional connection.  Even if you don't speak Spanish yourself, the message is made clear.

Judy Collins was raised in Denver, which makes her a bit of a hometown favorite.  In fact, she donated her childhood piano to Swallow Hill, where it sits in a place of honor in the cafe.  It feels like a celebrity connection to say that I've played it many times.  It's a great piano, by the way.

She's an appropriate finale to this blog entry, because her migration through the folk revival scenes brings the other artists together.  She first made a name for herself in Denver and Boulder, but soon moved to east coast and settled in Greenwich Village.  Her friendship with Joni, which continues to this day, brought her out to Laurel Canyon frequently.  Judy still tours extensively.  I had the opportunity to see her perform at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in 2010.  She is a captivating performer. She has collaborated with musicians as varied as Randy Newman, Chrissy Hynde and David Grisman.  She is an extraordinarily talented pianist and guitarist, but I also think of her as a musician who has worked hard in the industry for over 50 years.  How many people can say that?

I thought it fitting to choose this song, "So Early, Early in the Spring".

Who do you like - Joni, Joan or Judy?  What are your favorite songs?  Let me know in the comments below!