In my formative years as a singer, guitarist and songwriter, I learned much from the music of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.
Joni Mitchell’s 1970 album Ladies Of The Canyon and Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush, also from 1970, provided countless hours of inspirational listening and several impeccable songs that soon became favorites of my performing repertoire.
In particular, Joni’s “For Free” and Neil’s “Birds” are songs that I still love to play and sing. But upon listening again to the original album tracks, I’ve been reminded that these were among the songs that Joni and Neil, both exceptional guitarists, played on the piano. I came to play them on the guitar thanks to a friend and a bootleg record.
Bob was a guitarist, singer and equally music-obsessed friend from my high school and college years. He turned me on back then to a guitar-based version of “For Free” that David Crosby (Bob’s most favorite musician in those days) had recorded on a reunion album with The Byrds. After I had learned to play it, Bob and I worked up a duo version of “For Free” with some of the best two-part harmony vocals I’ve ever been part of. (I so wish that I had a recording of us doing that song.) Every time I played that song solo, I wished the audience could hear his voice singing along, too.
Bootleg albums – illegal, mysterious and defiantly produced 12-inch vinyl records with minimal (if any) graphics, containing surreptitiously-procured recordings of live concert performances and/or studio work by well-known artists – were a somewhat rare and controversial delight back in those days. For a New Hampshire-based music fan, a trip to Boston was necessary to find a record store that carried a selection of these LPs. On one such excursion, I found a live Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album that contained (as I found out when I got home and listened to it) one side of horribly-recorded full-band, “electric” songs and one side of gorgeously-recorded “acoustic” songs. One of the latter tracks was “Birds” with Neil Young accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar. That became the model for my rendition of the song.
Here, for your listening pleasure, are videos of these two songs. The Joni Mitchell video is a live performance recorded by the BBC on October 9, 1970. The Neil Young video contains the studio recording of “Birds” from the After The Gold Rush LP.
On November 7, Joni Mitchell (born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort McLeod, Alberta, Canada) celebrated her 69th birthday.
On November 12, Neil Young (born in Toronto, Canada) will celebrate his 67th birthday.
I hope you enjoyed the music. I think I’ll go get my guitar and sing those songs.
Two other fantastic songs from “Ladies of the Canyon” are probably my favorite Joni Mitchell songs (although it is really difficult to choose*): “The Circle Game” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” I still remember a freezing cold January night in 1974 when Patty and I saw Joni Mitchell in concert. Nosebleed balcony seats at the Boston Music Hall….absolutely magical. (*okay, on her album “Blue” there’s “Blue” and “Carey” and….well, never mind, I really can’t decide)