Joni, Graham and Jimi, March 1968

Joni Mitchell playing Le Hibou - poster courtesy of Harvey Glatt

By the mid-1960s, the unrelenting, cranked-up electric sounds of rock were beginning to drown out the acoustic folk music that had dominated the North American coffeehouse scene for almost a decade. Bob Dylan had gone electric at Newport in ’65, dragging a large chunk of the folk scene kicking and screaming into the rock world. The year 1967 had witnessed the Summer of Love, and the resulting psychedelia of the Haight in San Francisco was washing across the continent.

But the folkies still had a couple of surprises up their sleeves.

Roberta Joan Anderson had come out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, with only a guitar and a head full of lyrics and she was doing journeywoman work on the coffeehouse circuit as Joni Mitchell, the surname of the husband she had divorced the previous year.

Despite being unamplified and all alone on stage, her sound and her lyrics were beginning to have a profound impact on the music of the time. In David Crosby’s 1988 autobiography, Long Time Gone, co-author Carl Gottlieb described her this way: “A willowy blonde with big blue eyes and high cheekbones, singing art songs in a bell-like soprano with a Canadian accent and accompanying herself on acoustic guitar and dulcimer was not anyone’s idea of The Next Big Thing, but her work was unmistakably different and she was attracting attention.”

In 1967, Mitchell was plugging away at an exhausting tour across Canada and the United States, playing small venues and coffeehouses that demanded two sets of music a night and three sets on weekends. By June, she had reached Ottawa for an extended engagement at Café Le Hibou. The gig also included a live concert at Camp Fortune in the Gatineau Hills, a concert recorded by the CBC as part of its Summer Festival Series. Denis Faulkner booked her for next to nothing. “She wasn’t very well known, so I got her for $150 a week versus 50 percent of the door, and I hired her for three weeks,” he recalled.

         During her stay, Mitchell rented a room in a house in the nearby neighbourhood of Sandy Hill, just east of downtown Ottawa. The house was shared by musicians Bill Stevenson and Sandy Crawley; Caroline Petch, who would later become one of Hibou’s managers; and Dan McLeod, who would become one of the publishers of Georgia Straight. She and Stevenson “just hit it off,” he remembered. “I don’t know why. I was younger than her, and, as was the way back then, we sort of drifted into each other’s lives. We spent quite a bit of time talking to each other during that short period of time.”

 

         Stevenson, an accomplished piano player and singer, was just about to hook up with David Grisman and Peter Rowan as part of the band Earth Opera,and would be signed by Jac Holzman’s Elektra Records. Mitchell and Stevenson spent time at a Chinese restaurant on Rideau Street (“She liked the Almond Soo Guy,” he said), and the two of them dropped acid in Strathcona Park, next to the Russian Embassy. Sandy Crawley didn’t recall her being at the house very much but admitted his memory might be faulty “because we were taking LSD every day. For, like, two weeks I remember taking a hit every day with Bill,” he laughed. His memory of Mitchell was of “a very flirtatious and promiscuous girl, but bravely so. I was very promiscuous myself and I made it possible for others to be so. I believed that that was a good thing.”

 Ed Honeywell, a young guitarist who had been alternating at Hibou between performing solo on classical guitar and accompanying other musicians, was asked to meet with Mitchell and accompany her on some of her songs at Camp Fortune. “I didn’t know anything about her at all. So I guess Bill Stevenson was sort of minding her; she was staying at his place in Sandy Hill, and I went there to rehearse with her. She played a couple of her things and she uses these weird tunings, these open tunings, which are phenomenal. In those days, I wasn’t playing open tunings, so I very quickly determined that there was no way I was going to accompany any of that with her and I said that. Of course, her stuff is unique--it doesn’t need accompaniment. So I told Tom (the CBC producer) maybe “Both Sides Now” I could do, maybe “The Circle Game,” but the other stuff? Forget it. “Chelsea Morning”? That’s her stuff. So we did the show and she was a real hit. But when she played at Hibou, I asked her about her tuning, so I learned a lot of new tunings from her.”

When the Hibou gig ended, Mitchell continued her tour and, by the late fall, was in Coconut Grove, Florida, playing a club called the Gaslight South. Ex-Byrd David Crosby was also there, buying his first boat, the Mayan. The two met, became friends, and then, in her words, became “romantically involved.”