When Joni Mitchell’s album Blue came out in June 1971, the author had not long returned to the UK from travels in the USA. “Even now, I only have to hear the opening chords of the songs, with their haunting music and evocative lyrics, and it conjures up this memorable time in my life.”
Like many young women growing up in the 1960s, I was an aspiring folk singer and initially modelled myself on Joan Baez. My friend, Alan Rae (sadly late of Newick Folk) and I occasionally performed at The Barge in Kingston, south London, which famously hosted regulars Jackson C. Frank, John Martyn and Sandy Denny in the late ’60s.
I arrived in New York on a student exchange from Sussex University (my degree was in English and American Studies) in September 1968, just as Joni Mitchell set off on tour in London. It was soon after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, with the Vietnam war at its height. The year had an undercurrent of violence and was to change me radically in many different ways.
My base for the year was Smith College in Massachusetts, the venue for the 1965 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. An all-women’s college where Sylvia Plath had studied in the 1950s, it had an exclusive reputation and was fiercely competitive, and I found the conspicuous wealth of the mainly white students sometimes hard to take. Scholarship girls like me were housed in smaller, attic rooms, and I had to take cleaning and sewing jobs to get by.
President Nixon was newly in post and his daughter Julie was also at Smith, accompanied by gun-carrying security officers. Homesick at first, I found the beautiful grounds, with woods, river and lake, known as Paradise Pond, a great solace, and spent much time walking there. In the winter, the lake froze and ice skating was a wonderful escape.
Getting away from Smith at weekends became a growing pattern – canvassing for the Democrats on Long Island, staying with a friend in New York, a log cabin hideaway in Vermont. These forays grew into weeks, peppered with great music: a Baptist choir at Friendship College in South Carolina, Charlie Mingus at Fillmore East and traditional street jazz at the unforgettable Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans. From deep snow in Massachusetts to the warmth of the Mississippi, I was getting used to the scale of the country, with its changes of climate and culture.
Joni Mitchell’s second album, Clouds, came out in May 1969, just before I took off on a road trip across America. While mostly positive, my travels were peppered with menace and near misses: I was nearly arrested twice, escaped an attempted rape in Chicago and a near attack by white racists in South Carolina when I was out with a group of black students. And, at the start of this journey, all my luggage was stolen from a car. I only had the clothes I stood up in and for the next month relied on the hospitality of friends and strangers – it was quite a liberating time to be free of all ties and possessions. Through it all Joni’s songs formed a backdrop to the journey.
After travelling from east to west through immense, magnificent landscapes, stopping off at Chicago and Seattle, I finished the year in San Francisco, living in a commune in Haight-Ashbury for a few weeks at the peak of the hippie movement. This was just before Woodstock, and the stereotype of beautiful people dressed in flowing robes sitting around smoking dope or dropping acid was pretty accurate. In contrast, down the road in Berkeley, there was tear gas on the streets as political activists demonstrated against Vietnam. All around was wonderful, experimental music from bands like The Velvet Underground and Jefferson Airplane. I heard the Grateful Dead and the Byrds at Fillmore West before heading back to Denver and New York.
Then it was time to go home. After a year it was a wrench to leave, and I never got to Woodstock in August 1969. Although Joni Mitchell wrote the celebrated song ‘Woodstock’, she missed the festival too, as she was performing in Chicago at the time. Unluckily, I picked up German measles on the flight back to London, so I also missed Bob Dylan at the Isle of Wight festival later the same month.
By the time Blue came out in 1971, I had just finished training as a teacher. Joni Mitchell had taken time out from performing to travel round Europe, just as I had travelled round the USA two years before. Her album came out of those travels, and they inspired me to write songs about my own experiences. The school I was teaching in had a vibrant folk club and I performed in two folk-rock groups with colleagues and students. Later, I joined a theatre-in-education company that toured all round Britain during the 1970s.
Over the past year, the successive Covid lockdowns have prompted a great deal of looking back. Great music has the power to evoke vivid recollections of the past and Joni Mitchell’s songs on Blue do just that for me, with their great lyrics and wonderful arrangements. Listening to the iconic album for the umpteenth time, I not only recognise the impact that travelling in the USA in the late ’60s had on my life, but find that today, half a century later, my memories are just as strong.
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