The Palisadian-Post has partnered with Paul Revere Charter Middle School to highlight a series of pieces from its 2021 Literary Anthology. The following piece, penned by Sunny Lehrhoff, originally appeared in the research reports section of the anthology, released in spring, and has been reprinted here with permission.
Joni Mitchell has shared her musical gifts with countless listeners all around the world. Originally named Roberta Joan Anderson, she was born on November 7, 1943, in Fort McLeod, Alberta, Canada.
Growing up in a small town with no real exposure to the arts, she overcame a serious childhood illness and rose to become a singular and respected singer songwriter. After overcoming huge obstacles, the former Canadian outsider made an incredible impact on future generations of artists who continue to be inspired by her music.
When the girl who liked to be called Joni was only 9 years old, she contracted polio and spent several months in a hospital. Her mother only visited once and her father never did, which led to feelings of intense loneliness. Her time in the hospital seemed interminable. They didn’t know if she would ever walk again.
“I said, ‘Give me my legs back and I’ll make it up to you,’” she said. “I didn’t know who I was praying to. It wasn’t God or Jesus. I knew that there was a spirit of destiny or something. I just wouldn’t believe that I would be crippled in a wheelchair for the rest of my life” (Yaffe 21).
After polio, her interests were dancing and painting. Music was only recognized as a hobby. When Joni finally decided to pick up guitar she noticed a weakness in her left hand from fighting polio. This inspired her to make a new and unique kind of guitar tuning called “open tuning” which later influenced many other musicians.
As Joni began touring the United States, she inspired many young musicians with her poetic and influential lyrics that spread beautiful messages of how she viewed and understood the world. Her lyrics spoke to the hearts of many people as well as the minds of many activists.
Joni recognized our world in her own incredible way. She recalls this in the song “Both Sides Now”: “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now and still somehow it’s clouds illusions I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all.”
Some of her songs were created based on her experience with her childhood disease, polio. She was given strength, courage and determination from this plaintive childhood trauma.
“This was the first of many willful, indeed creative, acts of defiance … It was not so much an overcoming as it was a rewriting of the odds” (Yaffe 21).
A lot of her hit songs addressed the environmental and global crisis the world is currently dealing with. For example, the song “Big Yellow Taxi” includes lyrics about how “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” and how “they took all the trees and put them in a tree museum, and they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see them.”
In the present day, Joni Mitchell continues to leave a powerful and positive impact on other singers, songwriters and even poets from new generations. The former Canadian outsider is now one of the greatest singer songwriters to ever live.
In one of her most famous songs, she declares, “We are stardust, we are golden and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” By inspiring young artists with her musical talent she spreads a positive message of helping the environment and the world we live in.
Joni recalls in her hit song “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
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