5 Songs You Didn’t Know Joni Mitchell Wrote for Other Artists

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Throughout the 1960s Joni Mitchell was compiling dozens of songs, none of which she got around to officially recording and releasing herself before sharing her first batch of 10 on her 1968 debut, Song to a Seagull.

Mitchell’s lyrics were so coveted early on. By the mid-’60s, artists like Judy Collins had already begun pinching songs from Mitchell’s expanding catalog, getting first cuts of the Mitchell-penned “Michael from Mountains” and “Both Sides, Now” for her sixth album Wildflowers. Collins even recorded Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” during her Who Knows Where the Time Goes sessions (before Mitchell would release it on Clouds in 1969) but the song never made the cut and was later released as a cover on Collins’ 1971 album Living.

A number of artists continued vying for Mitchell’s songs, from fellow folk solo artists and duos to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, who recorded and released one of her songs a month before she got it out.

Here are five songs Mitchell shared with other artists first and eventually recorded herself later on.

1. “Urge For Going,” Tom Rush (1966)
Written by Joni Mitchell

An earlier song in Joni Mitchell‘s “unreleased” collection that caught attention was “Urge For Going,” her account of the frigid winters she experienced growing up in Saskatoon, Canada.

“In Saskatoon or in Saskatchewan—or on the prairies for that matter, that includes the American prairies—the winters and the summers are very radical with the temperature varying as much as 150 degrees in a season,” said Mitchell of the song in 1966 while playing the Wisdom Tooth in Detroit, Michigan. “So when the winter sets in it really sets in and drops down to about 50 below and all the people sit around and complain a lot, but they never really do anything about it. Some people think that they’re frozen stiff but that’s not really true. They just complain and say ‘I wish I was in Florida’ and the farmers and the people who are wealthy enough do go down to Florida or some island for the winter. But then the rest of us poor old common folk up there have to sit and suffer through.”

She added, “And that was what I had in mind when I wrote this song, but I think it means different things to different people.”

Before Mitchell could officially record “Urge For Going,” folk singer Tom Rush released it as a single in 1966. He also grabbed Mitchell’s “Tin Angel” (later released on Clouds) and “The Circle Game”—also used as the title of his 1968 album—before Mitchell recorded it on her 1970 Ladies of the Canyon.

Mitchell later revisited “Urge For Going” and released it as the B-side for “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” in 1972, and again on her 1996 Hits compilation. 

I awoke today and found 
the frost perched on the town
It hovered in a frozen sky 
then it gobbled summer down
When the sun turns traitor cold 
and all the trees are shivering
in a naked row

I get the urge for going
But I ne
ver seem to go

I get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown
And summertime is falling down and winter is closing in

2. “The Circle Game,” Ian & Sylvia  (1967)
Written by Joni Mitchell

“The Circle Game” was first written by Joni Mitchell in 1966 and originally recorded by Canadian folk and country duo Ian & Sylvia in 1967, along with Buffy Sainte-Marie that same year, before Tom Rush cut it for his 1968 album of the same name. Mitchell later recorded “The Circle Game” for her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon. The song appeared again on Mitchell’s 1974 live album Miles of Aisles.

Inspired by Neil Young’s 1964 song “Sugar Mountain,” which he had written on his 19th birthday, Young’s version was more of a mourning for the end of his teenage years, while Mitchell added a glimmer of hope with her song to help cheer up her friend.

“I wrote it for a friend of mine named Neil Young who, at the time that I knew him, was a Canadian ex-rock ‘n roll type turned folkie from Winnipeg, Manitoba, which is just about as bad as Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I guess,” said Mitchell of the song in 1968. “Anyway, he’d just turned 20 years old and was very, very depressed, because he said ‘You know, all my life I’ve been looking forward to being an adult. … And suddenly here I am and I’m older and I can do just about all those things except I can’t go into the pubs [until] next year. But I can do just about anything I want to and you know what? I wanna go out and play skipping rope and play jacks and all that stuff that I missed and left behind.'”

Mitchell added, “He was really depressed, so I wrote a song for him.”

And the seasons they go round and round 
And the painted ponies go up and down 
We’re captive on the carousel of time 
We can’t return we can only look 
Behind from where we came 
And go round and round and round 
In the circle game

3. “Both Sides, Now,” Judy Collins (1968)
Written by Joni Mitchell

First recorded by Judy Collins, and released on her sixth album, Wildflowers, the song peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100 and No. 3 on the Adult Contemporary charts by 1968. Collins also grabbed Mitchell’s unreleased “Michael from Mountains” as her Wildflowers opener.

By 1969, Mitchell had recorded “Both Sides, Now” on her second album Clouds, making it one of her most well-known songs. In 1999, Mitchell re-recorded the song with an orchestral arrangement for her 2000 concept album Both Sides Now. 

“I was reading a book, and I haven’t finished it yet, called ‘Henderson the Rain King,'” said Mitchell elaborating on the song on March 12, 1967. “And there’s a line in it that I especially got hung up on that was about when he was flying to Africa and searching for something, he said that ‘in an age when people could look up and down at clouds, they shouldn’t be afraid to die.’ And so I got this idea ‘from both sides now.’ There are a lot of sides to everything, and so the song is called ‘From Both Sides, Now.'”

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way

4. “Born to Take the Highway,” The Foggy Dew-O (1968)
Written by Joni Mitchell

Another earlier song Joni Mitchell never recorded is “Born To Take The Highway,” which was included on the British folk duo Foggy Dew-O’s album of the same name in 1968. The group also slipped in a cover of “Both Sides, Now” on their album.

Mitchell described “Born to Take the Highway” as a travel song, but one that was more “idealistic” and unlike most contemporary folk travel songs. “I know some of my hippie friends say to me ‘hey, really that’s kind of a schmaltzy travel song I mean there’s no hard times on it, you know. There should be more hard times and troubles and trials and tribulations,’ because everybody knows that all travel songs nowadays have got to be like that,” said Mitchell of the song in 1966.

“And there’s a reason for that because most folkies got their start following in the footsteps of a fellow named Woody Guthrie who wrote songs about the Depression … sort of like the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ kind of themes for them—about hard, dusty trails, and hard dusty roads, and things like that and so we all try to follow as much as possible in his footsteps,” Mitchell added. “The only thing is nowadays most of his footsteps have been paved over. The only place there are any hot dusty roads left are in Saskatchewan and not many people get up there.”

See the stretching sun at dawning
Wipe the stardust from his eyes
Feel the morning breezes yawning
Telling me it’s time to rise
Telling me it’s time to rise

I was born to take the highway
I was born to chase a dream
Any road at all is my way
Any place is where I’ve been
Anything is what I’ve seen

5. “Woodstock,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970)
Written by Joni Mitchell

Before Joni Mitchell could record “Woodstock” herself, three covers had already been released in 1970, including Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s version on their second album, Déjà Vu, released in March of that year. A month later, Mitchell released her “Woodstock” on her third album Ladies of the Canyon. The song was Mitchell’s ode to the Woodstock festival of 1969, which she had planned to attend but regretted missing due to scheduling.

“I started off to go there,” shared Mitchell, introducing the song during a Dec 12, 1969 concert in Worcester, Massachusetts. “We’d just finished playing in Chicago. They were on their way to the festival, and I was on my way with them, except I had to do a television show the following Monday. 

Mitchell added, “So Sunday afternoon we arrived at the New York Airport and there were all sorts of hassles with helicopters and transportation into the festival. … So I got abandoned there. I got left behind, and I felt really terrible. I went back into New York City and turned on my television in my hotel room and watched the little bits of it that they put on the news and felt sorry for myself.

“And then when I saw the magazine articles and pictures of them and everything, I really, really felt sorry for myself, because it’ll never happen again, of course. They’ll try and recapture it, you know, and it’ll just get worse and worse and worse. Well, maybe that’s a pessimistic way to look at it, but, I don’t know.

“It was really something, that people could be so good to each other. Even if it was only for three days. All those people being good to each other for three whole days. Fantastic.”

We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion-year-old carbon
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Well, then can I walk beside you?
I have come to lose the smog
And I feel myself a cog
In somethin’ turning

Photo: Norman Seeff / NAMM

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