The ultimate fall-into-winter song, by Joni Mitchell, arranged by Dave Van Ronk. I tend to be more optimistic about this season, so my standard autumn song is Bill Morrissey’s “My Baby and Me,” but I always loved the way Dave did this — plus, my Vancouver buddy Monte Jones had a gorgeous harmonica part for it, which he played often with me and a couple of times with Dave… and I wish he was around to play it now.
This was one of Mitchell’s early masterpieces, though she only recorded it as the b-side of a single and a lot of her fans have never heard it. Tom Rush recorded the best-known version as the title song of one of his albums, and it’s nice, but Dave’s is the killer. He recorded it for Polydor, on an album that had some of his most ornate production and greatest song choices, but didn’t sell and soon went out of print. Fortunately, it’s now available for digital download (thanks to the hoopla around the Coen Brothers’ movie) and is one of his greatest performances, though nothing like as great as hearing him do it live, with just the guitar.
When I was studying with Dave in the mid-1970s, not many young people were aware of his work, but Joni Mitchell fans sometimes recognized his name because she had said he was the only person who sang her songs better than she did. None of them agreed, of course, but I think I understand what she meant: Dave’s rough growl counteracted the prettiness of the melodies, forcing listeners to hear the power of the poetry.
Dave first met Joni, then still named Joni Anderson, when they both appeared on a television program Oscar Brand was hosting in Winnipeg, called Let’s Sing Out. It was 1965, nobody south of the border had yet heard of her. He used to tell a funny story about that meeting, which is in our book, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, but the short version is that he was blown away by her writing, her singing, her playing, and her brilliance. He saw her again in Detroit, working in a duo with her husband Chuck, who was one of the few people on the folk scene other than Dave doing Brecht/Weill material, and then she moved to New York and they became fast friends.
Dave thought Joni was the greatest songwriter to come out of the folk revival — not necessarily more talented than Dylan, but in his class for talent and much more serious about the craft. For a while he recorded at least one of her songs on every album, including a version of “Both Sides Now” that was supposed to be his big radio hit but couldn’t compete with Judy Collins. (It may not have helped that he insisted on calling it “Clouds” — when Joni first sang it for him, he told her that was the dominant image and should be the title. She compromised, keeping her song title, but calling the album Clouds.)
I liked all of Dave’s performances of Mitchell’s material — one of the great pleasures of compiling the CD to go with our book was that I could include a solo version of “Both Sides Now” — but this was always my favorite. So I suggest everyone check it out, and also… there’s now a clip of Joni on the Oscar Brand show singing it, and it’s wonderful. I may even like it more than Dave’s version…