For a singer and songwriter as supremely talented as Joni Mitchell it is perhaps no surprise that to reach the heights she has reached, the singer has leant on some heavy foundational stones. Without the work of folkies like Woody Guthrie, acts like Mitchell and Bob Dylan wouldn’t have existed.
Their sure-footed stepping stones towards stardom didn’t just count on the work of musicians though. They were founded in the searing intelligence captured within your local library. For many songwriters of the sixties, their real passion laid in literature.
Like many songwriters of her age, Mitchell was widely and profoundly influenced by the work of countless artists from an array of art forms. As well as being inspired by singers and songwriters, Mitchell was also inspired by poets, philosophers and, of course, novelists too. But, like so many other children, she would need a push in the right direction from a beloved teacher.
It can feel like a fairytale sometimes but, every so often, a teacher can have a profound effect on a child. Joni Mitchell, when speaking with New York, shared her own experiences with such a teacher and how his continuous reading of one book would not only inspire a rebellious streak in her own character but also stoke the creative flames of her soul too.
The conversation comes from Mitchell’s meeting with Ethan Brown, whereby Brown begins the interview with a broad question capable of rendering most artists speechless.
Mitchell wasn’t born in the bustling groove of the city, the metropolitan elite had come nowhere near the quiet town of North Battleford and the singer, then battling polio, seemingly couldn’t have been further from being a pop star. So what culturally kept her motivated in such a small and sleepy town: “I loved Debussy, Stravinsky, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, anything with romantic melodies, especially the nocturnes.”
It wasn’t just music that kept the motor of creativity running: “Nietzsche was a hero, especially with Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” remarks the singer. She also points out, “He gets a bad rap; he’s very misunderstood. He’s a maker of individuals, and he was a teacher of teachers.” That last sentiment seemed to resonate for Mitchell who confirmed her own teacher had liberated her thinking somewhat and allowed her creativity to run with abandon.
“In the seventh grade, I had a teacher who declared that the curriculum was useless. So he read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim to us every morning until the book was completed. That was very influential for me.” The book also happened to contain one line that would rank among Mitchell’s most cherished: “My favourite line in all of literature is Rudyard Kipling’s monkey: ‘My people are the wisest people in the jungle, my people have always said so.'”
It’s the exact kind of intellectual witticism that has seen Mitchell become rightly revered as the best in her class. But, perhaps more pertinently than the line or the book itself, was the act of rebellion conducted to share it with the impressionable singer.