Joni Mitchell and Neil Young are two of the finest songwriters to emerge out of the sixties and seventies and, while they share their homeland of Canada, there has often been speculation that the pair shared a more intimate relationship too. Such connections are always made between two songwriters who share such a connection.
Whether or not the pair had a romantic interaction or didn’t, the situation is not really of our concern, because their shared time together prompted two sweet songs and one incredible band instead.
Mitchell and Young are two experts in the themes of love. Sharing their life’s love stories throughout their careers and their records, there is even reasoning to think that they also shared their personal relationship too. Mitchell is said to have written the song ‘The Circle Game’ about Young while his not-so-secretly-titled but very rarely performed song ‘Sweet Joni’, is clearly aimed at the folk singer.
In Toronto back in 1964, a young Joni Mitchell was a member of a very small but growing folk scene. Another member of that scene was Neil Young, the two performers met in 1964 at the Fourth Dimension folk club at the University of Manitoba, and encountered him again in the Yorkville district of Toronto in 1965. At the time, the aspiring musicians were desperate for club experience and any spotlight going, but both were struggling to make an impact in their fields.
We could dream about what a combination the two performers could have made but they were intent on taking different paths. Mitchell would take her talents towards songwriting and began penning some of the decade’s anthemic folk music. She composed songs for Gordon Lightfoot and Judy Collins as well as a bunch of other hits including a track about her then-21year-old-friend Neil Young. The track pictured a man scared of growing old—a recurring theme in Young’s own work.
‘The Circle Game’ was written in response to Young’s own track, ‘Sugar Mountain’ a song written when he was just 19 years of age and lamented the loss of his teenage years and the seemingly impossible challenge of growing old with value.
Introducing the song in 1968, she said: “This is a song that’s been recorded by a couple of friends of mine, so maybe you know it a little better than the other ones. And if you do – if you know the chorus, wow – just sing along, cause it’s a chorus about people and growing old and growing young and carousels and painted ponies and the weather and the Buffalo Springfield.”
By 1968, a lot of time had passed and the two Canadian stars had grown immensely in a relatively short time. While Mitchell had gotten married and divorced, moved to Britain and been furiously writing, Young went south to the US and began work with Stephen Stills and Buffalo Springfield. Mitchell would reconvene with the singer around this time and make a connection that would benefit his career forever.
Mitchell, having divorced her husband Chuck Mitchell a few years prior, headed to Florida and there she met and quickly fell for, David Crosby. The former Byrds man had a tight network of friends and some of the music industry’s most influential players. Mitchell landed Crosby as the role of producer on her next LP and on the first day of recording an engineer told them that Buffalo Springfield were recording next door.
Recognising her old friend, Mitchell made an important introduction “You’ve got to meet Neil Young,” says the singer, before adding: “I know him from Canada. He’s in the Springfield. He’s so funny. You’re going to love this guy.” It was the first meeting of Crosby, Stills and Young and the start of their iconic band. It’s plain to see that Young and Mitchell’s lives will forever be intertwined and in 1973, Young paid homage to Mitchell as she had done to him, with a song.
On 20th March 1973, Young sat down at his piano during a performance in Bakersfield in California and let out one of his most touching songs, ‘Sweet Joni’. Young has rarely played the song since and it remains one of the unattainable tracks of his catalogue.
The duo have continued to be friends both in and out of the public eye, exchanging performances and help musically (Young played the harmonica on some of HEJIRA) to create one of the sweetest friendships in music.
Judging by the song Neil Young wrote for Mitchell, there may well have been a time when it could have been more. But, for now, we have the mesmeric songs they wrote for each other.