This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #194: Help Me by Joni Mitchell.
To be honest, I feel somewhat inadequate to do justice to the career of Joni Mitchell. Her career and her life read like an epic novel. I will try to capture her essence in this post (and in the three others to follow over the course of the rest of this countdown). Joni Mitchell is a legendary musical figure; one who is respected and adored by everyone from Madonna to Prince, from Pink to Alanis Morissette, from folk singers to jazz singers and everyone in between. She was a first-ballot inductee to The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. She is a polio-survivor, a smoker from childhood, a fiercely independent person in all regards, a lover of many and a devotee of few. Her musical catalogue spans almost sixty years yet, she had only one Top Ten hit ever…..it was a song called, “Help Me” from her most commercially successful album, “Court and Spark”. Here is the story of “Help Me”.
Joni Anderson was born in 1943. She grew up a military brat and moved around a lot as a child; eventually settling in Saskatoon. It was in her youth that she contracted polio. She was able to overcome the disease but, one of the lasting affects it had on her was that it made her wrists weak. Thus, when Joni decided that exploring her creative side was the path she would follow, she began by painting and by playing the acoustic guitar. In both cases, the weakness in her wrists caused her to have to resort to unconventional techniques when it came to holding a brush and strumming her guitar strings. In particular, with music, her style of guitar playing (along with the quality of her poetry/song lyrics) was what brought her to the attention of her first audiences. What could have been seen as a defect was, instead, viewed as being breath-takingly original and haunting. On a second important note from her youthful years in Saskatchewan, because she moved around a lot, Joni never made permanent friends. Being transitiory in nature caused her to experiment socially with things like drugs and alcohol but, most notably, with smoking. Anderson was a full-fledged smoker BEFORE entering high school. Needless to say, the copious amounts of smoking she did gave her voice a unique timbre, as well. So, once again, what could have been seen as a character flaw ended up becoming one of her defining traits.
Joni left Saskatchewan and moved to Toronto when she was just turning twenty. It was her aim to become a major player in the burgeoning Folk Music scene that was coalescing around Yorkville and around people like Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Sainte Marie and Leonard Cohen (from Montreal). The Folk scene in Toronto never really worked out for Joni. She found the scene very closed-off and the singers very territorial about their music. It was while in Toronto that she became pregnant. Barely making enough money to afford food and rent for herself, she reluctantly gave her newborn up for adoption. One of her first songs ever recorded was about her child and was called, “Little Green” (which ended up on her critically acclaimed album, “Blue”, which we will talk about more on a future post). Not long after giving birth, she met a man named Chuck Mitchell, who promised her that a career in the US was waiting for her, as long as she agreed to follow him there. He was a singer and musician, too. Joni fell in love with him and soon they were married. Joni Anderson became Joni Mitchell. Her American adventure was now at hand.
I will continue with her life story in the next post. But, suffice to say, her early upbringing had a huge influence on her career. One of Mitchell’s defining personal traits was her unwillingness to conform to societal expectations. She always wanted to do her own thing, in her own style, at her own pace. So, when she recorded the song, “Help Me”, it was only after deciding that she was tired of being pigeon-holed as a Folk singer. She always thought she was more than that and, to prove it, she hired a Jazz ensemble called “The L.A. Express” to be her backing band. Thus, the album, “Court and Spark” became known as Mitchell’s “Jazz album”. Whatever the case, it was her most well-recieved album and the one that brought her the most commercial success. Naturally, Mitchell bristled at her fame. In later years, she referred to “Help Me” as a “Company song” that pleased record executives more than it pleased her. But, none the less, it was her only Top Ten hit and is what you shall all shortly hear for yourselves.
Joni Mitchell is an artist in every sense of the word. She embodies what it means to think and live artistically; this is seen in the products she creates and in the manner in which she views other people and her own life, too. She has high personal standards for those she loves and for her work. She suffers no fools, either. As this countdown unfolds, we will visit with Joni Mitchell again three times. Hopefully, by the end of those three remaining posts, we will all have a much fuller view of this lady’s incredible life. For now, we have “Help Me” from “Court and Spark”, the song that, for many casual fans, was their introduction to Joni Mitchell. I hope that you enjoy it. Have a wonderful day, all!
The link to the video for the song, “Help Me” by Joni Mitchell, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Joni Mitchell, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.