Hello there! This week our blog features a terrific folk music tune, Both Sides, Now. We will first discuss the version by singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. Next, we will review a cover by Judy Collins (which was actually the first version released), and we will finish with a cover by Harpers Bizarre.
Joni Mitchell and Both Sides, Now:
Joni Mitchell is one of the greatest pop musicians of the 20th century. Her music is defined by its creativity, beautiful marriage of melody and poetry, and its incredible variety. Joni Mitchell’s work has ranged from folk to pop to jazz to electronic music to world music. She refers to herself as “a painter derailed by circumstance.”
She is heralded as a superb musician by many different sources.
Rolling Stone has called her “one of the greatest songwriters ever”, and AllMusic has stated, “When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century”.
Here is a photo of Joni Mitchell performing at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970.Embed from Getty Images
Born in 1943, Roberta Joan Anderson grew up in Canada where her family moved from one military base to another following the career of her father, a Royal Canadian Air Force flight lieutenant. Her initial interest in athletics was curtailed by a brief bout with polio at age eight. About this time Joni started smoking, and it is rather remarkable that she continued to smoke for decades without any notable deterioration of her terrific contralto voice.
Following that, Joni became interested in music. However, her reaction to polio made it difficult for her to adopt standard guitar fingering positions. As a result, she was forced to experiment with various alternate tunings. This turned out to be very useful in her later improvisational work.
At the age of 20, she moved from Saskatchewan to Toronto, where she began to perform in coffeehouses and small clubs. She met and married folksinger Chuck Mitchell and took his last name. When their marriage broke up in 1967, Joni landed in New York City, where she became a regular in folk clubs on the Eastern Seaboard.
Initially Joni’s major success was as a songwriter. In particular, Judy Collins had major hits with Mitchell’s compositions Both Sides, Now and Chelsea Morning. The albums Clouds and Ladies of the Canyon, released in 1969 and 1970 respectively, became the springboard that launched Joni Mitchell into super-stardom.
Joni Mitchell asserts that she wrote Both Sides, Now in March, 1967. She states that she was inspired by reading Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson, The Rain King, which contains a passage where Henderson is flying in a plane and looks down to see some clouds below him.
Mitchell was flying in a plane as she read Bellow’s book. Looking out of her window, she also saw clouds below her and began writing a song, which begins by describing the beauty of clouds.
Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all
However, the next verse describes her frustration that clouds are the source of rain and snow. She concludes that “I really don’t know clouds at all.”
The song continues, listing her experiences with love and with life. In both cases she contrasts uplifting and affirming sentiments with disillusionment, ending with “I really don’t know love (life) at all.”
Apparently Joni Mitchell performed Both Sides, Now in November, 1966 at the Second Fret in Philadelphia; so she must have written the song before that date.
Here is Joni Mitchell in a live performance of Both Sides, Now on the Mama Cass Television Program in 1969.
Isn’t this great? Joni Mitchell lends her ethereal voice and unusual guitar tuning to her first big hit about life and love. In their 2004 list The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Rolling Stone rated Both Sides, Now at #171.
This performance took place in a one-hour TV special hosted by Mama Cass with musical guests Joni Mitchell, John Sebastian and Mary Travers. Cass Elliott had left The Mamas and the Papas in 1968 for a solo career.
Just how popular a song is Both Sides, Now? Well, apparently there are over 1,200 covers of this tune! The Wikipedia entry for Both Sides, Now summarizes roughly 100 of these covers over the past five decades.
Folksingers Pete Seeger, Anne Murray and Glen Campbell covered the song. But so did crooners Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and Andy Williams. Then in the 21st century such groups as Hole, Melanie C and Sara Bareilles released covers of the song. Both Sides, Now — what an enduring classic!
After Both Sides, Now, Joni Mitchell produced a number of wonderful hits including Big Yellow Taxi, Chelsea Morning and California. She was indisputably the greatest female folksinger of her day.
In the mid-70s, Joni moved from folk-rock to more jazz-inspired work. She began collaborations with jazz artists such as Jaco Pistorius and Wayne Shorter, and produced some unique albums. She then entered into an extended collaboration with jazz bassist Charles Mingus.
Although her jazz fusion albums did not sell as well as her best folk-rock offerings, they generally placed in the Billboard top 25 album charts. Her work at this time was also highly acclaimed by critics.
Since that time, Joni Mitchell has continued to chart her own personal course. She has produced a number of pop hits, with forays into electronic music and world music.
However, in recent years time seems to have caught up with Joni. Her vocal range became much more limited, and starting in the late 1990s she experienced a number of health problems. Joni announced that the album Travelogue, issued in 2002, would likely be her last; however, she issued another album, Shine, in 2007.
In March 2015, Joni Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm. She underwent physical therapy, which included learning to walk again.
Joni has also claimed that she suffers from Morgellons Syndrome. This is a highly controversial medical condition. People affected by it report that they suffer from skin sores that contain some kind of fibers.
However, CDC researchers who investigated this condition could find no disease organisms (no bacteria or parasites), and the only fibers they found appeared to be cotton. At the moment, the medical community has not accepted Morgellons Syndrome as a legitimate medical condition.
On Nov. 7, 2018 she attended a 75th birthday celebration where artists including James Taylor, Graham Nash and Kris Kristofferson interpreted songs that Joni had written.
We wish Joni Mitchell all the best – she is a living national treasure and her music has enriched our lives over the past 50 years.
Judy Collins and Both Sides, Now:
Judy Collins has been a popular singer for over 50 years. Though she is now 80 years old, her career as a singer and social activist continues to this day.
Collins was born in 1939 and grew up in Denver, Colorado where she showed considerable promise as a classical pianist. However, her love for folk music eventually led her to Greenwich Village, where she became part of a burgeoning folk scene that included artists such as Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton.
Collins was very supportive of young musical talent. She encouraged people like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen well before they became famous. In addition to her bright, clear voice, Collins was also famous for her striking good looks. Here she is in a photo from the late 60s or early 70s.Embed from Getty Images
Judy Collins’ debut album A Maid of Constant Sorrow was released in 1961. At that point she developed a strong following on the folk-music circuit. However, her breakthrough came with her 1967 album Wildflowers.
That album reached #5 on the Billboard Pop Albums charts. The big hit from that record was Collins’ cover of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now. This was the first release of Joni’s song and it reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists. In 1969 Judy Collins won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance for Both Sides, Now.
So here is Judy Collins in a live performance of Both Sides Now, from 1968.
I really enjoy Judy Collins’ vocal style. Both Sides, Now has become one of Judy’s signature tunes. Although apparently Joni Mitchell was not happy with Judy Collins’ treatment of her song, it is a favorite of mine.
Judy Collins enjoyed great success as a folksinger, but she also branched out performing the music of composers such as Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim. For example, Collins had top-20 hits with Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns, and also with the traditional Christian hymn Amazing Grace.
In addition to Judy Collins’ musical career, she has been a lifelong social activist. A friend of Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, she testified on their behalf at the Chicago Seven trial in 1970. When Judy began to sing Where Have All the Flowers Gone, she was rebuked by the toxic federal judge Julius Hoffman. She is currently a representative for UNICEF in attempts to ban landmines.
Collins has suffered from both alcoholism and depression, but she kicked her alcohol dependency after a stint in rehab in 1978. In 1992 her son committed suicide after struggling with both substance abuse and depression. Since that time, Collins has become active in suicide prevention groups.
Judy Collins continues to perform and remains an activist. We wish “Judy Blue Eyes” all the best.
Harpers Bizarre and Both Sides, Now:
Harper’s Bizarre was a 60s group whose musical style is sometimes described as “sunshine pop.” The group originally surfaced in the mid-60s as The Tikis, a band out of Santa Cruz, CA that performed pop songs reminiscent of The Beatles.
The group featured Ted Templeman on lead vocals, Eddie James and Dick Scoppettone on guitar, Dick Yount on bass and John Petersen on drums. Below is a photo of Harpers Bizarre from the late 60s.
The group got its big break when producer Lenny Waronker decided to record a cover of the Simon and Garfunkel song, The 59th Street Bridge Song (better known as Feelin’ Groovy). Waronker had the good sense to enlist Leon Russell to compose a version of that song.
Russell’s arrangement of the Simon & Garfunkel piece included some intricate harmonies and catchy instrumental parts. His composition made particular use of strings and woodwinds, in a style now known as “baroque pop.”
The group decided to release Feelin’ Groovy, but used the pseudonym Harpers Bizarre (a play on the magazine “Harper’s Bazaar”). The idea was that this tune was significantly different in style from the work of The Tikis, and the band released it under a different name so as not to antagonize their fan base.
Well, the Harpers Bizarre song shot up to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100, a far better result than any Tikis song had achieved. As a result, Harpers Bizarre issued a couple of albums, with Lenny Waronker as producer and Ted Templeman working on the arrangements.
The Harpers Bizarre recording of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now was released in 1967. Here is the audio of that song.
I believe this was released shortly after Judy Collins’ cover of this song. It is classic Harpers Bizarre, featuring a prominent orchestration heavy on strings and woodwinds. Somehow the audio of this tune is paired with video of a ballroom-dancing group in Canada.
Since the previous clip featured only the audio of this group, here is Harpers Bizarre in a ‘live’ performance of the song Come To The Sunshine.
This was performed on the Mike Douglas Show in 1967. The song was written by Van Dyke Parks. It certainly looks like Harpers Bizarre is lip-synching the song, but it really doesn’t matter much, does it?
Even in the studio, Harpers Bizarre isn’t very good. Their vocals are weak and they are completely dependent on the studio arrangement for any musical quality whatsoever.
With Lenny Waronker producing, the group reached deep down into the bag of American Standards, releasing covers of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes and the Glenn Miller chestnut Chattanooga Choo-Choo.
After their final album was released in 1969, the group broke up. Music from Harpers Bizarre can be found in the 1968 film I Love You, Alice B. Toklas and the 1970 film The Boys In The Band.
Ted Templeman continued on as a producer in the 70s and 80s. While his own music with Harpers Bizarre was sweet and saccharine, as a producer Templeman was renowned for his work with hard-rocking groups. He started with mainstream pop acts such as Van Morrison and The Doobie Brothers; however, Templeman later produced groups such as Aerosmith, Van Halen and Sammy Hagar. Quite a change of pace from Cole Porter!
As you might suspect, Harpers Bizarre were one-hit-wonders. Their first song made it into the Billboard top 20 pop charts, but that was basically it. From what I have observed, I don’t expect any hidden gems will be found in the band’s albums. As The Boss observed so succinctly, “Glory days, they’ll pass you by, in the wink of a young girl’s eye, ….”