Sixties Folklore

Briefly but indelibly, Chuck and Joni Mitchell put their stamp on Detroit’s musical life. He recalls their airy apartment, performing together at gigs, and the city’s once-vibrant folk scene.


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Joni and Chuck Mitchell strike a delib-erately stilted pose in a special bridal section published by the Detroit Free Press on Feb. 5, 1967. Chuck called it “obviously (to my eye) a send-up of the typical bridal photo.” The two actually were married in 1965. The piece was written by Free Press fashion writer Marji Kunz, who was friendly with the Mitchells.
Wedding photo reprinted by permission of the Detroit Free Press

“The Chuck & Joni Show was an opening song or two together, a closing song or two together, and solos in the middle, where one of us sat and watched the other do his/her thing and tried to look enthralled,” he says. “As for rehearsing our 10-song repertoire, we squabbled some. But “one song, [Lennon and McCartney’s] ‘Norwegian Wood,’ was acquired pain free, as I recall, and we did it quite well.” But, he acknowledges, “It was never a workable duo, and the decision not to do it anymore was kind of inevitable.”

Inevitable, too, was the breakup of their marriage. They stopped living together sometime in 1967, and by 1968, the union was dissolved.

When asked if he saw the ebbing of folk music as rock ’n’ roll swept the music world like a tsunami, Chuck says: “One never sees such things when they are happening. They just happen.”

And so it is sometimes with relationships. Although a lot of ink has been spilled speculating about what tore the pair asunder — Joni simply wanted her green card, her solo career was gaining much more momentum, they fought over her fling with another guy, their age difference was too vast — Chuck, with the mellow remove of more than 40 years of reflection, doesn’t appear to be bitter — nor willing to delve into details.

“My recollection is, we were companions, we had a lot in common, we had a lot of fun.”

According to Girls Like Us, Joni, with the help of a male friend, took half of the belongings out of the apartment while Chuck was out of town. She’d relocate first to New York City, then to L.A.’s Laurel Canyon. With the 1968 release of Song to a Seagull, she was on her way to stardom. Chuck’s path was less spectacular. He stayed in the Verona until 1968 (the rent had spiked to $125, he recalls), when he left for Florida, then California, and Colorado. He continues to perform today and maintains a Web site (mitchellsong.com) where his music can be bought. Shortly after his father died in 1987, Chuck says he talked to Joni “amicably.” That was the last time they spoke.

Today, Joni is 65 and he’s 73, a fact that’s hard to fathom as one imagines the pair, still young, arm in arm, walking down Ferry Street, toward their Victorian apartment that was “built to survive.”

 

Joni and Chuck Mitchell’s spacious Detroit apartment was a kind of flophouse for folk musicians stopping in Detroit for performance dates in the 1960s. Instead of staying at a hotel, the artists crashed with the hospitable Mitchells. Chuck Mitchell reminisces about those years.


Hour Detroit: During stopovers in Detroit, artists such as Gordon Lightfoot, Tom Rush, and Buffy Sainte-Marie stayed at your apartment on Ferry. What are your memories of them?

Chuck Mitchell: I don't recall that Buffy visited; I do recall that Joni cornered her in the green room (a cubicle) at the Chessmate, and they hit it off. Gordon Lightfoot visited, as did Jerry Corbitt and Jesse Colin Young (of the Youngbloods).  Tom Rush, Dave Van Ronk, Bruce Langhorne, Eric Andersen, Rambling Jack Elliot — they all stayed.  There may have been more.  We were sociable.

HD: Did you and Joni play with them informally at your place?

CM: I'm sure we did, and we listened as well, because I had a terrific stereo, and people would bring their recordings, vinyl and acetate, and we'd all say, "Hey, listen to this!"  Personal-choice music was not in everybody's ears all the time back then.

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