The story behind the photo of Joni Mitchell, who turns 78 today, performing at the 1970 Mariposa Folk Festival
Though it’s hard to imagine a time when Joni Mitchell’s music was not a primary thread in the fabric of Canadian culture, back in the 1960s, she was playing coffee houses in Yorkville and local folk festivals.
Mitchell, who turns 78 today, is pictured here, photographed by the Toronto Star’s Jeff Goode, performing at the 1970 Mariposa Folk Festival on Toronto Island.
Pam Carter is president of the Mariposa Folk Foundation and coordinator of the annual festival, which is still held annually in Orillia, Ontario. Carter is the keeper of much of the festival’s rich history, and shares Mitchell’s early days as a budding musician in 1965: “The Mariposa artistic director, Estelle Klein, happened to hear her play (at a coffee house) and, although the lineup was full, invited Joni to perform.”
At that first festival, Mitchell (who went by Joni Anderson at the time) performed such now-beloved classics a “The Circle Game” and “Urge for Going.” “She impressed the audience and the artistic director,” says Carter, “playing the festival again in 1966, ’67, ’68, ’69, ’70 and ’72 as Joni Mitchell.”
Carter describes folk music of that time as “the voice of protest,” first against the Vietnam War, then evolving “as the injustices of the world evolved to messages about labour, war and social inequity.”
In keeping with its themes of justice and equity, the Mariposa Festival instituted a policy to pay all its performers the same, regardless of gender or experience. “Each artist received $175 plus expenses,” says Carter. “Artists like Joni Mitchell were being compensated at the same rate as artists such as Gordon Lightfoot.”
Sadly, this kind of progressive enlightenment didn’t always translate to the crowd. Carter says that Canadian musician Ken Whitely “recalls Joni (once) coming off of the stage in tears due to the misogynistic catcalls of the audience.”
That was likely an ugly exception to the general feeling of the festival, which epitomized the peace and love era. “From the beginning,” Carter says, “the magic of the Mariposa Folk Festival has been rooted not just in arts and music but in the vibe: the positive, welcoming energy that permeates the weekend.”
Carter says this makes the festival as relevant today as it was back in the ’60s and ’70s. “The festival has always striven for cultural inclusivity and artistic diversity,” she says, noting that Indigenous artists and international performers have been featured since the early ’60s.
Homegrown musicians like Alberta native Joni Mitchell were nurtured by Mariposa to go on to global renown. “Mariposa was known as the place for exceptional music and a free-spirited experience,” says Carter proudly. “It retains that reputation today.”