God, I love Gene Shay. The legendarily local godfather of folk music, the WHAT/WXPN folk show radio host, and the co-founder of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, who died from complications due to COVID-19 earlier this year, was famous for two stories. One true tale was that brought Bob Dylan to Philly in May of 1963 for a show at the Philadelphia Ethical Society before the release of Dylan’s second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” Shay paid the bard $150.00. The other was that Joni Mitchell wrote her classic song “Both Sides Now” during downtime between gigs across two nights at Sansom Street’s folk haus, The 2nd Fret.
Shay premiered her then-new tune during an acoustic performance for Shay and his listeners on the air. In both epic cases, tapes were said to have been made of the legendary moments between Shay, Dylan and Mitchell, but, they remained great stories told by a great storyteller.
Mitchell, long wary of archival activity (if it’s buried, there’s a reason) and reminiscing – to say nothing of loathing being called anything like a folk singer – has allowed her vaults to open, and the search for rarities to commence. This month, the first fruits of that most delicious and desirable treasure hunt have come forth in the Rhino label box set, Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967).
This 5-CD and digital collection feature six hours of unreleased audio recordings. Including Mitchell’s first known tape – a 1963 Canadian radio performance of the blues standard, “House Of The Rising Sun” – along with early home demos and initial live performances. Combine those with a new interview between Mitchell and film director and writer Cameron Crowe and a detailed collection of liner notes, and Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) is a must.
Where Philadelphia comes into play, and in a major way, is that full sets from her 1966 and 1967 performances at the homey The 2nd Fret, as well as recordings from her Shay-taped “Folklore” radio sessions at WHAT-FM figure prominently across whole LPs in Archives Vol. 1. Though these tapes offer the pricelessly pretty, early dawn renditions of her self-penned classics such as “The Circle Game” and “Both Sides Now,” the collection also shines a light, for the first time, on her legendary cover of Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain.”
Even if you forget the Philly stuff, the Joni box is a must. The 2nd Fret and WHAT recordings just bring it all back home.