Take One: Joni Mitchell – “Urge for Going”

by | Sep 1, 2023 | 0 comments

Prior to the release of her debut record in 1968, Song for a Seagull, Joni Mitchell worked the coffee shops and night clubs of Saskatoon and it’s surrounding areas. She was a Canadian artist who fashioned herself a folkie after Joan Baez and Judy Collins, and sang only as a hobby. Her love was painting and singing was fun.

Joni discovered her musical acumen in 1964. In 1965 she had a child. Later in the same year she gave up her child for adoption. The life struggles she encountered at this time were life changing and painful, but they also informed her growth as a musician.

Joni referred to herself  uring this time as “disturbed,” and composed insightful songs about her experiences. “Both Sides Now,” “Little Green,” and the subject of this rock room rant, “Urge For Going,” are some of the early songs she wrote while  growing up and struggling with the realities of adulthood.
Joni left Canada, and moved to the United States in order to see if she could make a career out of singing. Soon after arriving in America Joni met musician Tom Rush who instantly fell in love with her evolving catalog of songs. Rush cut Joni’s tune, “Urge for Going” as a single in 1966. He  eventually ended up cutting a few songs from Joni’s early composition notebook, including “Tin Angel,” and “Circle Game, which he would use as the title of his 1968 LP.”

The first Joni appearance of “Urge for Going,” on tape comes from the Joni Mitchell Archive Collection. Captured around the time Rush first heard the song, the 1965 Myrtle Anderson Birthday tape was recorded at a Detroit house party in early 1965. The song’s melody is fully intact, yet Joni’s voice is obviously far from its full maturity. It’s played in a standard tuning, and the tune’s lyrical rhythm brushes lightly against the corners traditional British folk.
What instantly made the song a cornerstone of Joni’s early repertoire is the fully mature lyric which connects seasons, the passing of time, and humans innate longing for someplace that they can call home. Joni uses effective metaphor, and the natural cycle of the season as a canvass for expressing human emotion. Joni sings of winter’s chilly force of hand and how the trusting warmth of the sun becomes the bearer of bad news as it adjusts its gaze. There is disappointment in decay, but there is also the hope for rebirth. But what is worse, getting the urge, or never going, regret or hopefulness?  Joni expresses a deep far-sickness in the song, the German’s call it, “Fernweh.”.
In order to help promote the Tom Rush version, Joni shot a promotional film in August of 1966 in front of a raging river on the Canadian television show Mon Pay, Mes Chanson.  The show captured Canadian artists in their natural environment. Joni’s performance of “Urge for Going” is perfectly placed against a stunning backdrop of majestic mountains.
An early live reading from November 1966 comes from the 2nd Fret in Philadelphia, PA and is also featured on the Joni Mitchell Archive Volume 1. The tape reel is crystalline, and Joni’s voice emits a bird song warble, attributed both to youth and an affinity to Joan Baez. Joni’s guitar picking and her vocals act as one instrument, a pressed flower between lyrical pages.Tom Rush had just released his version of the song and Joni had added it to her sets at the time because in her words, “I like to plug it because I get royalties on the song of course.”

George Hamilton IV, a square country singer heard Rush’s version and decided to cover it himself on his album Folksy. Hamilton took his own interpretation into the top ten of the country charts with a thick drawl and some spoken narration.
An additional live version from Joni that traces the growth of the song is featured on the Joni Mitchell Archives, and comes from a performance at the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, MI, October 27, 1967.On this live take, the song has found its perfect tempo through recitation. Joni’s vocals bide their time investigating the landscape and looking for pastoral avenues of escape. She sees herself in each blade of dying grass and every winging bird. Her voice a reassuring narrator, crooning contemplatively.

Joni continued to mature the song in concert, and the version from Carnegie Hall on February 1, 1969 may be the definitive reading. It is available on the Joni Mitchell Archives Volume 2. While she puts her guitar back into standard tuning, Joni quips, “It’s a long way from rom Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Carnegie Hall.” She then explains that the song is about winters in Saskatoon and plays a perfectly rendered version.
The next time that “Urge for Going” made an appearance, was in the studio during sessions for Joni’s seminal 1971 album, Blue. Joni cut an acoustic version in consideration for the album and then cut a version with overdubbed strings that would also remain unreleased at the time.
The attempts on the song that Joni cut for Blue are a culmination of its journey. A straight acoustic reading and a haunted opening, colored on its deckled edges with the ink of the Blue sessions. Joni sings the song with sweet intelligence and soft hindsight. She had finally found her way inside the song and could sing it more convincingly than anyone.
On the version overdubbed with strings, which was recently released in celebration of Blue’s 50th anniversary, the orchestration is transparent, fading into the finger picked navy of Joni’s lacy guitar lines. The strings only come into full focus on the third verse with the “warriors of winter,” line lending an emotive swell to the already chilling verses.
In the end, neither of the versions made the final cut. The song floated aimlessly, spreading its melodic wealth wherever and by whomever it was played but never settled down. Joni realized she needed to take ownership of the tune and placed the version (minus the strings) on the B side of her 1972 single, “Turn Me on I’m a Radio.” The song would be the only non-album B side of her entire career, but “Urge for Going” finally had a place in Joni’s own discography.
Recorded on the same day the Blue was released, June 22, 1971, Joni’s close friends David Crosby and Graham Nash cut their own version of “Urge for Going” that is a stone rubbing of Mitchell’s original intent. Intended as a single for Crosby and Nash, the song drifts in on a woody breeze and moves through like a 1966 Byrds cut.For reasons unknown David and Graham never released their attempt on the song either. But, their smooth swapping of the verses and their affinity for Joni make the version another special chapter in the life of the track.

Many years later, it a typically Joni move, she placed the 1972 single version of the song as the opening track of her 1996 Hits collection. A deserving move for the long traveled song.“Urge for Going,” has had interesting journey as well as an extended shelf life. The song was responsible for drawing attention to Joni as a songwriter and acted a stepping stone for her move to becoming a serious musician. It’s mysterious and multifaceted melody and lyric represent a vital era of Mitchell’s creative journey.


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