On September 3rd, 1970, Joni Mitchell stopped by the BBC’s Television Centre in London to perform for the premiere of their In Concert series. She would play songs from previous albums, including “Cactus Tree” from her 1968 David Crosby–produced debut and “Chelsea Morning” from Clouds, but the majority of her 11-song set came from her then-new album, Ladies of the Canyon, released 50 years ago this month.
With tracks like “Big Yellow Taxi” and “The Circle Game” — the latter her response to Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain” — Ladies of the Canyon marked Mitchell’s first platinum record. It was also her first to feature the piano, an instrument she’d use to produce warm, introspective songs less than a year later on Blue.
Side Two of the album is packed with well-known gems, including “Woodstock,” a song that captures the historic 1969 festival that she famously didn’t attend. “To be young and to have missed that … that was everything to me,” she told MTV News in 1998. “But I guess it was meant for a reason. I just sat in front of the TV and wrote most of the song in the first few days of the festival, and it was done by Sunday night.”
But Side One is more lighthearted, with the wide-eyed opener “Morning Morgantown” and “Willy,” her ode to her former lover, Graham Nash. “For Free,” which you can hear in the clip above, features a more lyrically driven narrative about a street musician in Manhattan.
“I slept last night in a good hotel,” Mitchell sings in the song’s opening lines, her fingers making graceful contact with the piano keys. “I went shopping today for jewels,” she says, stretching out the word into jewwellls to make it rhyme. She smiles at the camera, nervously getting through each line.
When introducing “For Free” in 1969, Mitchell described the origin of the track. “Now, New York is an amazing city and every time I go there, I write a story,” she said. “Here’s another story that’s about a New York street musician who played real good for free and that’s the name of the song, ‘He Played Real Good for Free,’ and it’s in a kind of a Gene Autry country and western riff. Funky Gene Autry, of course.”
In the 50 years since its release, “For Free” has been covered by Mitchell’s peers, from Crosby to James Taylor. It’s also been recently introduced to an entirely new generation by Lana Del Rey, who covered it several times on her 2019 tour, including a witchy rendition with Weyes Blood and Zela Day. But as with most of Mitchell’s catalogue, nothing is as captivating as when she sings it herself, alone with her piano.