The Story of... 'Both Sides Now' by Joni Mitchell

11 March 2022, 15:36

'Both Sides, Now' has been covered over a 1000 times since it was first released.
'Both Sides, Now' has been covered over a 1000 times since it was first released. Picture: Henry Diltz/Reprise

By Thomas Curtis-Horsfall

'Both Sides, Now' is undoubtedly one of Joni Mitchell's most beloved songs.

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Heart-breaking and at the same time enduringly hopeful, it was the song that ultimately started the career of a once-in-a-generation talent.

But who wrote the song? What's its legacy? Has anyone else covered it?

Here's all you need to know about Joni Mitchell's beautiful song:

Who wrote ‘Both Sides, Now’?

It was in fact Joni Mitchell that wrote 'Both Sides, Now' at the tender age of just 23, and would be the first hit she wrote.

That was despite the fact that the song was originally released by folk musician Judy Collins in 1967, as Joni wasn't a recognised performer so instead settled for writing songs for other artists.

Collins would go on to win the Grammy Award in 1969 for Best Folk Performance and 'Both Sides, Now' is widely regarded as her signature song, but she gave Joni her due by helping her launch her own career as a musician.

Joni cited Judy Collins as a major influence and was thrilled she chose to record a song she'd written.

Collins continued to support Joni, introducing a then-unknown Mitchell during her set at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, which she remained grateful for.

What inspired the song?

Joni Mitchell performing on The Johnny Cash Show in 1969. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)
Joni Mitchell performing on The Johnny Cash Show in 1969. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images). Picture: Getty

Joni had been struggling during the period she wrote the lyrics to 'Both Sides, Now', as she had recently given birth to a baby girl but was left by the father to bring her daughter up as a single parent.

Not being able to sufficiently provide for her baby as a young, single mother, Joni gave up her daughter for adoption, a distressing experience that remained private for the majority of her career.

After wedding musician Chuck Mitchell in the same year, their marriage would soon dissolve which started a dark period for Joni. Though, it provided the primary source of her inspiration.

Talking about the moment she began to pen her first song, Joni recalled: "I was reading Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King on a plane and early in the book Henderson the Rain King is also up in a plane. He's on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds."

"I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song. I had no idea that the song would become as popular as it did."

When was it released?

Joni Mitchell's first rendition of 'Both Sides, Now' featured on her 1969 album Clouds.
Joni Mitchell's first rendition of 'Both Sides, Now' featured on her 1969 album Clouds. Picture: Reprise

The song first hit airwaves when Judy Collins included it on her album Wildflowers in 1967. She would release 'Both Sides, Now' as a single the following year.

In 1969, Joni released the song herself on her sophomore album titled Clouds, which was drawn from the lyrics of 'Both Sides, Now' itself.

How did it perform in the charts?

Judy Collins' version made its way to No.8 on the US Billboard Charts, and to No.14 in the UK charts.

Joni's subsequent rendition would not chart at all, even though it has since become one of the most influential songs she's ever written.

What is the song's legacy?

The reputation of 'Both Sides, Now' was rejuvenated somewhat after Mitchell re-recorded an orchestral version in 2000 which was mainly comprised of jazz standards.

Singer Nichole Nordeman spoke about the song's influence on her, saying that it is "the perfect portrait of what it means to understand love when you are young and hopeful and naive, and then again when you are wise and weathered. From both sides."

"In rather beautiful irony, she recorded the original song in her 20s as a new artist and made it a hit, and then again in her 50s, when she had really lived the lyric. I like it better when older Joni sings it. Full of grit and nicotine and hard living, the regret and tenderness is what makes it more believable the second time around."

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page was deeply affected by the song, saying in 1975 that he interpreted the lyrics "now old friends are acting strange, they shake their heads, they say I've changed," as being about celebrities losing all their old friends once they become famous.

Where have I heard the song before?

One of the most notable inclusions of 'Both Sides, Now' in film is in Love Actually, during the heart-wrenching scene where Emma Thompson's character discovers that her husband played by Alan Rickman is having an affair.

Love Actually's director Richard Curtis said the song was so moving, "especially by the fact that it was written by a 23-year-old yet is so suitable for a woman who's had the whole of life's experience."

It was also played during the final episode of Season 3 of Ricky Gervais' Afterlife when he walks into the distance holding his wife's hand before they both fade.

Collins' version has featured in Mad Men, You've Got Mail, and Steve Jobs.

Has anyone else recorded ‘Both Sides, Now’?

'Both Sides, Now' is considered a timeless classic, and is Joni Mitchell's most covered song with over 1000 other versions recorded.

Luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, Herbie Hancock, Bing Crosby, Seal, Willie Nelson, and Susan Boyle have all recorded cover versions throughout the years.

Dolly Parton even recorded a version with Judy Collins (and Rhonda Vincent) for her covers album, Those Were The Days, in 2005.