Joni Mitchell receives rightful praise for her lofty soprano and confessional songwriting. Early on in her life, though, her performances were not always well received. She explained that her first audience was openly hostile to her performance. She shared how they reacted and why it didn’t hurt her feelings.

Joni Mitchell spent time in the hospital as a child

When Mitchell was nine years old, she spent time in the hospital following a polio diagnosis. The hospital was a hundred miles from her home, and her parents hardly visited. On the only time Mitchell’s mother came, “she brought me that little Christmas tree and left. My father never came to visit me when I was in the hospital.”

While there, a doctor who was in a wheelchair himself implied to Mitchell that she would never walk again. She attempted to teach herself in order to get home for Christmas.

“In the meantime, I was stuck there with Christmas coming on,” she explained in the book Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words by Malka Marom.

Her first audience wasn’t receptive to her singing

Because polio was so contagious, Mitchell had to stay outside the actual hospital.

“I was sharing a room in this trailer annex that was outside the hospital because we were so contagious, with a six-year-old boy who was very sullen and picked his nose all the time,” Mitchell explained.

She shared that the dynamic between herself and her roommate was tense, sometimes because of the way adults treated them.

“On this particular day, they had given me some kind of therapy and left me sitting up at the edge of the bed, all kind of warped with my paralyzed legs dangling over the edge,” she said. “A nun had rushed in and called me a ‘shameless hussy,’ and pushed me to the back and covered my legs. And I thought, ‘I’m nine and he’s six. What’s wrong with my legs?”

Because of their limited interactions, Mitchell filled her day by singing Christmas carols. Her roommate wasn’t exactly receptive to the songs.

“He picked his nose and told me to shut up. ‘SHUT UP!’ he kept saying,” Mitchell shared, joking, “That was my first audience, right?”

Joni Mitchell played for another difficult crowd years later

Years later, once Mitchell had established herself as a musician, she had another difficult audience, though this one was more challenging to deal with. In a performance at England’s Isle of Wight Festival, Mitchell got off to a musical false start, playing a portion of a song before abruptly ending and starting another.

A man in the front row soon required medical attention, and one of Mitchell’s acquaintances attempted to take the microphone from her to decry commercialism in music. It was “a bit of a disaster,” as Mitchell later told NPR.

On the verge of tears, Mitchell eventually paused to tell off the crowd.

“Give us some respect!” she commanded at the end of a brief speech. Luckily, the crowd was eventually more receptive to her music than her young roommate.

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