In this poetic song, Joni Mitchell tells the story of a child's journey to adulthood. She uses a carousel as a metaphor for the years that go by, pointing out how we can look back, but we can't return to our past.
The song opens with the young boy enjoying the wonder of youth, but looking forward to getting older. In the second verse, he is 16 and driving. The final verse finds him at 20, with his dreams tempered a bit, but still with high hopes for his future.
This was partly written in response to Neil Young's song about lost innocence, "Sugar Mountain
," where Young sings, "You can't be 20 on Sugar Mountain." Mitchell's last verse is a rejoinder of sorts, with the 20-year-old facing diminished dreams but still with plenty of hope.
Young and Mitchell are both from Canada and met in the mid-'60s.
"The Circle Game" dates back to 1967, when Joni Mitchell wrote it and Buffy Sainte-Marie
became the first to record it, including the song on her album Fire & Fleet & Candlelight
. Soon after, Sainte-Marie's manager Elliot Roberts took on Joni Mitchell as a client after seeing her perform. Roberts got Mitchell a record deal with Reprise in 1968; her solo career took off and she became one of most acclaimed singer-songwriters of her generation.
The folk singer Tom Rush recorded this song, making it the title track of his 1968 album, which also included songs written by the soon-to-be-famous Jackson Browne and James Taylor. This was a breakthrough for Mitchell, who spent much of 1967 performing in Philadelphia and Toronto as she built up her career. Rush saw her perform in Detroit that year, and recorded "The Circle Game" along with two other Mitchell compositions for the album: "Urge For Going" and "Tin Angel."
Mitchell's version wasn't released until 1970 when it appeared on her album Ladies Of The Canyon, but she had been playing it for years at her concerts. The song got a lot of attention when she performed it at The Troubadour in Los Angeles at a series of shows in the summer of 1968.
Although it was never a big hit, this became one of Mitchell's most popular songs. Later in her career, she left it off the set lists at most of her concerts because she wanted to play songs that weren't as well known to her fans.
In a 1994 interview with Mojo, Mitchell said: "I didn't write 'Circle Game' as a children's song, but I'm very pleased to see it go into the culture in that way."
The line "The painted ponies go up and down" gave David Clayton-Thomas the idea for the lyric "Ride a painted pony let the spinnin' wheel spin" in the Blood, Sweat & Tears hit "Spinning Wheel
"I've always been a huge Joni Mitchell fan," he told us. "As a writer, she was one of my early influences."
This is one of Mitchell's most-covered songs, with over 200 artists recording it. Among them: Steven Curtis Chapman, Ian McCulloch
and Harry Belafonte.
Buffy Sainte-Marie's version plays at the beginning of the 1970 movie The Strawberry Statement. When the film was released, the song was issued as a single, charting at #109 in the US (this was the only version of the song to chart).
The Hollies had a hit in 1967 - the same year Mitchell wrote "The Circle Game" - with "On A Carousel
," which uses the same imagery to describe the stages of a romance. That song was co-written and sung by Graham Nash, who would become a big part of Mitchell's life two years later when they moved in together, shacking up in a very, very, very fine house
The Buffy Sainte-Marie version is included on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood (2019). It plays as Sharon Tate drives through Hollywood.