The Circle Game

Album: Ladies Of The Canyon (1970)
Play Video


  • 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.

Comments: 18

  • La Zalewski from PaMy wife and her friend sang this at her daughter's wedding in 2015. The male backing vocals seem a little distracting.
  • Miles from Vancouver, CanadaHere's something else worth pointing out. The backing singers on this song are credited to the Lookout Mountain Downstairs Choir...who are in fact David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young!
  • Sharon Cicero from Ft Walton Beach FlaI cry everytime i hear this song
  • Harry from Calgary, CanadaI feel very sad when I hear this song. I am with Myles from Vancouver. I detest "Big Yellow Taxi" but LOVE this song.
  • Tc from Evanston, IlGarret that's true. She wrote "Circle Games" in response to Neil Young's "Sugar Mountain" a lament about being one year older and no longer able to go to a particular hang out with friends any longer due to the clubs(?) age limit. There is a Joni Mitchell quote about this on wikipedia under Sugar Mountain the song. I also remember hearing
    her say it on a live version of "Circle Game" years and years ago. That may be where the quote on wikipedia is taken from.
  • Miles from Vancouver, CanadaI actually prefer Joni's output after Court and Spark, but this is one of the best songs from Reprise albums and perhaps the only reason I'd listen to Ladies of the Canyon. Screw "Big Yellow Taxi"...I hate that song. "The Circle Game" is far better. (Sometimes it even makes me cry.)
  • Don from Aurora, OhWhat can one say about "The Circle Game" it has to be one of the best writing songs ever. It is a perfect example of Apollinian and Dionysian as per Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy.
  • Camille from Toronto, OhThis song has deeper significance to Joni Mitchell. In her late teens or early twenties prior to her fame, she gave birth to a daughter out of wedlock. It was a time in our nation when unwed mothers were practically shunned. No one in Joni's family knew about the baby till decades later. She gave the baby up for adoption. Read the lyrics of the Circle Game with this information in mind and it has a much deeper meaning. Joni never gave birth to another child. The older women of her family, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, had sacrificed their hopes, dreams and creativity for husbands and children, at times leading lives of hard work and drudgery. Joni wanted to rise above that and allow her creative side to develop, not just for herself but as a tribute to those women who came before her. Now at a midlife age, Joni and her daughter have reunited. Read about it more in depth in the book "Girls Like Us".
  • Andrew from Portland, OrYou know, I'd heard that Joni made the "It's better when an older person sings it" comment to someone who'd just performed Both Sides, Now. I could be wrong, though.
  • David from Youngstown, OhThis was one of the songs we sang at my fifth-grade elementary school graduation in 1977. I didn't get it at the time, but the lyrics are beautiful and so meaningful.
  • Randy from Las Vegas, NvSorry, I was wrong. Joni did write the song.
  • Randy from Las Vegas, NvAlthough Joni Mitchell did perform this song, I believe that it was written by Buffy Sainte-Marie. Buffy, like Joni was born in Canada. She was a native-american born on a Cree reservation in Qu'Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan.
  • Ivan from Dallas, TxA fairly famous female singer named Agnes Chan in Hong Kong covered this in the early seventies. The B side was Peter Paul & Mary's "Day Is Done".
  • Gary from Houston, TxAn older woman sang this at her own concert, and afterward Joni went back stage to meet with her. Without telling the woman that she was the writer, Joni said, "Wow, it sounds so much better when an older person sings it." The woman seemed offended, but Joni laughs at this now.
  • Dave from Cardiff, WalesTom Rush (best known for writing the Walker Brothers' classic "No Regrets") later covered this, and his 1989 'best of' album was named after it.
  • Garrett from Nashville, TnAnyone know if it's true that Joni wrote this about Neil Young turning twenty? (They were friends when they were unknown artists in Canada).
  • Stefanie from Rock Hill, ScBtw, I get what Jonie Mitchell meant about the song sounding better when someone older sang it. Someone who was older would probably have had more experiences and would have felt similar feelings about the subject matter this song deals with.
  • Stefanie from Rock Hill, ScThis song is beautiful! It's one of my favorites. I'm 17 years old, and I sang this in my Chorus class when our teacher let us sing any song we wanted for an extra credit grade. I had never performed any of Jonie Mitchell's songs in front of anyone, and luckily every one in class thought it was very good. I was very glad considering that I had been extremely nervous about the whole thing. One of my friends who had also heard the original said that I sounded like Jonie Mitchell. I don't know about that, but I was definitely glad to receive the compliment.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Dexys (Kevin Rowland and Jim Paterson)

Dexys (Kevin Rowland and Jim Paterson)Songwriter Interviews

"Come On Eileen" was a colossal '80s hit, but the band - far more appreciated in their native UK than stateside - released just three albums before their split. Now, Dexys is back.

"Private Eyes" - The Story Behind the Song

"Private Eyes" - The Story Behind the SongSong Writing

How a goofy detective movie, a disenchanted director and an unlikely songwriter led to one of the biggest hits in pop history.

Yacht Rock!

Yacht Rock!Song Writing

A scholarly analysis of yacht rock favorites ("Steal Away," "Baker Street"...) with a member of the leading YR cover band.

Jon Foreman of Switchfoot

Jon Foreman of SwitchfootSongwriter Interviews

Switchfoot's frontman and main songwriter on what inspires the songs and how he got the freedom to say exactly what he means.

Donald Fagen

Donald FagenSongwriter Interviews

Fagen talks about how the Steely Dan songwriting strategy has changed over the years, and explains why you don't hear many covers of their songs.

Tony Joe White

Tony Joe WhiteSongwriter Interviews

The writer of "Rainy Night in Georgia" and "Polk Salad Annie" explains how he cooks up his Louisiana swamp rock.