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"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. 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.
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.
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 said. "As a writer, she was one of my early influences."
According to Wikipedia article: Joni Mitchell bought herself a ukulele in 1957 (she would have been around 14). She had wanted a guitar, but her mother, with rural roots herself, strongly opposed the idea because of the "hillbilly" image that she connected with the guitar. Before rock 'n' roll, the guitar in rural Canada had been mainly used in country and western music and was still widely associated with that genre. Mitchell eventually obtained a guitar, but she continued to play baritone ukulele well into the early 1960s.