This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of Joni Mitchell’s album Blue. Originally released in June 1971, Blue is one of my personal favourites and is widely considered one of the greatest albums of the twentieth century.
We all have those albums that transport us back to certain moments in our lives. The songs that we listened to on our first day of school or sixth form, those that we fell in love to, and those that we associate with big milestones. This album usually brings me back to a series of late night trips to the library with my friends around February of last year. While they might not seem particularly remarkable, and there wasn’t a whole lot of work done, I really miss those moments, and this album was a big part of them.
Blue is one of Joni Mitchell’s most popular albums, and appeared during the peak of her success in the late sixties and early seventies. As a contemporary of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and James Taylor, Mitchell has often found herself relegated to a footnote in discussions of these great male singer-songwriters. More books and documentaries have been made about these men than have about Mitchell, but the Canadian deserves more credit than she receives. Her lyrics match the quality of theirs, and I believe the music itself greatly surpasses that of Dylan in its sophistication.
As with her other work, the lyrics on these songs are bravely open, and, not unlike Dylan, more like poetry. Here they cover insecurity, infatuation, her European travels, and her unsuccessful relationships with Graham Nash, the famous ex, and Taylor, the heroin-addict boyfriend. The revealing nature of her lyrics surprised her fellow musicians, among them Kris Kristofferson who implored “Joni! Keep something to yourself!”
‘Little Green’ is a great example of this. Written in 1966, the song tells the story of her pregnancy at the age of twenty-one. Unable to provide for the child and faced with the stigma of young, single motherhood, Mitchell put her daughter up for adoption, and shortly after wrote the tune. Her heartbreak and desperation, and anger at the runaway father, are so expertly woven into the lyrics: “Child with a child pretending / Weary of lies you are sending home.”
‘Carey’ and ‘California’, two of the more upbeat tracks on the album, feature Mitchell on the Appalachian dulcimer, with Stephen Stills and Taylor on guitar for each. ‘California’ was the first song I heard on this album. Mitchell sings about her time in Europe, exploring France, Greece, and Spain, all while longing to return to her creative home on the West Coast. As a first year student away from home for the longest I had ever been, I really resonated with that longing for ‘home’.
The songs on this album, in particular ‘Little Green’, combine her profound lyrics with some really interesting guitar playing and clear evidence of a gifted musical brain. Throughout her career, Mitchell has used a variety of different open tunings, in part to accommodate her left hand, weakened by a bout of polio when she was nine, but also to allow her to create some really beautiful guitar parts. Suspensions and extended chords abound in her songs, which earned her the ire of jazz saxophonist, and frequent collaborator, Wayne Shorter (from Miles Davis’ band). Shorter begged her to resolve her spacy suspensions, which create an open and uncertain feeling in some of her songs, the best example of this being ‘Amelia’ from her 1976 album Hejira. Mitchell instead preferred to “move from sus chord to sus chord” and her rejection of musical norms, which dictate that one must resolve their suspensions, allowed her to forge a unique guitar style.
While on the topic of Mitchell’s work with Shorter, it is worth digressing a little to discuss how she was a fantastic collaborator. It is a testament to her talents that during the seventies and eighties she was able to attract the best musicians to her band, and that Charles Mingus wanted to work with her on what he knew would be his final project. Guitar virtuoso Larry Carlton (perhaps best known for his guitar solos on Steely Dan tunes), superstar bassist Jaco Pastorius, and jazz legends Herbie Hancock and Shorter all turned up frequently on her albums, and on tour. Mitchell deserves credit for knowing how to fuse the jazz influences of these players with her folk and pop styles, as well as affording them a degree of freedom in the studio. When telling the story of his contribution to ‘Amelia’, Carlton said that Mitchell briefly ran through the chords and structure of the tune, before leaving him to do his thing. As on ‘Amelia’, the results were always beautifully crafted songs.
Unfortunately, Mitchell is perhaps best known among my generation for the references made to her by Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson’s characters, Harry and Karen, in Love Actually. Karen tells Harry that it is Mitchell’s music that “it was Joni Mitchell that taught your cold-hearted British wife how to feel”, in response to him lamenting one of her more depressing tunes. While I agree there are some sadder tunes in Mitchell’s discography, it would not be a fair assessment to write her off as this kind of artist, and I think my generation can find something to enjoy in her music.
For those interested in exploring her music, I would recommend Blue, and a couple of others from her wider discography. The first is ‘Help Me’ (1974), the second single from her most successful album, Court and Spark. It shows how well she is able to capture relatable sentiments in her lyrics. “Help me I think I’m falling in love too fast/ It’s got me hoping for the future, and worrying about the past” are lines that perfectly sum up a feeling we’ve all experienced. The second is ‘Amelia’, a tune Mitchell wrote when driving across the country, as much an ode to road trips as it is to aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart.
I am still exploring Mitchell’s discography and with each new tune my love for her music, her lyrics, and her playing is rekindled, but I will always return to this fifty-year-old masterpiece.