Joni Mitchell 1974
Photo: Paul C. Babin / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication

Joni Mitchell Became Music’s Lucky One with ‘Blue’ 50 Years Ago

Joni Mitchell’s Blue, included in the recently released The Reprise Albums collection, paved the way for future autobiographical singer-songwriters.

Joni Mitchell
22 June 1971
The Reprise Albums (1968-1971)
Joni Mitchell
7 April 2021

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Joni Mitchell‘s fourth LP, Blue, Rhino Records are releasing The Reprise Albums (1968-1967), a remastered compilation of her first four albums. “The original mix was atrocious,” Mitchell admits of her first studio record, 1968’s Song to a Seagull, “So, I fixed it!” Mitchell worked with Matt Lee to personally oversee the remastering of her debut (while producer Bernie Grundman oversaw the project as a whole).

The Reprise Albums (1968-1971) follows the first release in Mitchell’s new archive series, Joni Mitchell Archives- Vol. One: The Early Years (1963-1967), from 2020; it compiles rare live performances from the early years of her career, including renditions of songs that would later become hits, unreleased songs, and covers of folk classics such as “Molly Malone”.

Many of these performances took place in her hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, with brief introductions by a young Mitchell. “I’ve written a couple of new songs since you were out here last, and I think you’ll like this one especially,” she says of “Urge for Going”, a song that would pop up at odd places throughout her career. After Tom Rush covered it in 1966—gaining Mitchell name recognition in folk circles—she would release it as a B-side for “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” in 1972. She would later include it on her 1992 Hits album.

Although it’s a reprise of her previous albums, the title of The Reprise Albums (1968-1967) is quite literal, as it’s comprised of her first four LPs with Reprise Records. After moving over to Asylum Records in 1972, she returned to Reprise in 1994 and then left again in 2002, saying, “I’m quitting this corrupt cesspool”. Her chafing with record label executives encapsulated how Mitchell was both ahead of her time and indicative of it.

Big Yellow Taxi”, from 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon, championed environmental activism and became a hit for Counting Crows on their 2002 album, Hard Candy, which peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Hey, farmer, farmer / Put away that DDT now”, Mitchell writes in the second verse (two years before the Environmental Protection Agency issued a cancellation order on the chemical). However, pesticides are still widely used in agriculture today, with many countries still allowing DDT. We, as a society, should take her advice.

Mitchell never shied away from activism in her music; for example, she criticized the Vietnam War on “The Fiddle and the Drum” from 1969’s Clouds: “Oh, America, my friend / Once again, you are fighting us all”, she sings. She would revisit her anti-war sentiments three years later, on Blue hit “California”: “Sitting in a park in Paris, France / Reading the news and it sure looks bad / They won’t give peace a chance”.

Mitchell also astutely observed the perils of domesticity on The Reprise Albums. Before the release of her debut, she had already survived childhood polio, given up a child for adoption, and been through a divorce. So, she watched warily as many of her peers hurled themselves into domesticity in their late 20s. Mitchell turned down a marriage proposal from Graham Nash during her late 20s, subsequently traveling through Europe (an experience that later inspired two hits: “Carey” and “California”).

Of the former, Graham Nash recently confessed, “I didn’t enjoy ‘Carey.’ It’s not fun to have your old lady off on some Greek island with another man”. But who wouldn’t choose a Greek island over “The Arrangement”? On her 1970 song of that name, later featured on her 1992 Misses album, Mitchell speaks of a couple who “could have been more / Than a name on the door / Of the thirty-third floor . . . more than a credit card / Swimming pool in the backyard”.

On “The Last Time I Saw Richard”, she tells the story of a former lover who “married a figure skater / And he bought her… a coffee percolator/ And he drinks at home most nights with the TV on”. Wise and cautious, Mitchell saw that domesticity is an arrangement that can squash individuality. Instead of choosing that life, she chose a life of freedom and self-examination (although she felt blue for most of it).

In 2000, Mitchell told the Toronto Globe and Mail that she sees herself as a “painter derailed by circumstance”. However, it’s hard to think of another singer-songwriter as talented as she who views music as their main passion. Mitchell’s self-identification as a painter first puts her immense musical talent in context: she plays her own instruments, is listed as the main or sole producer on all her songs, writes her own lyrics, and experiments with many different musical styles, creating one of the most diverse and prolific catalogs in music history. She also painted several of her own album covers, including the piercing self-portrait on the cover of Clouds. Although the painting features a striking sunset over a landscape of rolling hills, lakes, and a distant castle, Mitchell is unabashedly the center in front of the sun.

Today’s pop music bears little similarity to Mitchell’s early folk albums, which, aside from Court and Spark (1974), were her most commercially successful. It’s hard to imagine a mainstream artist today singing, “Varnished weeds in window jars / Tarnished beads on tapestries” (“Tin Angel”), let alone painting their own album covers. “They’re not looking for talent”, Mitchell told W magazine in 2002. “They’re looking for someone with a certain look and willingness to cooperate.”

Taylor Swift, one of Mitchell’s most visible modern protégés, emerged into this capitalist art market. Although Swift certainly fit the superficial parameters of the country music industry—and pop music as a whole, as Mitchell outlined—she brought authenticity that contrasted her mid-to-late 2000s peers. Her singer-songwriter earnestness resonated with listeners who appreciated that she, quite literally, “shares [her] diary” with the world. Conversely, 00’s peers such as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry thrived on the extravagance of their personas. Beyoncé channeled herself through a stage persona, Sasha Fierce; Lady Gaga wore a meat dress to the VMAs; and Katy Perry shot whipped cream from her breasts in the “California Girls” music video.

During the 1970s, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell were mainstream, even though their songs were often down-tempo, acoustic, and full of philosophical musings (a far cry from popular music in the 2010s). However, Swift might signal a resurgence of the singer-songwriter era. Many critics point to Swift’s failings as a songwriter—such as her reliance on clichés and her willingness to court radio and stadium pop—as reasons for why she should rank lower than the Laurel Canyon crowd in terms of her songwriting. However, both folklore (2020) and evermore (2020)—Swift’s most recent albums, made in isolation during the pandemic—reveal a contemplative, storytelling-oriented songwriter lurked beneath a hitmaker for the last decade.

That storyteller wasn’t always so hidden. During an interview promoting her fourth album, Red (2012), Swift cited Joni Mitchell’s Blue as her favorite album of all time. Although this makes sense (given that Red and Blue are both breakup albums named after a color), it’s interesting that Swift would mention Blue during a press interview for Red for several reasons.

First, she might have just wanted to invite the comparison. (I have to get that one out of the way.) Second, both Blue and Red are their fourth studio records. Third, both are known canonically as the “true breakup albums” for their respective singers. (“Every other album has flickers of different things”, Swift said of the rest of her discography to Rolling Stone.)

For a songwriter as prolific and detailed as Mitchell, the title Blue might seem simplistic. The comparison is obvious: she was feeling blue. But Mitchell strings this motif throughout the album to show why a heartbreak so strong would manifest in a singular concept. The lack of complexity in the titular motif represents the debilitating nature of the heartbreak. However, she shows its many shades throughout the record. On the title track, she addresses her muse as “Hey, blue”, and on “All I Want”, she reminds her muse they “give each other the blues”.

Despite her pop tendencies, Swift might also seem like someone for whom a single color is too simple for an album’s theme. After all, Red is her most prolific album. (Save for her recent pandemic albums.) However, Swift begets the color red throughout Red to paint a holistic portrait of her heartbreak that, like Mitchell’s Blue, captures the good and bad. “We learn to live with the pain / Mosaic broken hearts”, Taylor croons on album opener “State of Grace”, foreshadowing the pain and beauty that would color the album.

Taylor Swift is the version of Joni Mitchell that we get in today’s pop music landscape, where radio play, streams, and dance-floor suitability determine trends. (That’s quietly changing, however). Even though Swift’s use of detail often begets ubiquitous images in American culture (“She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers,” she sings on “You Belong with Me”), as a musician, she’s simply more pop-oriented than Mitchell. Whether or not that was a natural disposition or something contrived to suit her record label’s demands (which it might have been, considering she veered from it as soon as the pandemic hit), we’ll never know.

Mitchell famously feuded with her various record labels. She wrote the 1974 hit “Free Man in Paris” from the perspective of Asylum Records president David Geffen, with whom she frequently disagreed. In the song’s chorus—“I’d go back there tomorrow but for the work I’ve taken on / Courting the star-maker machine behind the popular song”— Mitchell acknowledges the capitalist machinations behind music stardom that she would later call out. She caps off the chorus with, “Nobody was calling me up for favors / No one’s future to decide”. Mitchell herself, however, would certainly be the architect of her own future.

Taylor Swift’s 2012 song “The Lucky One” is rumored to be about Mitchell. “And they tell you now you’re the lucky one,” says Swift, addressing the song’s subject: a rising star. However, by the end of it, she reveals the real reason she believes the song’s subject to be lucky. After mentioning that the subject “chose the rose garden over Madison Square,” Swift concludes, “Now my name is up in lights / But I think you got it right / Let me tell you now you’re the lucky one.”

Mitchell never seemed interested in commercial success. After feeling overwhelmed by fame, she retreated into the British Columbia wilderness. “I was not happy with the mass public attention, and I withdrew,” she revealed in an archived interview recently posted to her Instagram. “My soul was recovering, repairing itself.” That recovery process is essential for artists. Swift, after a massive public relations debacle in 2016, took a year-long hiatus. Now, instead of penning autobiographical songs, she writes fictional tales reminiscent of Mitchell’s earliest work. Speaking of her recent folk-inspired work, Swift said she was happy to avoid “loading a cannon of clickbait”.

However, Mitchell enabled Swift to load that cannon of clickbait, to begin with. Although she initially received backlash, Swift’s ability to begin her career writing autobiographical songs relied on the space cleared by Mitchell’s Blue (which is largely rumored to be about famous male musicians such as James Taylor, Graham Nash, and Leonard Cohen).

Mitchell’s unapologetic rendering of romantic tales about widely-known men sent shock waves through the music industry at the time. Summarizing the response in a recent interview, Mitchell says, “The initial response I got was critical, mostly from the male singer-songwriters. They were afraid. Is this contagious? Do we all have to get this honest now?” But, she adds, “Like all of my albums, Blue came out of the shoot with a whimper. It didn’t really take off until later.” Like most geniuses, Mitchell was not appreciated during her time for the risks that she took in her work; yet, she proved to her critics that she was indeed the lucky one.