In 1971, Joni Mitchell released one of the most influential and powerfully introspective albums of all time, Blue. In a tumultuous period of her young life, learning to balance fame alongside changing personal relationships, Mitchell held nothing back. She shared an incredible vulnerability that not only tapped into the spirit of her own generation at the start of the seventies, but that also inspired generations of aspiring songwriters and musicians to follow.
Mitchell began her music career as a folk singer, but by 1968, she had written a hit single, “Both Sides Now” for Judy Collins. The song appeared on Mitchell’s 1969 album Clouds which showcased her songwriting talent and won her a Grammy for best Folk Performance. Mitchell’s early work reveals her ability to synthesize the changing landscape of the world around her into musical form with songs like “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock.” Although she never actually attended the famed festival, her song became a hit for the band Crosby Stills Nash and Young in 1970 on their landmark album Deja Vu. Around this same time, she released her second album, Ladies of the Canyon which housed both “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock. The album was an instant success in both radio play and sales.
But fame came with a price, and in the spring of 1970, Mitchell decided to take a break from touring and performance. She told Rolling Stone later that year: “I was being isolated, starting to feel like a bird in a gilded cage. I wasn’t getting a chance to meet people. A certain amount of success cuts you off in a lot of ways. You can’t move freely. I like to live, be on the streets, to be in a crowd and moving freely.”
So Mitchell turned to travel – an experience which had stimulated musical creativity for her in the past. “Big Yellow Taxi” had been composed while on vacation in Hawaii, when she looked out from her hotel room to see a paved parking lot in the midst of a literal paradise.
This new adventure took her to the island of Crete where she stayed in the hippie community of Matala, before traveling to several other European locations. It was these travels that provided the inspiration for Blue. She explained: “Blue is partly a diary. It’s me moving through a backdrop of our changing times. I was in Matala and we got beach tar on our feet and then I went to Ibiza and I went to a party down a red dirt road, then I went to Paris where it was too old and cold and everything was done. But it’s also more than a diary. It’s one chapter in the Great American Novel of my work.” Blue may just represent a moment in Mitchell’s artistic legacy, but for many listeners, it represented a profound shift in their understanding of self and the relationship to the world.
The opening song of the album, “All I Want” kicks off the storytelling of Mitchell’s travels and heartbreak. It begins:
I am on a lonely road and
I am traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling
Looking for something, what can it be
It also introduces listeners to the gentle strings of her mountain dulcimer- an instrument whose sound she introduced to many listeners. She had picked up the instrument herself at the 1969 Big Sur Folk Festival. She later reflected on her discovery: “I had never seen one played. Traditionally it’s picked with a quill, and it’s a very delicate thing that sits across your knee. The only instrument I had ever had across my knee was a bongo drum, so when I started to play the dulcimer I beat it. I just slapped it with my hands. Anyway I bought it, and I took off to Europe carrying a flute and this dulcimer because it was very light for backpacking around Europe. I wrote most of Blue on it.” Mitchell’s strumming and slapping on the dulcimer open the album and transport listeners into a sonic world that was completely her own.
If the singer-songwriter genre is founded in confessional songwriting, this album epitomizes it. Mitchell brings together powerful, poignant lyrics alongside unbelievably creative melodies and arrangements. In 1979, Mitchell reflected: “The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.”
The songs capture the fears, desires and passions of Mitchell’s experience at the turn of the seventies – her heartbreak and her love affairs. These are songs of vulnerability that express the complexities of human relationships. Mitchell doesn’t offer a black and white picture of love and relationships, but takes us through their struggles.
Her songwriting often details true experiences. The song “Carey” is about a real person – Cary Raditz, an American working as a cook at Delfini’s Cafe in Crete while she was there. Mitchell explained: “I had my dulcimer with me from the States. I used it to write “Carey” over a period of weeks in different locations in and around Matala as a birthday present for Cary. My lyric, “Oh Carey get out your cane” referred to a cane Cary carried with him all the time. He was a bit of a scene-stealer, and the cane was a theatrical prop for him.”
The song began as a birthday present, but it evolved over time. Raditz later told The Wall Street Journal that the version on Blue is similar to the one he heard in Matala, but not entirely the same. The final version sounds like a farewell to the pair’s time together, and isn’t entirely flattering to the song’s namesake. The final line of the chorus is….”Oh, you’re a mean old daddy but I like you.” Raditz admitted: “I had a nasty, aggressive character then, and I was feisty. I was always getting into fights at the taverna – probably losing more than I won. I suppose she hung around me after her friend left because she knew people wouldn’t dare come up to my cave without permission, so it was a haven for her of sorts, even though the cave was small – around 8 by 16 feet.” Raditz and Mitchell spent two months together, then traveled to Athens where they parted ways. Mitchell then flew to Paris, where she began writing another song of her experiences….”California”.
“California” begins from the vantage point of Paris, and beautifully relates Mitchells travel experiences, alongside the depth of her longing for her adopted, California home. We not only hear about Paris, but also her travels in Crete and Spain.
Raditz makes another appearance on the album through the second verse of “California” where Mitchell sings of a “red, red rogue.” However, this inclusion was more surprising to Raditz who first heard it when he visited Mitchell in LA shortly before the album’s release.He recalled: “Carey” didn’t surprise me, since I had heard it in Matala. “California,” however, was a shocker. I was taken aback that she referred to me as a “redneck on a Grecian isle.” I was from North Carolina, so my accent was strong, but I was hardly that. But look, she was just writing songs. You can’t really take these things all that seriously. And I did take her camera, as the song says, but I didn’t sell it. I gave it back to her later.”
The final verse recalls her travels to Spain, with a party down a “red dirt road” which she has said in interviews refers to a real experience. All of these verses beautifully articulate the rich experiences of Mitchell’s travels and explorations as she wrote Blue. The chorus is both relatable in its sense of longing for home, as well as a dreamy source of myth – one centered in the mystical imaginary of California.
For a young person in her twenties, it’s perhaps unsurprising that so many songs detail the tumultuous experience of love. Songs like “My Old Man,” “A Case of You,” “The Last Time I Saw Richard” and it can be tempting to explore the songs in terms of the famous relationships Mitchell had during this period (Graham Nash, Leonard Cohen and James Taylor). But doing so might miss the point.
As we saw with the travel songs, Mitchell’s songwriting is deeply personal and she pulls from real and true experiences, but they are also artistic explorations of her human experience. The personal is a way to access a universal.
In these songs we can find that universal. “My Old Man” explores a kind of “every day love” – one that feels like home. “A Case of You” beautifully weaves together the sense of pain and passion that comes with a romantic relationship. And “The Last Time I Saw Richard” watches the hopeless abandon of a romance turn to cynicism.
Mitchell explained that “The Last Time I Saw Richard” was inspired by a conversation, rather than a specific relationship: “Patrick Sky, a fellow folksinger, said to me one night in a bar in New York, ‘Oh, Joni, you’re a hopeless romantic. There’s only one way for you to go. Hopeless cynicism. And that was it. That one little nugget became that song.”
Another example of how Mitchell’s truth gets turned into a universal experience is the song “Little Green”. Many listeners are drawn to it without having any awareness of why she wrote it. Timothy Grouse even wrote about the ambiguity of the song in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971 saying: “The pretty, “poetic” lyric is dressed up in such cryptic references that it passeth all understanding.” The song does not actually come from her “Blue” period at all. It was written several years earlier, in the mid-sixties, in response to the deep sadness Mitchell felt in giving her daughter up for adoption. Knowing its origin brings clarity to the lyrics:
Child, with the child, pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed.
Little Green, have a happy ending.
But this history wasn’t revealed until 1997, meaning that for over two decades, listeners were able to connect with her very personal storytelling, without knowing the actual story.
When you listen to Blue, it’s clear that the record captures a sort of personal artistic expression that is hard to imitate. In fact, for as much as the album has influenced generations of songwriters, we don’t get many famous cover versions of the songs from this album – with the exception of “River. “River” shares the album’s tone and emotional space, but is also quite unique.
The first notes we hear are Mitchell playing a melody on the piano that is hauntingly similar to “Jingle Bells”. Her first lyrics tell us right away that it’s Christmas time. While Mitchell’s performance is certainly her own, the melody is simple and singable. Joni Mitchell’s official website lists it as her second most recorded song by other artists, and this includes major figures like Linda Ronstadt, Robert Downey Jr., Barry Manilow, Sarah McLachlan and James Taylor. Of the song, Mitchell once said with a smile: “We needed a sad Christmas song, didn’t we? In the “bah humbug” of it all?” And it is sad – the haunting piano, and the simplicity of the melody, and of course, the repetition of the line “I wish I had a river to skate away on.”
The sadness is a little ironic, however, in the larger Mitchell biography. This is because the idea of Christmas holds a powerful, inspirational memory for her. At age 9, Mitchell had contracted polio and was told she wouldn’t walk again. She desperately wanted to go home for Christmas, and under the lights of the Christmas tree in her hospital would practice her physical therapy exercises on her own – after everyone had gone to sleep, and after everyone had given up on her. The image of the Christmas tree at night thus holds a special place in her memory; she has even held onto a few of the original ornaments from the tree in her hospital room, in commemoration of her remarkable recovery.
The Christmas scene heard in “River” is not the triumph of her childhood, but the melancholic loneliness of the rest of the Blue album. And yet it captures many of those childhood images, such as the tree, and the longing to escape from a confined state. It is the genius of Mitchell that she can bring all of these images and experiences together to create sonic masterpieces in which audiences can find their own truth.
Blue was recorded at A&M studios in Hollywood. The studio building was originally built by Charlie Chaplan in 1917 on the corner of La Brea and Sunset in Hollywood as a film studio. In 1966, it was purchased by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss – converting two soundstages and Chaplin’s pool into a recording studio.
At the same time that Mitchell was recording Blue in Studio A, Carole King was recording her landmark 1971 record, Tapestry in Studio B. Mitchell was in a relationship with James Taylor during these sessions, which also coincided with the recording of his Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. There were many shared musicians and collaborations between the three albums. King recalled:
“A constant stream of singers, musicians, friends, and family flowed in and out of the recording studios along Sunset Boulevard. At A&M we commuted down the hall. Sometimes we commuted between A&M and Sunset Sound … When I wasn’t working on my own album I drove to Sunset Sound to play as a sideman and sing background on James [Taylor’s] songs … Periodically James came over to A&M to play acoustic guitar and sing background on my record. Physical proximity to me and romantic proximity to James brought Joni’s beautiful voice to both James’ and my albums.”
Taylor performed guitar on several tracks from Blue: “I remember the sessions at A&M Studios with Henry Lewy behind the glass. There was never anyone else there, just Joni, Henry and me. I played on “All I Want,” “Carey,” “California” and “A Case of You.” She had written most of those songs in the previous year or so while traveling. Maybe that’s why so many were composed on the three-string dulcimer: a nice, portable axe. Playing along with her spare dulcimer accompaniment, I was free to substitute whatever chords I felt, which was great; but of course, it was her voice and the songs themselves that make ‘Blue’ so singular.”
Drummer Russ Kunkle, performed on all three of these massive albums. His memory of the session, naturally, recalls the unique rhythmic expression of Mitchell’s playing: “Keeping time is like a heartbeat…You have to be steady, but be able to fluctuate without being abrupt. There was always a rhythmic template to Joni’s music, and she set it. She set it with what she played, or with the cadence of what she sang, or a combination of subdividing the tempo with what she was singing and the tempo of what she was playing, and they were always well matched. So, for me, what I had to do was find something that accentuated that template without being obtrusive. And that’s all I ever tried to do – just support that without getting in the way.” Also playing on the album is “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow of the Flying Burrito Brothers. Kleinow is credited with guitar and pedal steel guitar. Stephen Stills performed on bass for the album.
Mitchell produced the album herself, with Henry Lewy as the engineer. Lewy had worked with her for her two previous albums – Clouds in 1969 and Ladies of the Canyon in 1970, having met her initially, through David Crosby. Lewy explained to Music Connection in 1982: “…Crosby told me about Joni Mitchell. he said, “I know this girl and I did her first album. She’s about due to do a second album for Warner Brothers. She doesn’t need a producer; she needs an engineer who cares and who listens.” I seemed to fall in that category, so I started with Joni as sort of an engineer—not a producer.” Lewy’s patient and sensitive personality was the perfect match for Mitchell, who took a very exploratory approach to recording in the studio.
Blue was released on June 22, 1971 by Reprise Records. The album hit number 15 in the US on the Billboard 200 chart, number 9 in her native Canada on the Canadian RPM Albums Chart and Number 3 on the UK Albums Chart. The album’s single, “Carey” barely hit the Billboard Hot 100 – peaking at number 93. It’s a strong initial performance – no doubt – and reviews were equally positive….but its legacy has far outshined the album’s initial commercial success.
50 years later, it is largely viewed – by audiences, critics and especially other musicians – as one of the greatest albums of all time. In 2020, Rolling Stone rated it number 3 on their list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” In 2000 The New York Times named it one of 25 albums that represented “turning points and pinnacles in 20th century popular music.”
David Crosby recently reflected: “For me, Blue is the best singer-songwriter album. Picking a song from it is like choosing between your children. Can you imagine a better song than A Case of You? She was so brilliant as a songwriter, it crushed me. But she gives us all something to strive for.” It would be impossible to overstate the influence this album has had on generations of aspiring songwriters and musicians, alongside the influence it had on her own circle of musician friends at the turn of the seventies. In the midst of an impressive collection of phenomenal songwriters and musicians, Joni Mitchell bared her soul and brilliance with an unmatched level of honesty and abandon.
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Watch the video below to learn more about Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’!