Discovering ‘Blue’ by Joni Mitchell deserves to live alongside many other coming of age milestones for a particular kind of teenage girl: there is your first kiss, your first heartbreak, and then there is ‘Blue’. I found myself listening to the album when I was about 16-years-old – and still developing a taste for different styles – having come across the story behind ‘Little Green’ (which we’ll come to later), which I found so intriguing that I went and sourced the album it came from. When I did listen to the record, I found songs so rich, so giving, and offering so much that it felt rude not being able to somehow give something in return. So the following piece is me making some attempt at giving back, years later, in the best way I can.
The songs on ‘Blue’ were largely inspired by various relationships Mitchell had seen crumble in the years before she laid down said album; Graham Nash – of Crosby & Stills fame – was one such relationship, inspiring ‘My Old Man’ and ‘River’, while her romance with James Taylor saw her writing ‘This Flight Tonight’, ‘All I Want’, and the titular ‘Blue’. The songs ‘Carey’ and ‘California’ came together during Mitchell’s trip through Europe in the spring of 1970, the former of the two based around a holiday romance she had in Greece. The remaining three songs that make up the collection (‘All I Want’, ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ and ‘Little Green’) were composed a few years earlier but didn’t end up being recorded until 1970 with the rest of the tracks.
One of the beautiful things about the album is how distinct each song feels, their stories unique and captivating; to try and pour over each of these would require something of almost novel length, so instead we’ll stick to a few of the most compelling tracks – even if that’s a very difficult selection to make.
The background on aforementioned ‘Little Green’ is fascinating: Mitchell wrote the song in 1966, expressing the feelings she had upon placing her daughter up for adoption the previous year. She had fallen pregnant at age 20 while attending art college, and with abortion not an option, had decided that to give the child up was the only choice she had left (she concealed her pregnancy as best she could because, as she would later reflect, the shame cast upon young, unmarried and pregnant women was immense: “You have no idea what the stigma was. It was like you murdered somebody,” she said). After the birth, she was kept in the hospital for almost two weeks due to complications, which meant she had time to forge a bond with her daughter, and thus decided to rush into a marriage of convenience to keep her. The marriage (to the man it is largely accepted was the inspiration behind the last track on ‘Blue’, ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’) fell apart within a month and ultimately, Mitchell felt she had no choice but to give up her child. “Born with the moon in Cancer / Choose her a name she will answer to / Call her green and the winters cannot fade her / Call her green for the children who’ve made her / Little green, be a gypsy dancer,” she sings heartbreakingly to the gentle strum of an acoustic guitar of the girl that she named Kelly (hence the reference to green with its kelly hue). The story has a happy ending of sorts in that Mitchell was finally reunited with her daughter in 1997.
The album’s title track features a suitably haunting piano melody to accompany lyrics that touch on the subject of dark depression. “You know I’ve been to sea before / Crown and anchor me / Or let me sail away,” Mitchell begs with depression not to consume her. “Well, there’s so many sinking now / You gotta keep thinking / You can make it through these waves / Acid, booze, and ass / Needles, guns, and grass / Lots of laughs,” she offers with scorn on the bridge, seeing the hollowness of what relief these pursuits offer. “Blue, I love you,” she eventually admits, coming to terms with a sadness that will forever haunt her.
‘River’ is a bonafide classic, having been recorded by other artists some 400 plus times – mostly for Christmas albums and compilations. While the song itself isn’t about the festive season, it does open with the immortal lines, “It’s coming on Christmas / They’re cutting down trees / They’re putting up reindeer / And singing songs of joy and peace,” which, along with the twinkling piano work throughout and its echoes of ‘Jingle Bells’, invokes feelings of the winter solstice. This is no cheery tale however; instead it sees Mitchell wishing to escape the emotional ties of a bad relationship that has recently ended. “I wish I had a river so long / I would teach my feet to fly / Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on / I made my baby cry,” she tells us longingly on the chorus.
While ‘A Case of You’ may not receive as many official recordings by other artists as ‘River’ (or her most re-recorded song ‘Both Sides Now’), it has become a standard for a certain type of singer-songwriter; one who enjoys a picture painted with words in a way few other artists could ever manage. In fact, a better opening chorus surely does not exist: “Just before our love got lost you said / “I am as constant as a northern star” / And I said, “Constantly in the darkness / Where’s that at? / If you want me I’ll be in the bar”,” Mitchell sings with a weary resentment. “On the back of a cartoon coaster,” she continues, “In the blue TV screen light / I drew a map of Canada / Oh, Canada / With your face sketched on it twice.”
While ‘Blue’ may be almost 50 years old, it has a timeless quality, and the influences it has had on some of the greatest singer-songwriters that have emerged this millennium are easy to hear. One such artist is Brandi Carlile, who in October 2019 performed the entirety of ‘Blue’. Before the performance, Carlile summed up the legacy of Mitchell about as perfectly as can be done: “We didn’t live in the time of Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Beethoven,” she said, “but we live in the time of Joni Mitchell.”