50 Years of Blue
June 22, 2021 3:17 AM   Subscribe

On the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Joni Mitchell's Blue, the NYT talks to 25 musicians about the work countless critics have pointed to as a definitive masterpiece of the confessional singer-songwriter album.

In 1970, Joni Mitchell's career was on a definite upswing. Her second album, Clouds, had been well received and Ladies of the Canyon, her third album, had earned major FM radio play and delivered her first gold record. It was, perhaps, surprising then for Mitchell to put a halt to performing in spring of 1970 and leave the Laurel Canyon scene that had inspired Ladies of the Canyon in order to travel to Europe.

After returning, she entered the studio and with help from James Taylor, Stephen Stills, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Russ Kunkel and engineer Henry Lewy, eventually emerged with an album of ten remarkable tracks, all written and produced by Mitchell.

Released on June 22nd, 1971, Blue was a major step forward in Mitchell's work. With many of the songs dealing with complex emotional entanglements - homesickness, the end of a relationship, a lover's substance abuse, disillusionment, and even the years-earlier surrender of her child for adoption - the writing lays bare Mitchell's emotional state. Commenting on the album several years later, Mitchell is quoted as having said "At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes." Legend has it that Kris Kristofferson, on hearing the album for the first time, commented "Joni! Keep something to yourself!"

One might expect such an album to be heavy and depressing but somehow it's not. The album's piano-driven, lyrically-brilliant closer The Last Time I Saw Richard ends somewhat ambivalently - one isn't quite sure whether the narrator of the song is being hopeful or bitterly sarcastic with the album's last line "Only a phase, these dark cafe days," but whether the narrator knows it or not, Mitchell's future was bright and her creative star barely begun to rise. In the wake of Blue Mitchell achieved her greatest period of commercial success with Court and Spark then followed her muse in new creative directions as she moved from folk into her jazz period. But probably there can only be one Blue in a career.
posted by Nerd of the North (48 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

A-and Spotify has "Blue 50," 5 outtakes from the Blue sessions
posted by chavenet at 5:40 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]

Blue blue?
posted by grateful at 5:50 AM on June 22 [7 favorites]

Pretty much everything Mitchell released during the first decade of her career is some kind of masterpiece (although I've never listened to Don Juan's Reckless Daughter).
posted by The Card Cheat at 6:53 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]

I am personally very thankful that she didn't take Kristofferson's advice. Her transparency is a gift to listeners. This album contains so many of my favorite lyrics ever. Particularly the little gem "I want to shampoo you" from the track All I Want. My very favorite thing she ever created was her collaboration with Charles Mingus, but I love her whole catalog. Thanks for this post, love it.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 6:56 AM on June 22 [3 favorites]

The Joni biography movie is excellent. Previously.
posted by hypnogogue at 7:10 AM on June 22 [3 favorites]

I had thought that something as perfect as the lyric that opens A Case of You must surely arrive fully formed, but from the demos released yesterday, that is apparently not the case. What a talent.
posted by robself at 7:17 AM on June 22 [7 favorites]

*looks at title* wait a minute... metafilter hasn't been around that long
posted by zsh2v1 at 7:24 AM on June 22 [6 favorites]

Brandi Carlile was on Colbert a month or two ago, and described performing “Blue” for Joni Mitchell (at one point describing Mitchell as crying while holding Elton John’s hand). She performed a a bit of “Case of You’ as part of the interview.
posted by MrGuilt at 7:35 AM on June 22 [2 favorites]

The Last Time I Saw Richard ends somewhat ambivalently - one isn't quite sure whether the narrator of the song is being hopeful or bitterly sarcastic with the album's last line "Only a phase, these dark cafe days,"

No no no. There is no ambivalence here. My 15 year old self saw this as a beacon of hope. A beautiful song in a perfect album.
posted by bluesky43 at 7:38 AM on June 22 [2 favorites]

The Guardian also has interviews with musicians about their favourite Blue tracks. An amazing talent, an incredible album.
posted by YoungStencil at 7:39 AM on June 22 [4 favorites]

It's kind of weird to read that Guardian article and see some of the musicians saying things like, "Oh, yeah- I was there when she wrote that," or "Yeah, that one's about me."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:47 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]

Rufus Wainwright sings "Blue" at Joni Mitchell's 75th Birthday Celebration
posted by Lanark at 7:54 AM on June 22

The only problem with Blue, for me, is that it’s perfect. Every once in a while an artwork is perfect and it leaves me wanting to hear absolutely no more from that artist, because what else could happen? Especially when the perfection is in the form of a question mark, which Blue is, because it will happily exist in its own space forever. I do love Court and Spark and I’m glad she carried on, but Blue really closes out the conversation — blows out the candle, as it were.
posted by argybarg at 8:01 AM on June 22 [3 favorites]

This record is one of the treasures of my life, I've been listening to it since I was a grubby kid. We had Ladies of the Canyon, too, but not any of the others. I have had to find Hejira and Court and Spark and Hissing of Summer Lawns for myself.

I am always glad to hear how much Joni overawed all the men in her life with her absolute musicianship. She is my parents' contemporary and it was so fucking hard to be a woman artist, even once you had kicked over the traces and run off to the commune. They all still expected to be catered to, the men you were sleeping with or making stuff with. She has a steel core.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 8:09 AM on June 22 [6 favorites]

Corinne Bailey Rae: I wasn’t used to being stabbed by a song.

In that sense, the knife-work on this album is unparalleled.

(I love all the guys being like, "Oh, yeah, that songs about me..." (except for J.Taylor who's like, "Uh, it's a song, its fiction...") - yet another life goal, don't be that kind of guy)

As a song cycle, they are as grand and beautiful and bonkers as Schubert. I fucking love that album.
posted by From Bklyn at 8:17 AM on June 22 [5 favorites]

growing up Canadian means I got a lot of exposure to Joni Mitchell in my formative years even on pop radio, her stuff proving some of the most cool and sophisticated available. And I came to quite like it. But I'd be lying if I didn't rate Nazareth's take on This Flight Tonight as my fave at the time.
posted by philip-random at 9:17 AM on June 22 [5 favorites]

I remember reading a very positive mention of Blue in Time magazine that really impressed my 13-year-old self.

If you like folk music, you should watch Echo in the Canyon on Netflix.
posted by Bee'sWing at 10:24 AM on June 22 [2 favorites]

I feel heavy the ambivalence in The Last Time I Saw Richard. The musical move at the end, especially, the soaring "get my goooorgeous wings and fly away", full of promise; then followed by the suspension and tension of "only a phase / these dark cafe days". The poet tells Richard's story so well, so biting, but still here she is still, alone in a cafe.

It's one of my faves on the record, partly because I hear it as the beginning of the next phase for her, an older, wiser (and often wordier) look at her world.

I am SO thrilled they're going into the archives and releasing stuff — I'm frankly itchy thinking about the next rounds, as we get to the eras of Court and Spark through Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. SO. MUCH. GOLD.
posted by wemayfreeze at 10:25 AM on June 22 [2 favorites]

I have this album on vinyl. I also have the cd, and I seldom re-purchase music. Blue is the soundtrack to my youth.
posted by theora55 at 10:28 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]

Blue was my light on the road to Damascus. Joni Mitchell transformed the way I wrote and played and listened to music of every genre.
posted by abakua at 10:35 AM on June 22 [2 favorites]

I am always glad to hear how much Joni overawed all the men in her life with her absolute musicianship. She is my parents' contemporary and it was so fucking hard to be a woman artist, even once you had kicked over the traces and run off to the commune.
In Mitchell's Wikipedia article there's this gem:
Comparing Joni Mitchell's talent to his own, David Crosby said, "By the time she did Blue, she was past me and rushing toward the horizon".
Now that's a quote from a 2008 article that Crosby gave to a reporter from the Wall Street Journal but even 40 years after CSN's heyday, I'm a little surprised that Crosby, never famed for his humility or self awareness, would go on the record with such a sentiment, despite its being absolutely true.

It was getting late when I posted the write-up and I was running out of steam and didn't trust myself to say more about this without derailing the whole thing but now that this discussion has been successfully launched can I just gush about how staggering it is that Mitchell was not only responsible for all her own songwriting but also the production of her albums? Hell, she even designed and painted most of the covers.

What a force of nature she must have been to wrest that amount of creative control from a major record label at the end of the 1960s and dawn of the 1970s. In another part of the country, under very different circumstances, another paramount genius songwriter, Townes Van Zandt, was having his early records smothered with syrupy string sections and instrumentation that even the man who did the production sheepishly admits in retrospect were overproduction, but Mitchell, young, female, and brilliant, somehow won the right to release her records the way she wanted them to be. In a very real way that's as amazing as any other product of her creativity.
posted by Nerd of the North at 10:41 AM on June 22 [14 favorites]

I've only recently picked up a turntable and have been hunting for secondhand vinyl, and my Joni Mitchell records are some of my most treasured finds. Just the other day I lucked into a pristine copy of Hejira at the Salvation Army. I also have Court and Spark and my favourite, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which is astonishing music that sounds like it was released yesterday. Can't wait to track down Blue and Mingus!
posted by oulipian at 10:45 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]

I was also fascinated to learn from the album's Wikipedia page, while doing background reading for this post, that up until a few months before the album's release another track lineup was being planned -- in particular "Urge for Going" and another song were cut at the last minute in order to make room for "All I Want" and "The Last Time I Saw Richard."

"Urge For Going," while not necessarily a fit for the album that Blue became, is a terrific song in its own right but I absolutely cannot imagine Blue not being bracketed by "All I Want" and "The Last Time I Saw Richard."
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:11 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]

There's a nice version of All I Want by the Supremes if you want to know just how much you can re-arrange her songs and them still be good.
posted by YoungStencil at 12:42 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

The Joni doc referred here (Heart and Mind?) not long ago was really, really cute. "Raceless, genderless music." She's a genuine classic.
posted by firstdaffodils at 12:48 PM on June 22

Nice interview with Joni in the LA Times from a couple of days ago.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:36 PM on June 22

But probably there can only be one Blue in a career.

Jeez, and For The Roses is sitting right there just waiting for someone to notice.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:41 PM on June 22 [2 favorites]

Poking around for covers (that's often the test for the strength of a song - how good are the covers? c.f. L.Cohen) I stumbled upon this list. The gold is at the bottom, Prince doing a part of "A Case of You" It's everything you expect of Prince.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:48 PM on June 22 [2 favorites]

I have to admit, for a split second I wondered "who on earth is C. F. L. Cohen??"
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:00 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

coincidentally I was thinking about this surprising Mac Dre sample earlier

(content note: it’s mostly explicitly about pimping.)
posted by atoxyl at 2:27 PM on June 22

This post inspired me to skim Joni Mitchell's whosampled page (knew about the Janet Jackson song and the Yeezy flip, did not realize 'Edith and the Kingpin' is a break).

(I didn't know about that Mac Dre sample, but, credit where credit is due, that is a both artful and savage sample, on some "Pushin'" (alternate link)-level shit.)
posted by box at 3:05 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]

to me, joni's the person who did hejira, which grabbed ahold of me and never let go - it wasn't the first album i'd heard but it was one that i could really see, not just hear - it had me retuning my guitar and everything ...
posted by pyramid termite at 3:29 PM on June 22 [3 favorites]

I adored "Urge for Going," recorded by Tom Rush in 1967. That's why I lined up at my local record store for the release of her first album, Songs for a Seagull on Spotify; most of it on YouTube. Rumor has it that producer David Crosby miked the soundboard of an otherwise unplayed grand piano to capture the richness of her voice.

All I want as a jazz instrumental.

Rhino Records provides CD and vinyl versions of the albums we grew up with, as well as some massive compilation sets.

Volume 1 - The Early Years 1963-67 is 5 CDs, 119 tracks. It includes some songs where she's channeling Joan Baez' diction with a hint of British accent, singing Trad Folk. As well as some of her own: her voice completely defeats the sound board/microphone for "Morning Morgantown."

Her cynicism was a useful counterpart to the positivist optimism of the hippies.
posted by Jesse the K at 4:17 PM on June 22 [3 favorites]

I have to admit, for a split second I wondered "who on earth is C. F. L. Cohen??"

A doomed attempt by the Canadian Football League to get folk music fans into the stands?
posted by clawsoon at 5:43 PM on June 22 [4 favorites]

What a wonderful post--thank you Nerd of the North.

I love Blue so much. It is my favourite Joni Mitchell album, and when I was first learning to play guitar, these were some of the songs I taught myself to play first. I learned to fingerpick with "A Case of You," one of the most perfect songs I've ever heard.

I don't know if I can pick a favourite song. It depends on what kind of mood I'm in--I tend to divide them into the joyful and the melancholy ones, though the joyful ones also have that note of melancholy in them.

I'm listening to NPR Listening Party: Joni Mitchell's Blue at 50 and singing along, and it's just so good.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:52 PM on June 22 [3 favorites]

[…]( although I've never listened to Don Juan's Reckless Daughter).

It is of course a very good record. It’s similar to Hejira and Jaco turns in some stunning work.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:21 PM on June 22 [2 favorites]

I love all of this. Her creative efforts caused me to buy my first guitar, and her outpouring has kept me company all my youngish life, through until now. Her body of work and life, detailed how to handle the fire of living. There was no ignoring her unique abilities.
posted by Oyéah at 8:32 PM on June 22 [2 favorites]

In 1972, [Thomas Pynchon] selected a quote from Joni Mitchell’s song "The Circle Game" to use as the epigraph to the final section of Gravity’s Rainbow (at that stage still titled Mindless Pleasures). Reportedly, his publisher could not secure permission to use the quote (which appeared in the advance galleys of the book), so at the last minute Pynchon inserted instead the single word "What?" and attributed it to RN (who also appears in the last pages of that book under the name Richard M. Zhlubb). [Source]
posted by chavenet at 11:48 PM on June 22

In 1972, [Thomas Pynchon] selected a quote from Joni Mitchell’s song "The Circle Game" to use as the epigraph to the final section of Gravity’s Rainbow..
Now you've got me thinking that somewhere, in an infinite multiverse, there's an Earth where instead of hanging out with Crosby, Stills, and Nash in Laurel Canyon, Joni Mitchell spent her Southern California years hanging out in San Narciso with the Paranoids and while I almost certainly prefer our universe I kind of want to hear the albums that resulted..

Yeah, okay, maybe not..
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:11 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]

If I had to pick a favourite JM album it's probably The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, but Blue is the consensus pick for a very good reason...pretty hard to find any fault with Court and Spark, too.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:01 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]

somebody just posted this on my Facebook.

Joni Mitchell reflecting:

“I don’t know if I’ve learned anything yet! I did learn how to have a happy home, but I consider myself fortunate in that regard because I could’ve rolled right by it. Everybody has a superficial side and a deep side, but this culture doesn’t place much value on depth — we don’t have shamans or soothsayers, and depth isn’t encouraged or understood. Surrounded by this shallow, glossy society we develop a shallow side, too, and we become attracted to fluff. That’s reflected in the fact that this culture sets up an addiction to romance based on insecurity — the uncertainty of whether or not you’re truly united with the object of your obsession is the rush people get hooked on. I’ve seen this pattern so much in myself and my friends and some people never get off that line.

But along with developing my superficial side, I always nurtured a deeper longing, so even when I was falling into the trap of that other kind of love, I was hip to what I was doing. I recently read an article in Esquire magazine called ‘The End of Sex,’ that said something that struck me as very true. It said: “If you want endless repetition, see a lot of different people. If you want infinite variety, stay with one.” What happens when you date is you run all your best moves and tell all your best stories — and in a way, that routine is a method for falling in love with yourself over and over.

You can’t do that with a longtime mate because he knows all that old material. With a long relationship, things die then are rekindled, and that shared process of rebirth deepens the love. It’s hard work, though, and a lot of people run at the first sign of trouble. You’re with this person, and suddenly you look like an asshole to them or they look like an asshole to you — it’s unpleasant, but if you can get through it you get closer and you learn a way of loving that’s different from the neurotic love enshrined in movies. It’s warmer and has more padding to it.”
posted by philip-random at 10:21 AM on June 23 [13 favorites]

I am always glad to hear how much Joni overawed all the men in her life with her absolute musicianship.

I could not agree with this sentiment more! Here's an apt quote from David Crosby in the Guardian article linked by YoungStencil above:

"Bob Dylan’s as good a poet as Joni, but nowhere near as good a musician. Paul Simon and James Taylor made some stunners – but 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."

Each sentence seems like it should be hyperbole, but is actually sober assessment.
posted by ferdydurke at 8:48 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]

Among the people I know, there's a sense that Blue is the apotheosis of Joni, but I confess that I'm one of those people of the opposite opinion (that it's a starting point for what came afterwards) - one thing I like to do is line up all her 70s albums in order, and hear the way she develops through the decade. I think the high point is probably Hejira - for me, the finest lyrics ever - but Don Juan and Mingus aren't, to me, diminished so much as demonstrations of what someone who had developed that extraordinary capacity was capable of.

Strangely, I never got on with the 80s material at all, but maybe I'll come to it.
posted by Grangousier at 12:58 AM on June 24 [3 favorites]

There's a box set that came out in 2014, Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting to be Danced, that Mitchell curated herself. It has deep cuts, it leaves out some of the big hits, it includes a lot of her post-'70s output, it sometimes substitutes late-career orchestral-jazz remakes for the better-known originals, it's all previously released material. In some respects it's like an anti-box set, but then it also honors the artist's vision in a way that seldom happens with this kind of thing. I can't say that 1988's 'Dancin' Clown' (f Billy Idol and Tom Petty) is one of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs, but Love Has Many Faces made me appreciate it a little bit.
posted by box at 5:33 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]

I just read a stanza of Cactus Tree for the first time, rather than hearing it wrongly as I always have. I thought it said, "She has brought them to their senses" and I thought it said, "For she fears that one will ask her for eternity." The difference is not at all subtle.There is always something new to learn, anywhere on the timeline.
posted by Oyéah at 8:25 PM on June 24

My first book was about traveling across Africa, and of course I wanted to use the opening lines of All I Want (“The wind is in from Africa/Last night I couldn’t sleep”) as an epigram. Sadly, the publisher decided it would be too expensive…
posted by gottabefunky at 8:49 AM on June 26

(Jane Monheit’s version of A Case of You is amazing, btw)
posted by gottabefunky at 8:52 AM on June 26

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