“My music is not designed to grab instantly,” Joni Mitchell once told historian Alice Echols. “It’s designed to wear for a lifetime, to hold up like a fine cloth.” And in the wardrobe of Mitchell’s œuvre, there’s perhaps no richer fabric than Blue, her fourth studio album, released in June 1971, and her first to sell one million copies.
Blue marked an important transition for the Canadian singer-songwriter, from the acoustic folk of Clouds (1969) and Ladies of the Canyon (1970) to the increasingly layered production heard on Court and Spark (1974) and later records. The album’s distinctive sound comes from the dulcimer, which is the main instrument on four of Blue‘s songs. “I took off to Europe carrying a flute and this dulcimer because it was very light for backpacking around Europe,” she said. “I wrote most of Blue on it.”
To call it “possibly the most gutting break-up album ever made,” as Pitchfork did, is both accurate and an understatement. Yes, many of the songs on Blue address the unraveling of a romantic relationship, but Mitchell’s songwriting transcends that narrative, too. She sings of agency, longing, self-sacrifice and unrequited love in vulnerable, frank and often humorous ways that resonate to this day. Her work on Blue has birthed decades of covers and tribute shows, with devout fans ranging from Prince to Seal, Björk to Taylor Swift.
Blue’s naked honesty was a revelation, even to other songwriters: Kris Kristofferson once wrote to Mitchell, urging her to “save something for yourself.” But that strength in vulnerability spoke most directly to women, who may have never heard their feelings synthesized so clearly. “My stuff is not male fantasy at all,” Mitchell once explained. “It’s instructed to make men a little more informed.” In 2020, Rolling Stone ranked Blue as No. 3 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
To celebrate Blue‘s 50th anniversary, CBC Music commissioned 10 artists to illustrate each of the album’s songs. Accompanying these are words of appreciation from musicians, critics and writers who’ve “worn” Blue, and whose lives continue to be shaped by it.
“All I Want” ignites Joni Mitchell’s Blue with the archetypal energy of the Fool card on top of a tarot deck. The Fool card can either be considered the beginning or the end of the journey, and doesn’t claim to have any answers, which, in a way, is what makes it all-knowing. Lyrically, Mitchell‘s demeanor feels daring and free-spirited as she leads us down a lonely road in search of something (but “what can it be?”). Wanting to live spontaneously without fear while simultaneously needing another person in order to feel free and whole is the paradoxical thesis of “All I Want.” She sings, “All I really, really want our love to do is to bring out the best in me and in you.” Who doesn’t want that? It’s a love that is free of confines and ownership, where two sovereign beings choose to join forces not for convenience or title, but to aid in one another’s liberation. We’ve heard this paradox described before in her more woeful “Cactus Tree” (1968), but in “All I Want,” there is a certain peace within the search; there is pride in knowing that this is the only love worth seeking.
— Leah Fay, co-lead singer of Juno-winning alternative band July Talk
What is “My Old Man,” a valentine to Graham Nash, doing on Blue? It is a relic from 1970, performed at Isle of Wight after an angry mob of hippies revolted when a Charles Manson look-alike was hauled off by security. Rolling Stone called Joni Mitchell the Old Lady of the Year in 1971, and Graham Nash was her Old Man of 1970; Blue featured her 1971 Old Man James Taylor on guitar. Nash became ex-Old Man when his marriage proposal was answered with a telegram from Matala, Greece: “If you hold sand too tightly, it will run through your fingers.”
“My Old Man” is on an album that ends telling us that “all romantics meet the same fate.” The lyrics to “My Old Man” are unambiguous. What makes it a Joni Mitchell song are the chords — the weather changes with the moods, and we are given such turbulence, this topsy-turvy love affair that will change chords so drastically. An A section with D major and E-sus is followed by a bridge with A-flat minor and B-flat minor, which is like changing languages in mid-sentence. But she knew she wasn’t going to be baking shepherd’s pie for this member of the Hollies for long. She had too many adventures ahead of her. The chords would get weirder, the relationships would be more challenging. Like Miles Davis, she would change music a few times. “My Old Man” turns and turns, and the lonesome blues get the last word. Blue is a snapshot of a movie that would keep reeling. It has been half a century, and Joni Mitchell is still ahead of us.
— David Yaffe, author of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell
In my shows, I’ve introduced “Little Green” as arguably the most important and personal song Joni ever wrote. I’ve found — surprisingly — even many people who love Blue don’t realize that “Little Green” is about Mitchell giving up her baby daughter for adoption. Joni’s singing, tone, pitch, emotion: absolute perfection all around.
The lyrics are an understated masterclass. The song seems to lightly dance through images of horoscopes and springtime and crocuses. She says in the first few lines, “Call her Green and the winter cannot fade her/ call her Green for the children who’ve made her.” She realizes both she and the baby’s father are children. She blames no one. She sits in the reality of the situation — the love for the child, the sacrifice, the abandonment, the expectations of her family.
It’s not accidental that, after all this light, childlike imagery, the final word, held easily three times longer than any other word in the song, is “sorrow.” Just listen to the final word. Has anyone ever sung it with more beauty and meaning?
— Tierney Sutton, nine-time Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist
When I was 17, I was in love with my best friend, Richard, who loved a famous artist, Ryan, who loved only himself. We — Richard and I — talked about everything, but not that. Instead, every night we would call each other from the bathtub and listen to Joni Mitchell’s Blue. The album might have been a classic, but it seemed made for us. Joni had been a teenager from the Prairies, too, and she knew what it was to want to leave, and she knew about love, and of freedom, and she knew about the prices of her desires, which we didn’t, not yet anyways. She sang about California, Greece, Paris, places we hadn’t been and imagined through her. Blue was a love letter and an escape route.
Heady, still, to hear her; sing too slight a verb. That soprano! The music cut into our flesh, leaving almost a wound of feeling. What was that voice? Height, bravura, the fizz of cheap champagne, the narrow band of apricot at the end of daylight. The album’s fourth track, “Carey,” is named for a red-haired muse who says he met Joni either while looking at a sunset or when he was blown through the kitchen cave. Well, of course. How else do you meet Joni Mitchell? “Carey” is an invitation to a real bar with a fake name from a woman who remembers home just enough to know it’s not where she is. Same.
— Janique Vigier, writer, critic, curator
My famed Joni experience is that I wasn’t allowed to listen to her for many years because my mom, the late, great Kate McGarrigle, wasn’t a big fan. She was, I think on the one hand, a real purist when it came to folk music, but also I think a bit jealous of Joni’s success. So I only really came into contact with her albums later through my husband, Jörn [Wiesbrodt], specifically when he did the tribute for her 70th birthday in Toronto at Massey Hall. That’s when I really dove in.
When Jörn had the opportunity to do her 75th birthday in L.A., a lot of songs were up in the air and there were a lot of big-time performers like Seal, Norah Jones and James Taylor. A lot of songs were taken quite quickly, but “Blue” kept kind of lingering. I think people were kind of afraid to do that one because it was so iconic and so unique in its structure and dramatic power. There’s no real climax, per se. If anything, the most effective moments are short, like these little turns that occur so if you miss the subtlety of them and you don’t pinpoint it in a precise way, the song can kind of fall apart. There’s this very nonchalant attitude about it, but also very serious at the same time. She’s kind of tossing it off, but yet it’s about death and drug addiction, and you can tell that deep down she’s really destroyed about the whole situation, but she’s not going to succumb to the sadness. It’s that fine line. I am the addict, I am the person who has struggled. So it’s actually nice to sing a song from the perspective of someone who is surrounding the addict and was more affected by their behaviour and who is obviously a loving figure but also a tough one.
I took the bullet and picked that song, and I must admit that, for a good two or three weeks, I didn’t listen to it much. I was afraid to try and grasp it. But then I finally did and it was an amazing experience. Once I cracked the code, I was driven further into the Jonisphere, shall we say. I had a rehearsal set for a few days before the show, and all the artists were coming through to do their songs with the band, but I just did “Blue” with a pianist so it was very intimate. There weren’t a lot of people in the room but the one person who was after me, waiting to rehearse, was Chaka Khan. So she was just sitting there, and it was just Chaka Khan, me and a pianist, and I kind of sang it to her and she loved the rendition. I had to impress her! With Joni, I think she enjoyed it. The thing with Joni is that once you’re in, you’re in. We are considered friends, and when we see her, it’s lovely and it’s great — but don’t expect laurels or anything!
— Rufus Wainwright, Grammy-nominated and Juno-winning singer-songwriter
As a teenager in chilly upstate New York, listening to Joni Mitchell’s “California” transported me to a life I dreamt of living, and the wide world I hoped someday to travel. Paris, Spain, and even California, all struck me as inconceivably cosmopolitan. I was entranced by the image of this free spirit, leaving behind a lover in Greece, troubled by the war, yearning for a home that was, in my mind, the wellspring of bohemian enlightenment. Her freedom suggested to me that a woman could do or be anything she could imagine. The purity of Mitchell’s soprano, rare in popular music, spoke directly to me, as did the sound of her dulcimer (an instrument I promptly bought and learned to play). So much of what I love about Joni Mitchell is in this song: her limitless vocal range, melodic and rhythmic invention, emotional honesty, and her unwillingness to be bound by genre. Even when exploring different styles, she has an instantly recognizable sound. The last question, “Will you take me as I am?” is something that every artist wonders — not to mention anyone in a relationship. It’s no surprise that her music has remained a touchstone throughout my adult life.
— Renée Fleming, four-time Grammy-winning soprano and recipient of the National Medal of Arts
Blue was the first introduction I had to Joni Mitchell. My best friend, Irene Cara, and I — both of us were in a show called Via Galactica. It was a Broadway show in New York City and Raul Julia starred in it. During our back-to-back shows — we were 13 years old — we had a little record player, and we would hang out at the theatre, and sometimes we would hang out with Raul, but we played Joni Mitchell’s Blue album over and over and over. And finally, we started harmonizing with all of her songs. I would do the second harmony. And then Irene would do the third and we’d sing to the records. But “This Flight Tonight” was one of my favourites. And it worked so well with my slide guitar, just a different arrangement. The first arrangement I had, I wish I had kept that for the album. It was my friend, who played amazing congas, and just my slide, and that was it.
I opened for Herbie Hancock, when he did that whole tribute to Joni. That was just an amazing concert. I wish I had known Herbie then because I would have loved to have done some of her pieces with that band. But I opened for him and they were amazing. I hadn’t brought that song [“This Flight Tonight”] into my set yet, but I wished I had.
I learned a lot from [Joni]. A lot of my songs are very wordy. It’s a real art trying to fit words, and not just rhyming poetry, but rhythmically jamming all that stuff in. Joni is funky. She’s very funky. She was my teacher in terms of phrasing and you don’t have to say everything literally, you can find another way, literally, of painting pictures. That’s what I learned from her and really, all her songs are like that. I love them all.
— Pura Fé, Indigenous activist, singer-songwriter and storyteller
The song “River” just had that beautiful, clear soprano, but not in a trained way. Joni was just real perfect for those times. It wasn’t the time for Barbra Streisand or Céline Dion. Those two singers sing like virtuoso violins — like classical musicians. But Joni had enough funk and just enough street cred. She was really herself. She had that clear soprano partnered with that sense of candid telling of a story that I thought was incredible. Her Canadian accent on Blue is still naive enough; no kind of edge to it and yet, in her lyrics, the velvety innocence of what she was singing about really told the story in a very interesting way. She was using this kind of songwriter style piano, which I think almost any songwriter will respond to what that’s about. It’s not all, ‘Here I am on a big, blond stage and in a fancy city’ — it’s a lot more personal.
Another thing that Joni does really well is she’ll say something really sweet and then contradict that with something sad. She keeps your attention, and it’s not contrived. And she also sounds so innocent, but she has this great line in the middle of it all: “And he loved me so naughty/ made me weak in the knees.” It doesn’t get better than that! She’ll tell you things that you didn’t expect her to tell you. And just the idea of using a river — “Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on” — there’s a sense of, ‘Oh I need a way out, I need an escape.’ I think we all go through that, we back ourselves into a corner. And just the idea of skating away, it’s not just because I’m Canadian, but when I was a little girl, I knew the true meaning of ice, after-school fun and privacy. I think there’s something about the speed and the potential of ice skating that you don’t get anywhere else. It’s beautiful and it’s quiet, and it’s as solitary as you want to make it. So, emotionally, musically, lyrically, whether you’ve always been a fan of Joni’s or you’ve never come across her music, “River” is the place to start.
— Buffy Sainte-Marie, Juno-winning singer-songwriter, Oscar-winning composer, visual artist and activist
River is such a beautifully written song — so emotional and touching, I think it’s something a lot of people can relate to and be touched by. I’ve always been so impressed with how much depth and confidence there is in her lyrics. We are all so lucky to have the music of Joni Mitchell in our lives, to be inspired by and to love.
— Rita Ora, award-winning singer-songwriter
I love this song, I’ve listened to it five bajillion times. Everything off that record, off of all of her albums, are just very, very beautiful. But I think Joni had a very unique style. I find a lot of the songwriters that are from the northern climates tend to have developed their own style and own sound through their own exploration, usually pretty literary. And so she was very poetic. Her melodic choices were very unique. And she painted a picture, but without it being generic. She was painting a picture that was very poetic, but somehow very universal, but somehow very personal. It’s a magical combination.
I love the [line], “Just before our love got lost/ you said I’m 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.’” She had a very self-possessed sexuality, I think. You didn’t hear women talk about sexuality much, and my experience of female sexuality in the musical world was really through pop music, right? It was Madonna and overt sexuality. And something I think that always struck me about Joni is she was very sexually self-possessed, but it wasn’t some kind of trumped-up or over-idealized thing. It was very vulnerable, what it meant to be a woman. How do you handle heartache? It had a sense of humour — just that one verse alone sums up so much of unrequited [love], of somebody leaving you in the dark.
That opening line’s solid; all of it. “On the back of a cartoon coaster/ in the blue TV screen light/ I drew a map of Canada/ oh, Canada/ with your face sketched on it twice.” It’s such a conversational way of eliciting a mood. I think Leonard Cohen was great at that, but their voices are obviously very, very different. When you can paint a picture of somebody doodling and create a mood of all the subtext, it’s very powerful. But she’s f—ked, right? Like she loves this man, you know, it’s like I’m in the dark; I’ll be at the bar [laughs]. This feels pretty gloomy. And then she’s like, “But dear God, you’re in my blood like holy wine. It’s bitter and sweet. And I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet.” Nobody was writing that…. Her way of saying it is not only very original, but it’s a real, complex portrait of vulnerability and hurt and perhaps ill-fated and that hopeless feeling of my God, but I could drink you up, you know?
I think Blue was the power — the same way “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and that album [The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan] was for [Bob] Dylan, there’s something about a good songwriter with minimal production. It’s very hard to be alone onstage, to be alone in a recording and hold somebody for 60 minutes, an hour and a half. Your songs have to be so good, your emotionality and your honesty have to be so on point, and it’s why very few people do it, and that’s why when people get it right, it usually changes tides. It usually changes pop culture because it’s powerful and it’s rare.
— Jewel, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter
As we reach the conclusion of this masterpiece, we find Joni sitting with a cynic at last call, juicing the last few songs out of a Wurlitzer jukebox. This interaction finds a bitter, jaded Richard predicting that no matter how hard she tries, naive, optimistic Joni will find herself alone in the end. What’s so special to me, is that even though Joni ends up in the dark café in the third and final stanza, exactly where Richard had predicted she would be, she still exclaims proudly that it’s “just a phase.” She paints herself in a cocoon, at the beginning of her metamorphosis, suggesting that optimism and naiveté is just as enduring as pessimism and bitterness. To have such a dark album end in a statement that love can be as enduring as hate, that light can shine in darkness, is a testament to the complexity of Joni’s character, and the complexity of love itself.
— Peter Dreimanis, co-lead singer of Juno-winning alternative band July Talk
Website concept and development: Geoff Isaac
Producers: Robert Rowat, Melody Lau, Holly Gordon, Andrea Warner
Senior Producer: Jess Huddleston
Design: Ben Shannon
Contributions from: Leah Fay, Peter Dreimanis, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jewel, Rita Ora, Pura Fé, Renée Fleming, Janique Vigier, Rufus Wainwright, David Yaffe, Tierney Sutton
Original artwork by: Sharnee Taylor, Samantha Smith, Zainab Hussaen, Marianne Collins, Emily Chu, Stephanie Cheng, Laura Gulshani, Victoria O’May, Niyi Adeogun, Mer Young