When Joni Mitchell released Blue in 1971, she revealed herself to the world as a poet with a hard-boiled interior life. The album, writes Rolling Stone, challenged the image many had of her as an innocent flower child. “The West Coast feminine ideal” was a role “Mitchell hadn’t asked for and did not want.” Of her writing of the album, she said in a 2013 interview, “They better find out who they’re worshipping. Let’s see if they can take it. Let’s get real.”
Get real she did, shocking the men around her, some of whom she’d written about candidly, including Graham Nash, Leonard Cohen, and James Taylor, who played on several tracks. She wrote about the heartbreak of leaving her daughter and rewrote the breakup song as a confessional on “River.” The album’s cultural impact, 50 years after its release, has much to do with Mitchell as a lone female protagonist in a male-dominated industry. “Along with its romantic melancholy,” Rolling Stone writes, “Blue was the sound of a woman availing herself of the romantic and sexual freedom that was, until then, an exclusively male province in rock.”
We listen to Blue now and hear the voices of later generations of singer-songwriters, from Tracy Chapman and Tori Amos to Phoebe Bridgers, who seized their own power. By the time of Blue’s release, Mitchell had become a powerful voice of her generation, penning “Woodstock” just the year before. “Blue is Mitchell’s first song cycle whereby all the songs interrelate in their themes of loss and transformation,” writes Classic Album Sundays. “The album reflects the disillusionment and disenchantment felt by a generation during the closing of The Sixties.”
“It’s a description of the times,” Mitchell attests. “There were so many sinking but I had to keep thinking I could make it through the waves. You watched that high of the hippie thing descend into drug depression. Right after Woodstock, then we went through a decade of basic apathy where my generation sucked it’s thumb and then just decided to be greedy and pornographic.”
As if capturing the feelings of her own personal losses and those of millions of others weren’t enough, Mitchell’s songwriting and musicianship on the album are consistently astonishing, each word married to a suspended note, an unexpected chord voicing, a pregnant breath. “My words and music are locked together,” she says. She proved on Blue that she was a talent to be reckoned with and never underestimated. On the 50th anniversary of Blue’s release, Mitchell is releasing a five song EP, Blue 50 (Demos & Outtakes), which you can hear above (see tracklist below).
- A Case Of You (Demo) 0:00:00
- California (Demo) 0:04:00
- Hunter (Outtake) 0:07:30
- River (Outtake with French Horns) 0:10:25
- Urge For Going (Outtake with Strings) 0:14:27
It’s a document of a different album, one that might have included “Hunter” — a country-like strummer — and might have had french horns on “River,” perhaps the album’s best-known song and one of the most beloved Christmas songs of the past 50 years. Look for the next release celebrating a half-century of Blue on October 29th. Joni Mitchell Archives Vol. 2: The Reprise Years (1968-1971) “will explore the period leading up to Blue,” notes her official YouTube, “through nearly six hours of unreleased home, studio, and live recordings.” Or, you could just listen to Blue over and over. It seems to reveal something different every time.
How Joni Mitchell’s Song of Heartbreak, “River,” Became a Christmas Classic
How Joni Mitchell Wrote “Woodstock,” the Song that Defined the Legendary Music Festival, Even Though She Wasn’t There (1969)
Watch Joni Mitchell Sing an Immaculate Version of Her Song “Coyote,” with Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn & Gordon Lightfoot (1975)
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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