At the outset let me be honest, I had never heard of Joni Mitchell. Few years ago, I happened to hear “Big Yellow Taxi” while searching for “songs of protest.” Last month while exploring great female artists of the last century, I discovered Joni Mitchell. She was ranked 72nd among one hundred top guitarists of all time & her album Blue was ranked 30th best out of five hundred greatest albums of all time (Rolling Stone). Wow. So without further ado, here is Ladies of The Canyon.
Mitchell’s third studio album was released in April 1970 & captures a transition from her early work which is considered folk music and the future albums like Blue which are more layered and introspective. In Ladies of The Canyon she covers diverse topics ranging from love, nostalgia, to environment protection, corporate greed, and consumerism.
Let us start with “Big Yellow Taxi.” A song with a playful melody but with a thought-provoking message. It talks about preserving the planet for many rather than chase profits for a few. Even after 50 years the song is heartbreakingly true – “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got, till it’s gone.” Hope we change our ways before it is too late to save the birds and the bees.
The next notable single is “Woodstock.” Mitchell couldn’t perform at the 1969 Woodstock music festival due to scheduling conflicts, but she heard about it from her friend Graham Nash (The “N” in the music band “CSNY”). Mitchell creates a story about a person attending the concert by combining biblical imagery, scientific fact & youthful idealism. She sings “By the time we got to Woodstock we were half a million strong, and everywhere there was song & celebration. And I dreamed I saw bombers riding shotgun in the sky, and they were turning into butterflies above our nation.” While the chorus repeats “We are stardust, billion-year-old carbon, we are golden, caught in the devil’s bargain, and we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
“The Circle Game” is a poem to growing older and becoming nostalgic. Mitchell paints an image of humans who are “Captive in a carousel of time, we cannot return, we can only look behind from where we are.” She sings with compassion about losing childhood dreams as we grow older but there will be plenty of new and better dreams. Seasons come and seasons go, “We go round and round in The Circle Game.” The lyrics are very measured, and Mitchell seems to be talking directly to the listener. The above three songs are most popular & have been covered by multiple artists, but the album has other excellent songs too.
Take “Morning Morgantown”- it talks about how a town comes to life in early morning. In today’s busy world, can we take the time to “Sit in shade, sip our tea & lemonade, watch the morning on a parade.” Mitchell ends the song with “I’d like to buy you everything, ……., but the only thing I have to give, are all the mornings still to live.” I can’t think of a better promise to a loved one.
“The Arrangement” is an exhortation to all humans that “You could have been more than a name on the door, more than a credit card,.., more than a consumer.” She captures with poignancy the endless grind of the rat race and asks can you find a better life? “For Free” is a lovely song about the commercialization of music. Mitchell sings about a one-man band in the street playing good music for free even though no one cared to hear him compared to herself who performs at large venues for fortune and popularity.
“Rainy Night house” – is a melodious song about a love story which ends in separation. Lastly the title song “Ladies of The Canyon.” Mitchell writes about Trina, Annie, and Estrella – real people, her friends in Laurel Canyon, LA who supported her in her musical journey & who were immortalized in this song.
Ladies of The Canyon is the work of an artist who is brave yet vulnerable & has a positive view of life and humanity. The music is excellent with lot of Jazz influences but is always an accompaniment, it never drowns the songs. It was Mitchell’s first gold album & did well across the world. So sip some tea or lemonade and sing along with Joni Mitchell – We are golden, we are billions of years old stardust, not just names on a door.