Why So Blue?

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One of the things that has been getting me through the pandemic is my CD collection. I have been listening to at least one CD per day since May of 2020 (and I have well over 1,000 CDs) in alphabetical order by artist, and chronological order within each artist's oeuvre.

Yet it is a truly amazing coincidence that I just happened to start on Joni Mitchell's catalogue this past week, just as there is much ballyhoo and brouhaha being made of the 50th anniversary of Blue, her fourth album, released in June of 1971. Indeed, it seems like every music reviewer, and many writers who are not specifically music writers, have felt compelled to celebrate the album's anniversary with breathless paeans and sparkling verbosity (and occasionally rank hyperbole).

Personally, I don't see what all the fuss is about. Yes, Blue is a fabulous album. But it is not her best album (an appellation which is, of course, hopelessly subjective, but to this reviewer, Hissing of Summer Lawns holds that place), nor is it even her best "early" period album; in that regard, Blue is tied with, if not slightly inferior to, For the Roses. (Even Clouds may be its equal.) It wasn't even the album that brought her quasi-mainstream success -- that would be either her sophomore album, Clouds (with "Chelsea Morning" and "Both Sides Now") or her third album, Ladies of the Canyon (with "Big Yellow Taxi," "The Circle Game" and "Woodstock") -- much less true mainstream success: that would be Court & Spark (with "Help Me," "Free Man in Paris," and her wonderful version of the Ross/Gray standard, "Twisted").

So what is so specifically important about Blue? If you follow the hype, its importance rests primarily on two things.

First, it was allegedly the first of Joni's albums to be produced by her; i.e., an album produced by its female writer. Indeed, it was supposedly only the second rock (or even folk-rock) album completely under the control of a woman. [Famously, Bobbie Gentry, of "Ode to Billy Joe" fame, was the first female artist to have complete control over her own material.] There had already been several solo albums by female singer-songwriters (mostly "folkies" like Joan Baez and Buffy St. Marie and, of course, Joni herself). Most significant, perhaps, was Carole King's Tapestry, which was released just five months prior to Blue. But all of those albums were produced by men. For a woman to have complete control over not only the lyrics and music, but also over the album's production, was basically unheard-of at the time. So even with three albums under Joni's macramé belt, this was no small thing.

All that said, the reason I use "allegedly" and "supposedly" is that this is really an exercise in semantics. The "producer" credit on Joni's debut album, Song to a Seagull, is given to David Crosby; however, based on comments made by Crosby himself, production duties were shared. Joni's second album, Clouds, actually gives her co-production credit (in fact, it only gives her co-producer credit for one song). And Henry Levy's credit on her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, is "production advice." So one could legitimately claim that Joni was producing or co-producing her albums from the very beginning -- which is actually even more remarkable than if Blue was the first one on which she did so.

The second thing, and the one that seems to be most discussed in the myriad articles I have seen, is the brutal "honesty" of the songs, written during and after a European jaunt taken as she was breaking up with Graham Nash and taking up with James Taylor. But Joni's lyrics have always been extremely honest, and deeply reflective of life, relationships, and humanity's joys and foibles, both individual (particularly including her own) and collective. In this regard, I believe the more accurate term would be "vulnerable," which is not the same thing as "honest" (though they are usually related). And given the situation surrounding the album's creation (leaving California for Europe, leaving Nash for Taylor, having a brief affair while in Europe, etc.), there is a much deeper sense of vulnerability on Blue than in the majority of songs on her prior three albums. (The one song I would say is most predictive of Blue in this regard -- and, indeed, of everything up to and including For the Roses --is "Sisotowbell Lane" from Song to a Seagull.)

Another aspect of Blue that is important -- again, even though she already had three albums out --- is the influence it had on singer-songwriters, particularly (but by no means solely) women, and the empowerment, both musical and "business-wise," that Blue represented. This is particularly true given not only the release of Tapestry just months prior, but also the release of Cat Stevens' sophomore album, Tea for the Tillerman, in November 1970. With Tillerman and Tapestry close behind it, the release of Blue (and perhaps one or two other albums between late 1970 and late 1971) signified the beginning of an extended era of singer-songwriters: Joni's already growing influence, combined with that of Stevens and King, really catapulted singer-songwriters into the mainstream in a way that had not been nearly as true prior thereto (with the exceptions of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Joni's countryman, Gordon Lightfoot). In fact, there is a straight line from Joni, Cat and Carole -- and Blue, Tillerman and Tapestry -- to everyone from Don McLean and Jim Croce (who had earlier albums out, but did not achieve mainstream success until this period), to Jackson Browne and Billy Joel, to Tracy Chapman and the singer-songwriters of the '70s and '80s.

Another aspect of Blue, and of Joni in general, that rarely gets talked about is her prodigious musicianship. It is rare enough to be proficient on an instrument, much less virtuosic. To be so on two or three instruments -- as well as vocally -- is positively frightening. Largely self-taught, she did take some classical piano, as well as some music theory, and worked particularly on her singing from childhood. (I have heard more than one opera singer comment that they thought Joni had been operatically trained. She was not, though she has both an operatic range and perfect voice control.) She was also one of the first guitarists -- and probably the first folk guitarist -- to play around with alternate tunings (in her case out of necessity, due to a left hand weakened from childhood disease). She also mastered the ukulele, dulcimer, and a few other strummed or picked instruments. And although her musical brilliance has been obvious since her debut album, it shines on Blue in a way that it does not on earlier albums. And the strict alternating of guitar songs with piano songs on Blue really helps focus one's attention on this. As Dusty remarked as I was writing this, Dylan may (or may not) be the better singer-songwriter, but he can't touch her musicianship.

A final aspect of Blue that is worth noting is how Joni "borrows" from herself -- in both directions (i.e., borrowing from earlier songs, and using pieces of songs on Blue in later songs). My older brother (no slouch in the rock historian department) once remarked that he didn't like much of Hejira because there was so much "re-hashing" of earlier songs, particularly from Hissing. But Joni has always borrowed (sometimes heavily) from herself, as much or more so than other songwriters do. For example, parts of "Songs to Aging Children Come" (from Clouds), are evident in "Marcie" (from Seagull), and the main theme of "Boho Dance" (from Hissing) can be heard on one of the songs on Blue, as can themes from other later songs. "The Arrangement" (from Ladies) is a direct precursor to "Harry's House/Centerpiece" (on Hissing). And the entire "feeling" of Hissing (which is what I love most about it) can be heard on "Dawntreader" (from Seagull). (As an aside, the opening of "River" -- which begins with the line, "It's coming on Christmas" -- is an inside-out version of "Jingle Bells," and the coda to "Roses Blue" (from Clouds) is a nod to "My Favorite Things" (from The Sound of Music: "raindrops on roses…" )) Indeed, a lengthy article -- perhaps even a book -- could be written not just about how artists influence each other, and borrow from each other and external sources, but how much they borrow from themselves.

Don't get me wrong: I love Blue, and always have. And I have always considered Joni a huge inspiration, and second only to Dylan as a "rock poet" (of which there are only a handful). But one could (and should) make as much hay from the 50th (or 40th or 25th, or…) anniversary of any of Joni's albums as is being done with Blue. She is simply one of rock's greatest treasures: one of its most diverse and extraordinary writers; one of its most talented musicians/singers; and one of its most significant, if not always properly heralded, influences.

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