Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ at 50: An Ode to Womanhood

Joni Mitchell’s iconic album, Blue, celebrated its 50th Anniversary this summer with Rhino Records’ release of rare demos and outtakes from the recording. While a 50th Anniversary is a golden one, this album is a riot of blues — a range of the feminine, filled with feeling. It sears with songs that are alive, that sink into souls. Indeed, it fills the heart caverns and channels with strength from inside. In writing Blue, Mitchell managed to predict the full range of her successes and challenges, to allow pain. And that is a powerful, feminist accomplishment.

Blue. Shades of blue that are there for you: the blue of the river, of reflections and reflecting; the dark blue of the night sky; a silver-blue hue, iridescent in rain; blue of the coin of the ocean— the bliss or sorrow that will swallow us whole; royal-purple swirls of cosmic, endless possibilities; an auric, turquoise throat, sparkling when we are speaking our truths; blue of stone, a slate-cold granite of pain. Ah, the blues from being hurt, and in that, a world of womanhood. . .

By the time she recorded Blue, which was released in 1971, Joni Mitchell had already suffered significant trauma. As a young child, she had polio; she was affected enough by it to experience weakness in her hands which resulted in permanent adjustments to how she played guitar. She clearly made the best of these physical issues which then resulted in her notoriously unique tunings. 

It isn’t any wonder that Joni is a first-rate songwriter who can color with imagery and sound. Joni self-identifies as a “painter derailed by circumstance,” even designing her own album covers. She enrolled in art school after earning her high school diploma and resisted how constricting it was… so she left. Having also taught herself how to play guitar in art school, she could pivot; and so again she adapted as she turned to the openness of the art form of music. 

Joni also had a child who she gave up for adoption — they connected later in her life. After a friend sold the story of her pregnancy to the tabloids, she learned her daughter had also been looking for her. Mitchell gained many accolades as a musician in the 1960s. When few women were on the scene, she was a contemporary of a lot of musical icons: Laura Nyro; James Taylor; Crosby, Stills & Nash; The Beatles.

Then she embarked on a free-wheeling trip abroad, and eventually recorded Blue. When the album first came out, Mitchell endured significant negative feedback. She was hit with comments such as “she exposed too much of herself.” (Goddess forbid that women might explore big emotions!)  But now Blue is considered one of the greatest singer/songwriter albums of all time. 

Joni opens Blue with acoustic possibility; her sounds draw us in. The song “All I Want,” is an invocation to the open road, a place that makes one feel alive. We feel enmeshed in a nurturing relationship, where the speaker wants love to better each other, to “renew each other.” But then the hurt arrives, and both lovers are a classic, heartbreaking “blue.” Enticing emotions follow with a more stable relationship in “My Old Man,” where no outdated, contractual marriage license is needed; this is a song where one is loving so hard… and almost free in it. But alas, when the lover is gone, the “lonesome blue” appears — of course.

Then a searing pain follows in “Green.” No other song has captured adoption so powerfully; the subject is almost taboo. The speaker refers to herself as a child with a child, and thus, has to sign adoption papers. The similes and use of nature imagery  (such as the hope of green as growth or the northern lights) all attempt to repair our hearts, but sorrow reigns — and that is the bluest blue of them all. 

Next, listeners are ready for a song of adventure. So the story goes, Carey was a character Joni met while traveling in Crete. So “Carey,” is full of a blue that is the dark, star-domed night sky of possibility. Then the eponymous song, “Blue,” is next — enough said. 

“California” is a song of returning “home,” a blue of being free, running barefoot into the Pacific ocean. In “I Wish I Had a River,” we dream of escape. We are swept away via the beauty of the piano and voice. The river is calling to us out of being stuck or restless, or in a prescribed role a woman can’t escape.  

In the next two songs, we return to themes of failed love. “A Case of You” is more forlorn, the speaker is missing a lover, strumming about “holy wine” — a blue that is the blood in us ready to flow red out of our wounds.

In “The Last Time I Saw Richard,”  we meet our final blue: the blue of wisdom when losing romantic innocence. The addressee, Richard, is giving advice, warning of “pretty lies,” of the oft off-putting “blue note” of life’s harshness.

The album ends in the unknown, of what journey or love is next… and I play it again. (I play it over and over; For me, the album is a real singer! By that I mean, it takes the sting away… and makes me feel like I can sing.) No doubt Blue is also an ultimate heartbreak album. It heals me every time. Every love lost — every time I feel lost— its melancholy and unbending honesty aid the transition, offering endless solace. Indeed, listening to it on repeat, singing with Joni, we can absorb what is too much for one woman to handle alone.

Blue is an album that punts the hurt and hurls you to the resiliency on the other side. Yes, we are blue and bruised by our lives, but a bit better because of it. 

Thank you, Joni. You deserve to be honored as the MusicCares Person of the Year during the Grammys on Jan 29th, 2022. And maybe one day, like Bob Dylan, you will receive a Nobel Prize in Poetry. 

 

© Katherine Factor (9/28/21) Special for FF2Media.

 

CREDITS AND PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: Uploaded on November 7, 2016. Photograph provided by Jörn Weisbrodt’s assistant, Mark Rochford. Taken on 16 June 2013 at the Luminato Festival.  Joni Mitchell .jpg” by David Leyes is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. All Rights Reserved.

Middle photo: “Happy Birthday Joni Mitchell” by Tony Varela Photography is marked with CC PDM 1.0. All Rights Reserved.

Tags: A Case of You, All I Want, Blue, Blue Album, FF2 Media, I Wish I Had a River, International SWANs, iswans, Joni Mitchell, katherine factor, My Old Man, Support Women Artists Now, The Last Time I saw Richard

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Katherine Factor is an editor, book coach, and educator. Her debut poetry book, A Synil Society won the Test Site Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from the University of Nevada Press. She has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Katherine is the author of three Choose Your Own Adventure books, Spies: Mata Hari, Spies: Harry Houdini, and Spies: Spy For Cleopatra.
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