On a lonely road
"Blue" at 50
In August of 2002 my friend Siri came to stay with me for a week in Brooklyn, before loading my duffle-bags and guitar into her little red Saturn and beginning a road-trip around Quebec and New England. The day before we left New York, we stopped by Tower Records, and digging through the bins of cassettes, found Blue, the 1971 release that would solidify Joni Mitchell’s reputation as one of the most daring and memorable songwriters of the era. Up until that summer, my small music collection consisted of one Mitchell album: Hits. It was from that assortment of songs that I fell in love with not only Mitchell’s pen, but her compositions. The guitar chords, the rhythms, the sound of the dulcimer — the quality of her voice as it changed from the soaring soprano of her beginnings in the 60s to the husky alto tones of the 90s.
Discovering Blue was, for me at least, doubly memorable because it was happening while traveling — a sentiment expressed in all of the ten songs on the album — whether the journey was a physical one (Carey, California, This Flight Tonight) or an inner voyage (A Case of You, The Last Time I Saw Richard, River). Being on the road as she sang I am on a lonely road and I am traveling/Looking for something what can it be, at twenty years old with the wind in our hair and the road before us made an unforgettable impression. I can still remember arriving on Mt. Desert Isle in Maine, pitching a tent and seeking out Seal Cove while Joni crooned about a little girl named Green, born with the moon in Cancer. The connection we made with that album on that trip is one that, two decades later, has proven unshakable. There is not a trip I have taken, nor a place I have lived or spent time since that the music of Joni Mitchell has not formed a substantial part of my personal soundtrack — whether cooking, or working or making love, the musical and poetic explorations of this Canadian’s artistic journey have been a part of my own personal tapestry.
Fifty years later, Blue remains so iconic an album that it is almost peerless. The number of musicians and singer/songwriters who cite Joni and that album as influential is without measure. Even Blue’s esteem within the musical establishment grows — in 2012 Rolling Stone listed it as number 30 of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and in 2020 it had climbed to number 3. Joni Mitchell’s work, when all is said and done, may prove to be more influential than that of her peers — yes, even more influential than the ever lauded Mr. Dylan.
Mitchell has said recently that the reaction to Blue by her contemporaries was one of fear and confusion and that younger generations are seemingly embracing it without the hesitation of her peers. Great art lives beyond its creators, lives beyond the critics and patrons — and in the case of truly great art, it survives generation after generation, renewing its connection to every new audience and thereby defining not only its greatness, but relevance. It was not only the confessional style of Blue that has remained an influence of succeeding generations of songwriters — it was the silliness, the joy juxtaposed with the pain, the innovative compositions and poetry of the lyrics that were boldly human that created a truly cohesive album before the idea of concept album had really taken hold anywhere but among Jazz artists.
It is wonderful that this year, as this album celebrates fifty years of being played and loved, that its creator is still here to enjoy its journey and appreciate the continued relevance of so vulnerable, so naked, adventurous, joyful and forthright a musical experiment. It is not often that an artist of true genius gets to enjoy the success of their art, or the knowledge that it has been appreciated for what it is. I hope this leads to further discovery of her catalogue, especially the albums following Blue — work all driven by inquiry, innovation, and the same probing, depth and phenomenal musical investigation that continues to endear Blue to us fifty years after its release.