Just before embarking on the crucial intercontinental journey that would inspire much of his unrivaled 1971 album, “Blue” – released 50 years ago this week – Joni Mitchell considered his grandmothers. One “was a frustrated poet and musician, she knocked the kitchen door off the farm hinges,” Mitchell recalls in a 2003 documentary. The other “cried for the last time in her life at 14 years old behind a barn because she wanted a piano and said, ‘Dry your eyes, you little fool, you will never have a piano.’ ”
“And I thought,” Mitchell continued, “maybe I’m the one with the gene that’s got to make this happen for these two women.” If she stayed where she was, she might end up knocking the door off the hinges as well. “It’s like, I better not,” she concluded.
And so she left the loving comforts of home life with fellow musician Graham Nash in LA’s Laurel Canyon neighborhood, booked a single overseas plane ticket, and plunged into the unexplored blue – melancholy. cerulean from the album’s title track, the aquamarine shimmer of “Carey”, the icy lazulin of “River” – while staining her hands with the indigo ink of poetic observation and relentless introspection .
Half a century later, Mitchell’s “Blue” exists in this rarefied space beyond the influential or even the canonical. This is the archetype: the course of the heroine that Joseph Campbell forgot to trace. It’s the story of a restless young woman who questions all – love, sex, happiness, independence, drugs, America, idealism, motherhood, rock ‘n’ roll – accompanied by the rootless and idiosyncratically tuned sounds that she so aptly called her “research chords”.
Although she was only 27 when she was released, Mitchell had already done more than enough life to know how much suffering and sacrifice it takes for a woman to tear up the traditional scenario and seek freedom as she pleases. . She knew the insomniac and divined desires of domestic life, and she knew the grandmothers who smashed the doors of the hinges. She also knew that motherhood would have been too difficult to balance with her life as an artist, recounting her decision to adopt her daughter in the breathtaking “Little Green”.
But the flip side of such pathos was that the woman born Roberta Joan Anderson and raised in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, was able to experience the kinds of things confined to the dreams of most others. She learned what it was to steal.
Perhaps because of its title, “Blue” has an undeserved reputation for being moody or even depressed. It’s not. From the first moments of “All I Want” – composed on an Appalachian dulcimer, which she took on her travels in Europe because it was more portable than a guitar – Mitchell is as fast and kinetic as the one of Edweard Muybridge’s horses. “Alive, alive, I want to get up and jump,” she says, her dancing feet rarely touching the ground. “Blue” is a coming-of-age travelogue. Throughout this album, she laughs with monsters and soldiers, and celebrates with other expatriates from the counter-culture in Spain, France and Greece. All the while, as we do even on the most exciting vacations, she will be wondering somewhere in the back of her head what is going on at home.
In 1971, Mitchell’s agitation went beyond his words. She felt confined by the jar of fame – “I’m going to make a lot of money, then I’m going to quit this crazy scene” – but also by the formal structures of folk music, an art form she was starting to develop. consider it also simplistic for its prismatic talents. “Blue” and his sequel “For the Roses” will mark Mitchell’s last step before his total immersion in jazz, a kind of music that allowed her, later in her career, the true freedom she always wanted. Part of the power of “Blue,” however, is that it seems uncomfortable with the genre, transitional in every sense of the word – “only a dark cocoon before I have my magnificent wings and me. fly away, “as she puts it on” The Last Time I Saw Richard “, a closer album that sounds with the inconclusive character of an ellipse.
One proven way to decrease the power of a song, especially when written by a woman, is to focus too finely on who it is. And while Mitchell never tried to disguise the handful of former lovers and famous musicians who inhabit “Blue,” the context surrounding the album is only a surface concern, distracting attention from directing. his art of song and the oceanic force of his emotions. As James Taylor – romantically involved with Mitchell during parts of the songwriting on this album and guitarist on four songs on “Blue” – told me over the phone, the songs “kind of follow their own truth, which can. be folded ”.
Taylor said he knew better than to think the songs were “about” someone: “The song speaks for itself, really.” Minutes later, however, he remembered vividly the impulse flight from Boston to Los Angeles which he said inspired Mitchell to write “This Flight Tonight,” leaving him alone on the East Coast and unsure of their future. Universality and hyper-specific autobiography coexist on this record – one does not cancel the other. “Blue” is large enough to contain multiple truths.
“I demanded a deeper and greater honesty of myself,” Mitchell said in the documentary, the kind that comes into people’s lives and “pops the blisters in their heads and makes them feel”. This kind of work “hits the very nerves of their lives,” she said, “and in order to do that you have to strike against the very nerves of your own. ”
Over the past five decades, “blue” has been handed down as a ceremonial rite, a family heirloom, a holistic balm for the crudest of sorrows. To mark its 50th anniversary, The New York Times asked 25 artists and writers to talk about its lasting power. These are edited excerpts from the conversations. – Lindsay Zoladz