Over and over Joni Mitchell has told the story: When she played her fourth album Blue, for Kris Kristofferson, he reacted in horror. “Joni, keep something for yourself!” she recalled him saying. Had she followed that guidance, she wouldn’t have unknowingly set the template for “confessional” songwriting as we know it today. Had she not given all that she did to create the treatise on love’s many permutations that is Blue—a breakup album and then some, a travelogue that covers as much ground internally as it does literally—the pièce de résistance of her catalog would have been something very different. And so may have been the ensuing world of music.
So much has been written and said about this album, which was not a blockbuster at the time of its release but instead saw its grasp on collective consciousness tighten over the years. But here is something that can only be said now for the first time: Happy 50th birthday, Blue. Tuesday marks 50 years of Blue, which was released June 22, 1971. It is a work that is as joyous and devastating—often in the same song—as ever.
As you might expect from a beloved album on a milestone anniversary, Blue has received a number of written tributes to mark the occasion. At NPR, legendary music critic Ann Powers goes long on the album’s legacy and creation, examining it not just as art but a documentary. “Blue is an album about working through something—a heartache, people say. But it’s just as much a document of the process of sharing that heartache, an inquiry into personal storytelling itself,” writes Powers.
The New York Times ran a feature on Sunday titled “50 Reasons to Love Joni Mitchell’s Blue,” which contains a host of quotes from famous admirers of the album. “I mean, she’s the only artist that sent me to a dictionary,” recalls friend and collaborator Chaka Khan. Similarly, the Los Angeles Times on Monday published, “‘Better than the Beatles’: James Taylor, Elton John, Haim and more break down Joni’s Blue,” in which each of Blue’s 10 songs is broken down by a notable artist. Says Elton John regarding “Little Green,” a song about the daughter Mitchell placed for adoption:
She made so many great albums, but Blue is her masterpiece and “Little Green” is the most poignant, emotionally heavy thing on it. I know Joni and I love her, but the subject of that song is not something I would ever bring up with her. But then, I don’t need to: Everything you need to know is in the lyrics.
Mitchell’s ex and collaborator David Crosby calls Blue “the best singer-songwriter record ever made,” and goes into the real-life love imprinted on Mitchell’s work:
How she sounds, when she’s singing “River,” like, she hurts. Well, she was hurting. It’s emotionally genuine. She’s telling the truth. She had relationships with me, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, a bunch of us. And they all were fiery and beautiful and painful, and they all failed. And she did hurt us. “I made my baby cry.” Well, she did. I know I was one of them. I cried. I cried a lot. I know Nash did. I know that Jackson did. I suspect that James did too. We, for a moment, stood in the brief glare of her almost actinic light, this crazy brightness coming off of her. And it burned us, but it was beautiful. She would always say that it was the guy’s fault. I don’t think Joni ever had malicious intent, even though she did do some malicious things. Sometimes she would lash out at people. She punched Jackson.
But the most important words on the album come from the 77-year-old Mitchell herself. She granted a rare interview to director Cameron Crowe, who fictionalized his music-journalism origins in his 2000 film Almost Famous, also in the Los Angeles Times. Crowe reveals that after Mitchell’s 2015 aneurysm left the future of her voice uncertain, she is in fact singing again. Also, her favorite song at the moment is the 2019 South African house track “Jerusalema” by Master KG.
On creating Blue, Mitchell said, “I felt too vulnerable. I felt like everybody could see into me and see that I was suffering. I don’t remember even why I was suffering so much. A lot of the album was written in that frame of mind.” When asked if she makes herself cry with her own music, Mitchell responded: “No, never. I’m not a weeper. I’m a snarler. I just put all the weeping in the words. The words are the weeping.”
Mitchell famously makes no bones about not getting the credit she thinks she deserves. Despite her position as an icon in American music history, there’s something to this. Mitchell, for example, has never won the top Grammy honor Album of the Year; in 2008, Herbie Hancock did with an album of Mitchell covers. Her dogged underdog identification, though, often gives way to a softness, a sense that she is genuinely moved, when in fact tribute is paid. Said Mitchell on hearing herself being heard:
You know, it’s amazing to me, looking at all of this attention my work has gotten recently … the response when I’ve gone to Clive Davis’ Grammy parties too. He announces me, and that audience gives me this thunderous applause. I’m always so moved when people tell me how the music has affected them. It’s amazing to me that after everything, in spite of the criticism, that the intimacy paid off big time. It really did help people face their own intimacy, you know?
I can’t imagine what “intimacy” as public expression would even look like without Blue. To many more!