Celebrating Joni Mitchell: Five essential songs

Happy Birthday, Joni Mitchell!

The Canadian icon, who turns 75 today, has captivated audiences for decades with her Laurel Canyon sound, acoustic guitar and silvery voice. One of the most acclaimed songwriters of our time, her ballads covered topics from love to politics, and her alternative tunings on guitar has created a musical style that is effortless and untouchable.

What we love about Joni Mitchell is that she is authentically herself – you can’t put a label on her. As a woman in the industry, she wasn’t going to be told how to look or what to sing or write about. Mitchell is an honest and serious artist, with valuable and insightful thoughts about the world around her.  

Her music made people feel free.

“Freedom to me is a luxury of being able to follow the path of the heart, to keep the magic in your life. Freedom is necessary for me in order to create, and if I cannot create I don’t feel alive.”

Here are ALTo’s picks of her five essential songs.

Big Yellow Taxi, Ladies of the Canyon, (1970)

With lyrics such as, “They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot," Mitchell’s otherwise cheery tune is actually about environmentalism. Written in Hawaii, she wrote the song after her dismay of the sight of a parking lot while admiring the island’s scenery from her hotel window. Mitchell’s prediction of the commercialization of land and its negative impact on the environment was ahead of its time, and remains relevant today. “It took 20 years for that song to sink into people (in) most other places in the country,” she would later tell the Los Angeles Times in a 1996 interview.

California, Blue, (1971)

The stringy ballad sees Mitchell reminiscing about her European travels, but longing to go home, back to California. The tune also sees Mitchell using a dulcimer, showcasing her many instrumental talents despite not having any formal training. What makes Mitchell a great musician is her simplicity. She made us listen to the story. The girl from Canada’s prairies has travelled far beyond what she could have ever imagined, and there is only one place where she can be free.

Woodstock, Ladies of the Canyon, (1970)

Mitchell penned the counterculture anthem after not being able to perform at Woodstock, along with her friends Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Having been booked to appear on The Dick Cavett Show, she watched the festival from New York. The song later became a rock hit for Crosby et al. but Mitchell’s soulful original projects the yearning for peace. “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” she sings, making references to everything from the hope for a better future to the Vietnam War.

River, Blue, (1971)

“River” is a heartbreak ballad that somehow found its way into the catalogue of modern Christmas classics. Opening to the tune of ‘Jingle Bells’ played in minor key, the melancholic track tells the tale of love lost and the need to escape the torment of heartache during the happiest time of the year. Since its 1971 release, the track has become Mitchell’s second most covered track, behind “Both Sides Now.” “River” is one of those rare Christmas songs that can be enjoyed by both fans and enemies of the season.

Help Me, Court and Spark, (1974)

From Mitchell’s most commercially successful album Court and Spark, “Help Me” ventures from the singer’s usual folksy sound to introduce elements of jazz and jazz fusion. This was the first time we heard Mitchell’s new style, which continued for the later part of her career. Though the lyrics aren't as profound or emotionally evocative as her previous work, the lack of complexity makes the song especially approachable and relatable. Who hasn't thought “Help me/I think I'm falling in love again?”