University of Minnesota (Duluth) Geology student Jenna Carlson was assigned to write a paper on how the environment is handled in the media. She chose to report on "Big Yellow Taxi".
In 1970, singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell tied together music and environmental concern with her song “Big Yellow Taxi”. In the thirty-six years since the song’s original release, “Big Yellow Taxi” has been covered by dozens of different artists, giving members of both my parents’ and my generation a chance to appreciate the song’s catchy tune and environmental messages.
Joni Mitchell received her inspiration for “Big Yellow Taxi” on a trip to Hawaii. She was looking out of her hotel window at the magnificent Pacific scenery and then shifted her gaze downward to find a parking lot. The natural beauty of Hawaii had been rudely interrupted by a slab of pavement. The line “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” comes directly from this experience. The song also makes reference to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu. As the lyrics go “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot / With a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot.” The so-called “pink hotel” referred to in the lyrics is thought to be the aforementioned Royal Hawaiian. This coral-colored building is set amidst serene gardens abundant in natural flora. Also included in “Big Yellow Taxi” are the lyrics “They took all the trees / Put ‘em in tree museum / And they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ‘em.” With these lines, Joni is referring to the Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu. Foster Botanical Garden is home to hundreds of species of endangered Hawaiian and other exotic plants. The mission of the garden is to plan, develop, curate, maintain and study documented collections of tropical plants in an aesthetic setting for the purposes of conservation, botany, horticulture, education, and recreation. While it is very important to teach people about the natural flora of Hawaii, it is a shame that they have to be kept in such a “tree museum” and are not able to be appreciated in their natural settings.
The third verse of “Big Yellow Taxi” makes reference to a very pressing environmental issue of the day: DDT. When Mitchell wrote the lyrics to “Big Yellow Taxi” in 1967 and 1968, DDT use was still quite controversial. In the song Mitchell pleads with farmers to terminate DDT use: “Hey farmer, farmer put away that DDT now. / Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees. Please!” DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichlorethane, was a widely used pesticide in the United States. Following the discovery that many species of birds, including osprey and eagles, were negatively affected by DDT use, many environmentalists and other concerned citizens pushed for its discontinuance. In 1972, the United States officially banned the use of DDT except in cases of public health emergency. In the song, Joni Mitchell used this line to make a clear-cut statement with scientific backing about the harmful effects of DDT use.
The main message that is stressed throughout the song is present in the chorus: “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. / They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” I feel that the first part of the chorus line can pretty much sum up nearly every environmental issue that we face today. We seem to exploit resources without a care in the world until we suddenly realize that what we have been doing is detrimental to the environment and we’ve already dug a hole too deep to climb out of. As the adage goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Only, once everything is truly gone and irreplaceable do we realize the value and role that it played in our lives. The first three verses of “Big Yellow Taxi” make specific references to environmental issues and how we don’t truly appreciated nature until it is destroyed. The final verse of the song refers to a yellow taxi taking “away my old man”. I personally believe that this message brought out in the chorus is one of the reasons that the song became so popular. You can hear it and appreciate both its environmental and personal connotations.
Many people can and will view “Big Yellow Taxi” in many different ways; not everyone will be affected by the song in the same way. Members of my generation most likely became familiar with the song “Big Yellow Taxi” when the Counting Crows remade the song for the movie Two Weeks Notice. The song was quite popular for some time, but I believe that its popularity grew out of the catchy tune rather than support for the environmental cause. My generation understood the current environmental concerns and could relate some of the lyrics in the song to certain issues, but still simply saw the song as a just that: a song. Members of my parents’ generation might have a slightly different outlook on the song. Being from small, Midwestern towns, my parents were not always aware of the issues being pushed by members of larger communities and were not greatly affected by the messages brought forth in the lyrics. Both of them simply regarded “Big Yellow Taxi” as a catchy tune. For both of my parents, the chorus line was the most important part of the song: “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.” Even though they personally couldn’t relate to many of the other messages in “Big Yellow Taxi,” they could still relate to the chorus. Neither one denies the fact that many issues were being brought up by “Big Yellow Taxi” and they both realize that many people probably did take the messages to heart and used the song to rally support for environmental causes of the day.
“Big Yellow Taxi” has remained a popular song today. Some of the imagery of the lyrics may have been lost throughout the years, but everyone can still understand the issues being brought up. By not using extreme exaggeration, Joni Mitchell was able to make a clear statement in a very memorable and appealing way. “Big Yellow Taxi” tries to tell everyone how humans have destroyed and continue to destroy the natural beauty of the earth. I think that everyone will accept the song in his or her own way, but will respect the lyrics and take the line “you don’t know what you got till it’s gone” to heart.
“Big Yellow Taxi.” LyricsFreak. 2006. 3 Mar. 2006.
“Big Yellow Taxi.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 2006. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 3 Mar. 2006.
Carlson, James. Personal Interview. 16 Mar. 2006.
Carlson, Jody. Personal Interview. 16 Mar. 2006.
“DDT.” Lyric Footnotes. 2006. JoniMitchell.com. 3 Mar. 2006.
“Pink Hotel.” Lyric Footnotes. 2006. JoniMitchell.com. 3 Mar. 2006.
“Tree Museum.” Lyric Footnotes. 2006. JoniMitchell.com. 3 Mar. 2006.