There are two prominent motifs that run through Joni Mitchell’s iconic 1971 record Blue, an album that came out on this day some 49 years ago. The two profound themes are a perfect summation of Mitchell as a songwriter, firstly her intent to share herself more than ever before on this album and secondly to do it while using the often forgotten instrument the dulcimer.
Below, we’re revisiting an interview from the 1990s in which Mitchell opens up about these two themes and how they helped to craft one of the most beloved albums of all time.
It’s hard to imagine Joni Mitchell without her acoustic guitar in front of her. The image of Mitchell using the classic instrument to share her soul is so ubiquitous with her iconography that it is difficult to envisage her playing anything else.
However, Blue rests on one unusual instrument, the dulcimer. Mitchell picked up her first dulcimer in 1969 at the Big Sur Festival and instantly began playing it, though she admits speaking with Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers that she never really knew how to play one.
“I had never seen one played,” remembered Mitchell. “Traditionally it's picked with a quill, and it's a very delicate thing that sits across your knee. The only instrument I had ever had across my knee was a bongo drum, so when I started to play the dulcimer I beat it. I just slapped it with my hands.
“Anyway I bought it, and I took off to Europe carrying a flute and this dulcimer because it was very light for backpacking around Europe. I wrote most of Blue on it. Some of the album’s best songs were composed on the instrument including ‘A Case of You,’ ‘All I Want’ and ‘California’ and Mitchell’s connection to the instrument runs deeper still.
“I was craving a guitar so badly in Greece,” revealed Mitchell. “The junta had repressed the population at that time. They were not allowed public meetings; they were not allowed any kind of boisterous or colourful expression. The military was sitting on their souls, and even the poets had to move around.
“We found this floating poets' gathering place, and there was an apple crate of a guitar there that people played. I bought it off them for 50 bucks and sat in the Athens underground with transvestites and, you know, the underbelly running around - and it was like a romance. It was a terrible guitar, but I hadn't played one for so long, and I began slapping it because I had been slapping this dulcimer. That's when I noticed that my style had changed.”
Thinking a little further on the subject, Mitchell also suggested that some inspiration came from a little closer to home: “I saw a television show [recently] that I did the day after Woodstock, where Crosby, Nash, and Stills showed up. Stephen slapped his guitar, which is a kind of flamenco way of playing it, so I would have to cite Stephen Stills also as an influence in that department. But it was latent and not conscious.”
One thing that was conscious, however, was Mitchell’s desire to make Blue one of her most personal albums to date. The singer-songwriter had become well known for her anthemic songs and the weight of her musical construction but this album was about to reveal everything Joni Mitchell had to offer of herself.
At the time, making such a personal record was not the done thing. She tells Rodgers, “I was opened up. As a matter of fact, we had to close the doors and lock them while I recorded [Blue] because I was in a state of mind that in this culture would be called a nervous breakdown. In pockets of the Orient, it would be considered a shamanic conversion.”
Mitchell continued to shed light on the deeply personal moment of the record: “It begins with a sense of isolation and of not knowing anything, which is accompanied by a tremendous panic. Then clairvoyant qualities begin to come in, and you and the world become transparent, so if you're approached by a person, all their secrets are not closeted.”
The ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ singer continued: “It makes you see a lot of ugliness in people that you'd rather not know about, and you lie to yourself and say something nice about them to cover it up. It gets very confusing. In that state of mind, I was defenceless as a result, stripped down to a position of absolutely no capability of the normal pretension that people have to survive.”
It was a state of mind that even concerned some of her closest friends who were worried Mitchell was giving too much of herself to the audience. “I played it for Kris Kristofferson, who said, "God, Joan, save something of yourself." He was embarrassed by it. I think generally at first that people were embarrassed by it, that in a certain way it was shocking, especially in the pop arena.” It’s not an arena for truth in Mitchell’s eyes, “It's a phoney business, and people accept the phoniness of it. It's fluff, it's this week's flavour and it gets thrown out, and it isn't supposed to be anything really more than that.”
Blue though still remains something much more than that. Regardless of us being 49 years down the line and still happily proclaiming the record as one of the greatest ever made, Blue is a bastion of artistic expression. It shows what committing yourself to a singular vision and project can do, good and bad, and for that, it will always be a classic. It was something that Mitchell has taken with her throughout her life.
“By the time I made the next albums,” suggested Mitchell. “I had stabilised psychologically, I would say, to a degree where, like we all do, I had some defences. But that descent cracked me wide open, and I remain wide open to this day. I don't want to develop too many defences.”
The songs may be a little shaped by the weathers of time and the content may not feels as shockingly connective or emotive but one thing is for sure: we will still be speaking about Joni Mitchell’s Blue in another 50 years.
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