Her Kind Of Blue: Joni Mitchell's Masterpiece At 50 How do we understand Blue in the 21st century? Can we think of Mitchell's 1971 album, long considered the apex of confessional songwriting, as a paradigm not of raw emotion, but of care and craft?

Her Kind Of Blue: Joni Mitchell's Masterpiece At 50

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On Tuesday, Joni Mitchell's iconic album, "Blue," turned 50 years old.


JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) I am on a lonely road, and I am traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling, looking for something. What can it be?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: From the soul searching of the opening track to the homesick longing of "California," to the bittersweet jingle bells of "River," it's a record that cemented Mitchell's place as one of the most influential singer songwriters of all time.

NPR Music ranked "Blue" the no. 1 album made by a woman. And today, we'll hear from two avid fans of Mitchell's, NPR’s Isabella Gomez Sarmiento and our resident Joni Mitchell expert, Ann Powers.


ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hello. It's so good to be talking about this record with you today, Isabella.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: I know. I'm so excited to have you. First, you wrote a really beautiful anniversary piece this week relating Joni's "Blue" to the best-selling jazz record of all time, "Kind Of Blue" by Miles Davis. Tell me a little bit more about that musical comparison.

POWERS: Well, first off, I want to say it's not necessarily a connection Joni Mitchell herself would confirm. And (laughter), you know, Joni knows best. So this is my critic head talking. I hear the connection between not only the way Joni sings - and she did once tell the critic Michelle Mercer that Miles Davis' muted trumpet inspired her singing on some of the songs on "Blue" - but also in the feel of the record, in the space between the notes, in the way that it kind of creates this, like, perennial present tense where we can return and sort of meditate within it, you know, and really feel the process of what she does on this record, as we do with "Kind Of Blue."


MITCHELL: (Singing) Blue, here is a shell for you. Inside you'll hear a sigh.

POWERS: I always thought that line was like, super corny, like, hi, I'm a hippie. Here's a seashell I picked up off the shore. But in fact, if you think of it in a different way, if you think of it as, here is a shell. This music is a shell to hold your emotions, to hold your experience. This song, "Blue," sets up a kind of instruction for the listener. How do you listen to this album? And that, I think, is what happens with "Blue." People go inside this work and better know themselves.


MITCHELL: (Singing) There is your song from me.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: And I think it's also, like, really important to put this album into perspective with the time period that it came out and - right? Like, right out of the 1960s after so many big dreams and radical political ideas, especially for women, didn't fully materialize. This is a record that takes a lot of those public demands into the private sphere, like, wanting to be taken seriously in a relationship, wanting to be heard and loved but wanting something more than marriage and a family for yourself. And I think we really hear that in "Little Green," which we now know is about Mitchell giving her daughter up for adoption.


MITCHELL: (Singing) So you sign all the papers in the family name. You're sad, and you're sorry, but you're not ashamed. Little green, have a happy ending.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Ann, what do you think made this album so significant at the time of its release?

POWERS: Isabella, you do hit on part of what made this record so important. One interesting thing is that it wasn't uniformly well-received when it was released. Some people thought it was too experimental, too spare. Over time, though, because of the way she created this almost other world with it, it is just constantly renewing itself. And while, yes, it stands, as you say, as a kind of text of second-wave feminism, although Joni would hate that word (laughter), it also - you know, it's just as relevant to your life, to my life. There's a girl being born today to whom "Blue" will be relevant eventually.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Definitely. I think that's part of what makes it so special is you know, it still hits so close to home. I mean, Joni and "Blue" in particular really shows how much discipline and strength there is in feeling and working through feelings and owning them, opening up about them.

POWERS: Beautifully said. You know, oftentimes, Joni has talked about this record being raw. And, yes, I think she felt raw when she was making it. But it is her incredible control, her incredible ability to modulate her emotions both through her singing and through the musical arrangements. It is a contemplative experience listening to "Blue." She's given us that kind of text, almost like a prayer, you know, that we can say to ourselves again and again to get us through the hard times.


MITCHELL: (Singing) Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling. Still, I'd be on my feet. Oh, I would still be on my feet.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: And I know this is somewhat of an impossible question, but when you listen now, is there a song on "Blue" that especially resonates with you?

POWERS: Well, Isabella, now that I'm a little older (laughter), I think I have to say a song that kind of baffled me in my early years listening to "Blue," the last song on the record.


MITCHELL: (Singing) The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in '68. And he told me, all romantics meet the same fate someday.

POWERS: Written after a conversation Joni Mitchell had with the folk singer Patrick Sky. Patrick Sky had said to Joni, oh, you're just too romantic, Joni. And out of that, she wrote the song both justifying her openness, her emotional vulnerability and saying, you know, I know it's true. Being overly romantic is also a habit. It's one that takes me into dark places. And what will be the next phase? I have to think about the next phase. We end on that note. It's an incredibly wise song for a woman in her 20s and also a precursor to what comes in a few years, her full on jazz phase where she gets out of those dark cafes and finds renewal in different kinds of music.


MITCHELL: (Singing) Richard, you haven't really changed, I said. It's just now you're romanticizing some pain that's in your head. You got tombs in your eyes, but the songs you punched are dreamy...

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Thank you so much for doing this, Ann. It's been so great talking about "Blue" with you.

POWERS: Oh, I love it. Any time.


MITCHELL: (Singing) When you gonna get yourself back on your feet? Oh, love can be so sweet.

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