Cover Art: Art by Ben Shannon
19 June 2021 | CBC Music
“My music is not designed to grab instantly,” Joni Mitchell once told historian Alice Echols. “It’s designed to wear for a lifetime, to hold up like a fine cloth.” And in the wardrobe of Mitchell’s œuvre, there’s perhaps no richer fabric than Blue, her fourth studio album, released in June 1971, and her first to sell one million copies.
Blue marked an important transition for the Canadian singer-songwriter, from the acoustic folk of Clouds (1969) and Ladies of the Canyon (1970) to the increasingly layered production heard on Court and Spark (1974) and later records.
The album’s distinctive sound comes from the dulcimer, which is the main instrument on four of Blue‘s songs. “I took off to Europe carrying a flute and this dulcimer because it was very light for backpacking around Europe,” she said. “I wrote most of Blue on it.”
To call it “possibly the most gutting break-up album ever made,” as Pitchfork did, is both accurate and an understatement. Yes, many of the songs on Blue address the unraveling of a romantic relationship, but Mitchell’s songwriting transcends that narrative, too.
She sings of agency, longing, self-sacrifice and unrequited love in vulnerable, frank and often humorous ways that resonate to this day. Her work on Blue has birthed decades of covers and tribute shows, with devout fans ranging from Prince to Seal, Björk to Taylor Swift.
Blue’s naked honesty was a revelation, even to other songwriters: Kris Kristofferson once wrote to Mitchell, urging her to “save something for yourself.” But that strength in vulnerability spoke most directly to women, who may have never heard their feelings synthesized so clearly. “My stuff is not male fantasy at all,” Mitchell once explained. “It’s instructed to make men a little more informed.” In 2020, Rolling Stone ranked Blue as No. 3 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
To celebrate Blue‘s 50th anniversary, CBC Music commissioned 10 artists to illustrate each of the album’s songs. Accompanying these are words of appreciation from musicians, critics and writers who’ve “worn” Blue, and whose lives continue to be shaped by it.