Big Yellow Taxi: Joni Mitchell, Counting Crows and Amy Grant

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Big Yellow Taxi. This is a terrific environmental-themed folk-rock song written and performed by Joni Mitchell. We will start with Joni’s original, then discuss covers of that song by Counting Crows and Amy Grant.

Joni Mitchell and Big Yellow Taxi:

Joni Mitchell is one of the greatest pop musicians of the 20th century. Her music is defined by its creativity, beautiful marriage of melody and poetry, and its incredibly wide scope. Joni Mitchell’s work has ranged from folk to pop to jazz to electronic music to world music. Because of her dual interests in music and art (Joni did the cover work for several of her albums), she refers to herself as “a painter derailed by circumstance.”

She is heralded as a superb musician by many different sources.
Rolling Stone has called her “one of the greatest songwriters ever”, and AllMusic has stated, “When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century”.

Below is a photo of Joni Mitchell performing at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970.

Roberta Joan Anderson grew up in Canada where her family moved from one military base to another following the career of her father, a Royal Canadian Air Force flight lieutenant. Her initial interest in athletics was curtailed by a brief bout with polio at age eight. Furthermore, about this time Joni started smoking.  Joni Mitchell’s voice was simply marvelous, both in its range over several octaves and her vocal styling.  Thus it was rather remarkable that she continued to smoke for decades without any notable deterioration of her terrific voice, until the late 1990s.

Following her childhood health issues, Joni became interested in music. However, her reaction to polio made it difficult for her to adopt standard guitar fingering positions. As a result, she was forced to experiment with various alternate tunings.  Joni’s unique guitar tunings were a central feature of most of her classic songs, leaving other guitarists scratching their heads in bafflement at her seriously odd choices.

At the age of 20, she moved from Saskatchewan to Toronto, where she began to perform in coffeehouses and small clubs. She met and married folksinger Chuck Mitchell and took his last name. When their marriage broke up in 1967, Joni landed in New York City, where she became a regular in folk clubs on the Eastern Seaboard.

Initially Joni’s major success was as a songwriter. In particular, Judy Collins had major hits with Mitchell’s compositions Both Sides Now and Chelsea Morning. The albums Clouds and Ladies of the Canyon, released in 1969 and 1970 respectively, became the springboards that launched Joni Mitchell into super-stardom.

Big Yellow Taxi is one of my favorite songs. It appeared on Joni Mitchell’s great 1970 album, Ladies of the Canyon. Surprisingly, it only reached #27 on the US Billboard pop charts, but was a bigger hit in Joni’s native Canada, Australia, and the UK.

In addition to a very catchy melody, the song works on several levels. In the first place, it is a lament that we fail to properly appreciate what we have until we lose it. As the chorus says, in one of many unforgettable stanzas in the song,

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

However, the song is also an environmental anthem. It decries the destruction of the environment, with practices like clear-cut logging, and wanton use of pesticides.

They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
Then they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em

… Hey farmer, farmer
Put away that DDT now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees,
Please!

Apparently Joni Mitchell was moved to write Big Yellow Taxi on her first visit to Hawaii. Looking out of her hotel window, in the distance she saw some magnificent mountains. However, directly adjacent to her hotel was a gigantic asphalt parking lot, stretching out in all directions.
The line “They took all the trees, and put ’em in a tree museum …” refers to Foster Botanical Garden in downtown Honolulu, which is a living museum of tropical plants, some rare and endangered.

Here is the audio of Joni Mitchell’s recording of Big Yellow Taxi.

spotify:track:6UkMcAA19lTdjs22jtB7o2

Apart from Joni’s really effective guitar strumming and the catchy melody, the song features a terrific girl singer backup group, repeating the phrase “Shooooo, bop bop bop bop.” At the song’s final line, Joni’s voice first moves high up into her upper register, then she ends the song by dropping her voice to its lowest possible pitch, and she then breaks into a chuckle. What a classic tune!

Here is Joni Mitchell performing Big Yellow Taxi live at the 1970 Isle of Wight concert.

In one or two brief crowd shots, you can see the tremendous attendance at this concert. Highly subjective reports of the attendance at the five-day concert range up to 700,000 people. Regardless of the exact number, it was one of the largest live concerts ever held.

The poster for the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, with a list of the performers

The poster for the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, with a list of the performers

At left is the poster for the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, advertising the groups who were to appear that year.

Although Joni gets a big hand from the crowd for her performance of Big Yellow Taxi, her overall experience was sufficiently negative that it soured her on big concerts ever afterwards.
At one point, … [Joni] was interrupted by a youth who rushed on stage to shout that the three-day festival should be free. The bearded youth was pushed off stage quickly, but hundreds in the audience shrieked: “Let him speak,” and started clapping in unison.
… “Look, look I got my feelings, too,” [Joni] said, trembling. “It’s very difficult to lay something down before an audience like this. Please.”

In the mid-70s, Joni moved from folk-rock to more jazz-inspired work. She began collaborations with jazz artists such as Jaco Pistorius and Wayne Shorter, and produced some very unique albums. She then entered into an extended collaboration with jazz bassist Charles Mingus.

Although her jazz fusion albums did not sell quite as well as her best folk-rock offerings, they were generally in the Billboard top 25 album charts. Her work at this time was also highly acclaimed by critics.

Since that time, Joni Mitchell has continued to chart her own personal course. She has produced a number of pop hits, with forays into electronic music and world music.

However, in recent years time seems to have caught up with Joni. Her vocal range became much more limited, and starting in the late 1990s she experienced a number of health problems. Joni announced that the album Travelogue, issued in 2002, would likely be her last; however, she issued another album, Shine, in 2007.

In March 2015, Joni Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm. At last word she is apparently undergoing physical therapy. We wish her all the best – she is a living national treasure.

Counting Crows and Big Yellow Taxi:

The folk-rock group Counting Crows is a seven-member band originally from Berkeley, California. The group dates back to 1991, when Singer Adam Duritz and guitarist-producer Dan Bryson began performing in coffeehouses as an acoustic duo.

The group’s first album was released in 1993. Supervised by legendary producer T-Bone Burnett, the album August and Everything After contained a couple of big hits, Mr. Jones and Round Here. That album was incredibly popular – indeed, it sold faster than any album since Nirvana’s Nevermind.

The attendant publicity was great, but it also took its toll on the band members, as Duritz had to take some time off in 1994 after suffering a nervous breakdown. Three years later, Duritz once again was forced to rest when nodules were discovered on his vocal cords.

The photo below shows the rock group Counting Crows in Dublin, Ireland in 1994. Lead singer Adam Duritz is in back row R.

Counting Crows’ cover of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi is from their 2002 album Hard Candy. Here is a live version of Big Yellow Taxi performed by Counting Crows on the TV show Top of the Pops in 2003.

I really like their version of Joni Mitchell’s classic song. It has an infectious beat and deceptively simple arrangement. Their rendition features an upright bass, and a short but interesting guitar solo from Dan Bryson in the middle.

Adam Duritz’ raspy voice reminds me a lot of Rod Stewart, and also of former Hootie and the Blowfish lead vocalist Darius Rucker, who took an intriguing turn from rock to country music. Here, Duritz includes some jazz-inspired vocals, and shows himself to be a fine live performer.

After first coming to prominence in 1993, Counting Crows has proved to be quite durable. They have toured with groups like the Stones, John Mayer, Los Lobos and Maroon 5. I like the fact that they are on tour a fair amount, providing live shows for their fans. So – live long and prosper, Counting Crows.

Amy Grant and Big Yellow Taxi:

Amy Grant is a singer-songwriter who is known as the “Queen of Christian Pop.” She first surfaced during the 1980s, when she became exceptionally successful singing religious-themed songs. She gained a very large audience for her music, winning major awards for gospel and Christian music.

Below is a photo of Amy Grant performing on the NBC Today Show in August 2003.

After becoming a dominant figure in Christian music, Grant attempted to broaden her appeal by branching out to the field of contemporary adult pop music. I didn’t realize that this was a big stretch – in fact, the themes on a number of Grant’s pop albums are nearly identical to those on her gospel records, just without specific references to Jesus or Christianity.

However, Amy Grant was one of the first “Contemporary Christian” musicians to be able to make this transition, without permanently leaving gospel music as was done by earlier artists such as Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.

Amy Grant’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi is from Grant’s 1994 album House of Love. Like several of her other pop albums, this one contains a mixture of straight pop tunes and those with overtly spiritual messages.

Here is a live video of Amy Grant performing Big Yellow Taxi.

So, what do you think? Grant’s performance follows Joni Mitchell’s record pretty closely, especially the addition of the chorus singing the iconic “Shooo, bop bop bop bop.”

Grant has a terrific voice, and very professional musicians backing her up. I have to say, to my ears this rendition is distinctly lacking in soul.  Although it’s competently performed, it just sounds mechanical to me.  As my friend Glenn Gass says, “Amy Grant could have achieved much the same result by just posting on Facebook ‘I like this song,’ and not have bothered to record it.'”

But perhaps you will feel differently. This is why individual tastes in pop music vary so greatly. They even vary tremendously over time. I will never get over the fact that I refused to accompany my friends in the mid-60s to watch Jimi Hendrix perform in London, telling them “The dude’s music is just too weird to me.” Oy.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Big Yellow Taxi
Wikipedia, Joni Mitchell
Wikipedia, Counting Crows
Wikipedia, Amy Grant
Wikipedia, Isle of Wight Festival
Isle of Wight Festival Turns Slightly Discordant, Bernard Weinraub, New York Times, Aug. 30, 1970.

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats. He is also interested in tennis and ornithology.
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