The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #116: Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song and going until I reach Song . When you see the song title listed as something like: Song (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #116: Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell.

“Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell has become known as one of the biggest pro-environmental songs of all-time. For those who may not know, the idea for the song came to Joni one morning when she was visiting in Hawaii. Upon waking up, she went to her window and looked out at a seemingly endless ribbon of lush, green mountains and lovely azure waters and then, she gazed downward and saw pavement stretching as far across the land as she could see. The pavement ran like a scar. It filled her with a sense of disappointment and disgust which caused her to write the iconic line, “They’ve paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

I am not sure why Joni MItchell was in Hawaii as 1970 dawned. I do know that Buffy St. Marie lived there for most of her life and that, as well, she and Joni were friends so, it could have been that Joni was there visiting with Buffy but, alas, they didn’t consult me, as I was only in Grade 1 at the time. Among the other things that raised Joni’s ire was the fact that, on a chain of islands that are home to some of the most exotic types of plants and wildlife in the world, there is a museum in Oahu that houses trees so that they can be protected from humans. None of it made sense to Joni so she exorcised her frustrations by creating the lyrics to a song that became “Big Yellow Taxi”.

“Big Yellow Taxi” came from an album called, “Ladies of the Canyon”. While not her most famous album, “Ladies of the Canyon” is, none-the-less, heralded as being a very important album for Mitchell in the evolution of her career. “Ladies of the Canyon” was her third studio album. It was an album that saw her beginning to move away from her purely Folk roots. On this album, Mitchell wrote songs that used back-up harmonies, greater use of backing instruments and so on. The bulk of the album was written while she lived in a part of California known as Laurel Canyon; hence, the use of “Canyon” in her album title. As the 1960s drew to a close and the 70s began, Laurel Canyon was home to a vibrant Arts scene. Some of Joni Mitchell’s neighbours in Laurel Canyon included James Taylor, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Michelle Phillips and many more. During this time, it was quite common for each of these wonderful performers to show up at one another’s door, guitar in hand, ready to share new ideas that they had. There was a feeling of community in Laurel Canyon that bonded these artists and helped to solidify the “California” sound that began a few years earlier with the Beach Boys, CSNY, the Byrds and so on. It is, also, said that, in addition to sharing musical ideas with each other that, on occasion, romance was shared, as well.

Regardless of whether she was waking up in Hawaii or Laurel Canyon, alone or with a lover, Joni Mitchell was entering some of the most productive and important years of her career as the 1970s began. “Ladies of the Canyon” and her next album, “Blue” yielded some of the most well-known and loved songs of all-time; “Big Yellow Taxi” being one of them, for sure. One of the mysteries that arose from this song was its title. What did a “Big Yellow Taxi” have to do with covering Hawaii with asphalt? Well, the story is that the “Big Yellow Taxi” referenced in the song was actually a Toronto police car (apparently, they were yellow back in the day). Before Joni left Canada for the US, someone close to her was taken away by the police. This caused her to harbour the sentiment that you don’t always miss what you had until it is gone. That sentiment returned to her, full force, when she thought about how we, humans, are treating the environment. I feel that way, too, with every farmer’s field around Cobourg that is being plowed under so that subdivisions can be built and land developers can line their greedy little pockets. But anyway, as mentioned, “Big Yellow Taxi” has gone on to become one of Joni Mitchell’s most well-known songs. In a musical catalogue filled with big hits, that “Big Yellow Taxi” resonates so, points to the power of a good line and the value of promoting important ideals that so many hold dear.

Without further delay, here is Joni Mitchell with “Big Yellow Taxi” from her album, “Ladies of the Canyon”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, can be found here.

The link to the official website of Joni Mitchell, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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