Top 40 Joni Mitchell Songs

Quite why I start these almost impossible lists is something I probably need to speak quite earnestly to a therapist about, however, here I am, doing it again. As always it is just my opinion and sometimes I forget the odd track or two, so feel free to demand that anything I’ve excluded is included. I’m not going to write about all of them, but I will about some, just because I will have thought about something to say.

I fully appreciate the pointlessness of such lists having just listened to pretty much the entire back catalogue and again realising that I could probably choose any of 200 songs in any order and it would be just as valid, and I know the moment I finished this I got it wrong, but no matter, it is how I feel today, right now, in ten minutes or an hour it will change, but that’s OK.

40 – The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms) (Chalk Mark In a Rain Storm)

39 – Night of the Iguana (Shine)

38 – The Magdalene Laundries (Turbulent Indigo)

37 – The Last Time I Saw Richard (Travelogue version)

36 – Chelsea Morning (Clouds)

In a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mitchell explained: “I wrote that in Philadelphia after some girls who worked in this club where I was playing found all this colored slag glass in an alley. We collected a lot of it and built these glass mobiles with copper wire and coat hangers. I took mine back to New York and put them in my window on West 16th Street in the Chelsea District. The sun would hit the mobile and send these moving colors all around the room. As a young girl, I found that to be a thing of beauty. There’s even a reference to the mobile in the song. It was a very young and lovely time… before I had a record deal. I think it’s a very sweet song, but I don’t think of it as part of my best work. To me, most of those early songs seem like the work of an ingenue.”

I bought a job lot of 5 Joni Mitchell albums from Ebay, one of which was Clouds and this song, track 2, was the one that grabbed me and drew me in to the album. Even songs she doesn’t think are all that good are, compared to a lot of other writers, quite wonderful.

Interesting fact, Bill and Hillary Clinton named their daughter Chelsea after this song. They got the idea for the name when they were walking through the Chelsea area of London and heard the Judy Collins version of the song. According to Hillary Clinton (stated in her book Living History), Bill said to her, “If we ever have a daughter, we should name her Chelsea.”

35 – The Boho Dance (The Hissing of Summer Lawns)

Full disclosure, this is the first Joni Mitchell album I ever owned, bought when I was 16 I think, so 8 years after it was released, and I played it to death. Other than bits and pieces I heard here and there it was my proper introduction to her music and it has probably framed everything I have have listened to since. The album did not receive much acclaim upon its release (The online Rolling Stone review is particularly scathing, some reviewers did rate it highly though) but I’m happy to report that they critics who panned it are all wrong. The problem, I think, was that they wanted folky Mitchell, and this most certainly isn’t that. She was experimenting with a jazzier feel and new forms, which I happen to think she pulled off magnificently.

34 – In France they kiss on main street (The Hissing of Summer Lawns)

33 – Amelia (Hejira)

Mitchell (from a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times): “I wrote the album while traveling cross-country by myself and there is this restless feeling throughout it… the sweet loneliness of solitary travel. In this song, I was thinking of Amelia Earhart and addressing it from one solo pilot to another, sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do.”

A ghost of aviation
She was swallowed by the sky
Or by the sea like me she had a dream to fly
Like Icarus ascending
On beautiful foolish arms

32 – Man From Mars (Taming the Tiger)

This is a later album, 1998, and I don’t know it very well. All my Joni Mitchell albums are on vinyl and this was never released other than on CD and Cassette so it doesn’t get much play time but this particularly stood out for me.

I fall apart
Everytime I think of you
Swallowed by the dark
There is no center to my life now
No grace in my heart
Man from Mars
This time you went too far

31 – Come in from the Cold (Night Ride Home)

Another album I’m not that familiar with, from 1991, and one which I really must get a copy of. I’ve given it a good listen over the past few weeks and it was both the hook and the opening lyrics that really caught me on this track.

Back in 1957
We had to dance a foot apart
And they hawk-eyed us from the sidelines
Holding their rulers without a heart
And so with just a touch of our fingers
I could make our circuitry explode
All we ever wanted
Was just to come in from the cold

30 – My Secret Place (Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm)

Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm is the 13th studio album, released in 1988. The album features various duets with guest artists such as Peter Gabriel on “My Secret Place”, Willie Nelson on “Cool Water”, Don Henley on “Snakes and Ladders”, Billy Idol and Tom Petty on the track “Dancin’ Clown”. Henley also performs backing vocals on “Lakota”, and Wendy and Lisa perform backing vocals on “The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)”. Obviously, I would pick the Gabriel track.

29 – Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody (Wild Things Run Fast)

There is an honesty that Mitchell sometimes conveys that, quite frankly, is painful, and it happens in this song where slipping into Unchained Melody seems the only way to end it.

Christmas is sparkling
Out on Carol’s lawn
This girl of my childhood games
With kids nearly grown and gone
Grown so fast
Like the turn of a page
We look like our mothers did now
When we were those kids’ age

Nothing lasts for long

28 – Talk to Me (Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter)

So there are two reasons I love this song, one is the bass of Jaco Pastorius, the guy was quite brilliant. The second is the way that Mitchell’s opening lyrics paint such a vivid word picture, one that is, perhaps, rather unexpected.

There was a moon and a street lamp
I didn’t know I drank such a lot
‘Till I pissed a tequila-anaconda
The full length of the parking lot!

27- Song For Sharon (Hejira)

26 – Hejira (Hejira)

25 – Coyote (Hejira)

This song was written about the actor/writer/playwright Sam Shepard during Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Sam Shepard wrote The Rolling Thunder Logbook, which is an account of the tour.

The “woman at home” in this song is Patti Smith, who declined the invitation to join the musicians on the Rolling Thunder Revue.

I’ve included two videos as I like them both.

24 – Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow (The Hissing of Summer Lawns)

“Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” is an acoustic guitar–based song with stream-of-consciousness lyrics, focused on women standing up to male dominance and proclaiming their own existence as individuals. 

23 – The Jungle Line (The Hissing of Summer Lawns)

22 – Big Yellow Taxi (Ladies of the Canyon)

Mitchell (from a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times): “I wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart… this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song.”

The line, “Took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum, charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em” refers to Foster Gardens, a place in Waikiki which is basically a tree museum. It’s a huge garden full of trees so tall you feel like Alice in Wonderland.

The line, “Put away that DDT now, give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees” refers to the insecticide DDT, which was used on crops. The deleterious effects of the chemical were in the news, as Americans learned that their food was being contaminated by its use – those spotless apples looked great but held hidden dangers. Also, birds were eating the insects and fish poisoned by DDT, which caused them to lay brittle eggs and put many species in danger, including the bald eagle. In 1972, DDT was banned for most uses.

The song holds a particularly poignant memory for me as it is one of three 45’s that I had as a child, left behind by my mother I think, and I would play it repeatedly. I think it was an original 1970 release with Woodstock on the B-Side.

21 – Free Man In Paris (Court & Spark)

The “Free Man” of the song is David Geffen, who was in charge of Mitchell’s record label. The song is about the pressures the music industry puts on their artists.

Mitchell and Geffen rose up the ranks together. In the late ’60s, he was establishing himself as an agent (an important early client was another mighty female songwriter: Laura Nyro) and she was making a name for herself with her music. They became good friends, and when Geffen started Asylum Records, Mitchell recorded for the label – her 1972 album For The Roses was her first on Asylum. The two confided in each other, and Geffen would often talk about the extraordinary pressures he faced as a high-powered music mogul. Mitchell wrote “Free Man in Paris” based on what he told her: Where Geffen felt most alive and unencumbered was in Paris, where nobody could call him up and ask for favours.

José Feliciano played guitar on this track. He was working on another project at the studios (A&M in Los Angeles) when he heard the song coming from Mitchell’s studio and offered to play.

20 – Same Situation (Court & Spark)

Mitchell (from a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times): “I don’t want to name names or kiss and tell, but basically it is a portrait of a Hollywood bachelor and the parade of women through his life, how he toys with yet another one. So many women have been in this position, being vulnerable at a time when you need affection or are searching for love, and you fall into the company of a Don Juan.”

19 – Help Me (Court & Spark)

In this song, Mitchell sings about a guy she’s falling in love with while at the same time knowing the relationship is doomed, as he is “a rambler and a gambler” who loves his freedom. Mitchell never revealed the identity of this person (if any – she says that not all her songs are autobiographical), but the two prime candidates would be Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey, both of whom she dated in the early ’70s.

Interesting fact, Prince gave this song a shout out on his Sign O’ The Times track
The Ballad of Dorothy Parker, where he sings about a tryst with a waitress who tells him it’s her favourite song.

18 – For The Roses (For the Roses)

The whole album is new to me having picked up a copy only last year, which is great for me as it is like having new material even though it is nearly 40 years old.

17 – Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire (For the Roses)

16 – Edith and the Kingpin (The Hissing of Summer Lawns)

This is the song that prompted me to buy the album having heard it on The Friday Rock Show.

“Edith” in this song was inspired by the famous French singer Edith Piaf. In an interview with Mojo magazine February 2008, Joni Mitchell was discussing her songwriting: “Sometimes you write about the exact thing you saw, but other times you take something that happened over here and put it with something over there. In ‘Edith And The Kingpin,’ part of it is from a Vancouver pimp I met and part of it is Edith Piaf. It’s a hybrid, but all together it makes a whole truth.”

15 – Cactus Tree (Song to the Seagull)

“Cactus Tree” is the final song on Joni Mitchell’s debut album, Song To A Seagull. It’s about several men who are in love with a woman, with each story tied together by the common theme of the unnamed woman’s need for freedom and resistance to romantic commitment. In every case, the woman “thinks she loves them all” but ultimately is always “too busy being free.”

The song is written in the third person, but Mitchell is an autobiographical songwriter and the female subject in the song is herself. The feeling is that Mitchell is torn over her simultaneous need for love and her need for freedom, with freedom always ultimately winning out. Every verse tells the story of a lover, or an overview of several lovers, identified with archetypal personas like “a jouster and a jester and a man who owns a store.”

Mitchell has called herself a “serial monogamist.” She carried the inner tension presented in this song throughout her life.

14 – Urge for Going (B-side of the “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” )

What I find great about this clip is how the guys either side of her look blown away by Mitchells performance as though they know she has something they never will.

13 – A Case of You (Blue)

The version found on Blue features Mitchell playing Appalachian dulcimer, accompanied by James Taylor on acoustic guitar and Russ Kunkel on drums. Kunkel is widely regarded as one of the top session drummers of the 1970s.

Joni Mitchell told Robert Hilburn in a 1994 interview regarding this song: “I think men write very dishonestly about breakups. I wanted to be capable of being responsible for my own errors. If there was friction between me and another person, I wanted to be able to see my participation in it so I could see what could be changed and what could not. That is part of the pursuit of happiness. You have to pull the weeds in your soul when you are young, when they are sprouting, otherwise they will choke you.” 

12 – River (Blue)

At the start of 1970, Joni Mitchell’s relationship with her boyfriend Graham Nash was crumbling. On top of this, she was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the mass adulation her recordings were receiving. The songstress needed to get away, so she took off on a trip to Europe, metaphorically skating away on a river to escape the crazy scene. While Mitchell was in Crete, she sent Nash a telegram to tell him their romance was over. On “River,” the Canadian singer gives her perspective on the doomed relationship as she yearns to escape the emotional bonds. She admits to being “hard to handle” and blames herself for losing “the best baby I ever had.”

11- Court & Spark (Court & Spark)

The title track from what I think was her most commercially succesful release.

10 – California (Blue)

In this song, Mitchell sings of going home to her beloved California. She sings as though she’s been on a long journey – and indeed, she has. After a tough breakup with her longtime boyfriend Graham Nash, Mitchell hoofed her way across Europe. It was during that journey when Mitchell penned many of the songs on her Blue album.

This song, and many of the songs on this album, were inspired by the jazz style of the great Miles Davis.

9 – Blue (Blue)

The title track on Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece 1971 album, the song touches on depression, general sadness and the ways people use to escape from them told over a beautiful piano melody.

Blue
Songs are like tattoos
You know I’ve been to sea before
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away

Hey, blue
There is a song for you
Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin
An empty space to fill in

8 – Carey (Blue)

Carey was a real person Joni met in Matala. He had flaming red hair and often wore a turban. They met, says Mitchell, when Carey “blew out of a restaurant in Greece, literally. Kaboom! I heard, facing the sunset. I turned around and this guy is blowing out the door of this restaurant. He was a cook; he lit a gas stove and it exploded. Burned all the red hair off himself right through hiswhite Indian turban. I went, ‘That was an interesting entrance-I’ll takenote of that.'”

The following transcript of the introduction to this song that Mitchell gave during a performance at the Troubadour is on this site devoted to Crete:

“I went to Greece a couple years ago and over there I met a very unforgettable character. I have a hard time remembering people’s names, like, so I have to remember things by association, even unforgettable characters I have to remember by association, so his name was ‘Carrot’ Raditz, Carey Raditz, and oh, he’s a great character. He’s got sort of a flaming red personality, and flaming red hair and a flaming red appetite for red wine and he fancied himself to be a gourmet cook, you know, if he could be a gourmet cook in a cave in Matala. And he announced to my girlfriend and I the day that we met him that he was the best cook in the area and he actually was working at the time I met him – he was working at this place called the Delphini restaurant – until it exploded, singed half of the hair off of his beard and his legs, and scorched his turban, melted down his golden earrings.

“Anyway, one day he decided he was going to cook up a feast, you know, so we had to go to market because, like, in the village of Matala there was one woman who kind of had a monopoly – well actually there were three grocery stores, but she really had a monopoly, and because of her success and her affluence, she had the only cold storage in the village, too. So she had all the fresh vegetables and all the cold soft drinks and she could make the yogurt last a lot longer than anyone else, and we didn’t feel like giving her any business that day. Rather than giving her our business we decided to walk ten miles to the nearest market.

“So I had ruined the pair of boots that I’d brought with me from the city, because they were really ‘citified,’ kind of slick city boots that were meant to walk on flat surfaces. The first night there we drank some Raki and I tried to climb the mountain and that was the end of those shoes. So he lent me these boots of his which were like Li’l Abner boots – like those big lace-up walking boots – and a pair of Afghani socks, which made my feet all purple at the end of the day. And I laced them up around my ankles and I couldn’t touch any – the only place my foot touched was on the bottom, you know, there was nothing rubbing in the back or the sides – they were huge – and he wasn’t very tall, either, come to think of it, was kind of strange – I guess he had sort of webbed feet or something. But we started off on this long trek to the village, I forget the name of it now, between Matala and Iraklion – and started off in the cool of the morning. And by the time we got halfway there we were just sweltering, me in these thick Afghani socks and heavy woolens and everything. So we went into the ruins of King Phestos’ palace to sit down and have a little bit of a rest, and while we were there these two tourist buses pulled up and everybody got off the buses in kind of an unusual symmetry, you know, they all sort of walked alike and talked alike and they all kind of looked alike. And they all filed over to a series of rubble-y rocks- a wall that was beginning to crumble – lined themselves up in a row and took out their viewing glasses, overgrown opera glasses, and they started looking at the sky. And suddenly this little speck appeared on the horizon that came closer and closer, this little black speck.

“Carey was standing behind all of this leaning on his cane, and as it came into view he suddenly broke the silence of this big crowd and he yells out, ‘it’s ah MAAGPIE’ in his best North Carolina drawl. And suddenly all the glasses went down in symmetry and everybody’s heads turned around to reveal that they were all very birdlike looking people. They had long skinny noses – really – they had been watching birds so long that they looked like them, you know – and this one woman turned around and she says to him (in British accent) “it’s NOT a magpie – it’s a crooked crow.” Then she very slowly and distinctly turned her head back, picked up her glasses, and so did everybody else, and we kept on walking. Bought two kilos of fish which would have rotted in the cave hadn’t it been for the cats.

“When we got back from that walk, Stelios, who was the guy who ran the Mermaid Cafe, had decided to put an addition on his kitchen, which turned out to be really illegal and it was so illegal, as a matter of fact, that the Junta dragged him off to jail. And torture was legal over there – they burnt his hands and his feet with cigarette butts mainly because they hated, you know, all of the Canadians and Americans and wandering Germans living in the caves, but they couldn’t get them out of there because it was controlled by the same archaeologist that controlled the ruins of King Phestos’ palace, and he didn’t mind you living there as long as you didn’t Day-Glo all of the caves. And everyone was, like, putting all of their psychedelia over all this ancient writing. So they carted him off to jail.”

7 – The Circle Game (Ladies of the Canyon)

In this song, Mitchell tells the story of a child’s journey to adulthood, using a carousel as a metaphor for the years that go by, pointing out how we can look back, but we can’t return to our past.

The song opens with the young boy enjoying the wonder of youth, but looking forward to getting older. In the second verse, he is 16 and driving. The final verse finds him at 20, with his dreams tempered a bit, but still with high hopes for his future.

6 – Woodstock (Ladies of the Canyon)

Mitchell most likely could have, and would have, performed at Woodstock but her manager, David Geffen, made the decision that she would not join her peers on stage in Bethel, N.Y., where the officially titled Woodstock Music and Arts Fair was being held. Mitchell was booked to appear on The Dick Cavett Show the day after the festival, and Geffen took the calculated risk that it was more important for the singer-songwriter to get the exposure the popular national TV program would bring her than to sing for the hippies upstate, who might not even pay attention. Getting stuck in a traffic jam would not do her any good either, Geffen reasoned.

Geffen and Mitchell instead holed up in a hotel room in New York, watching news reports on the festival as friends like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (also Geffen clients) played to hundreds of thousands of rock fans.

After the festival, Graham Nash, involved in a romantic relationship with Mitchell at the time, excitedly regaled her with the details of the event: how it truly felt like a turning point, a sea change, how the crowd was “half a million strong and everywhere there was a song and a celebration.” Mitchell grabbed a pen and paper and started to write.

5 – My Old Man (Blue)

My old man, he’s a singer in the park
He’s a walker in the rain
He’s a dancer in the dark
We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall
Keeping us tied and true no, my old man
Keeping away my blues

4 – Willy (Ladies of the Canyon)

Graham Nash, whose nickname was Willy, left his crumbling marriage, moved in with Mitchell and they lived together in her house for two years. She eventually split from him with a telegram from Greece stating, ‘If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers. Love, Joan.’

3 – Little Green (Blue)

A song to the daughter she gave up. If you do not know the story it is worth looking up and reading, it is a tragic tale that initially seemed to have a happy ending, but things started to go wrong a few years after mother and daughter were reunited.

2 – Morning Morgantown (Ladies of the Canyon)

I would very much like to give a solid and reasoned account of why this song has ended up at number 2, but I can’t. It just says something to me that I really connect with and I’m not even sure what that is, more of a feeling than anything. It may have something to do with growing up in a village and the feeling of belonging which, through circumstance, had to be left behind and was never really found again.

1 – Both Sides, Now (Clouds)

This was the first hit song written by Joni Mitchell, whose version appeared on her 1969 album Clouds. Mitchell recalled: “I was reading Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King on a plane and early in the book Henderson the Rain King is also up in a plane. He’s on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds. I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song. I had no idea that the song would become as popular as it did.”

Mitchell had been through a very difficult time when she wrote the lyrics. In 1965, she gave birth to a baby girl, but struggled as a single mom (the father was an old boyfriend who left soon after Mitchell got pregnant). She married a musician named Chuck Mitchell that year, but soon after the marriage, gave up the child for adoption. Soon, her marriage was on the rocks, and in 1967 they split up.

Judy Collins was the first to record the song and it provided her first hit, and also brought exposure to Mitchell. With this song Collins won the 1968 Grammy for Best Folk Performance.

This is Joni Mitchell’s most-covered song; with over 1000 versions recorded, it could be considered a standard. Some of the luminaries to record it include Frank Sinatra (on his 1968 album Cycles), Bing Crosby, and Ronan bloody Keating, a version I haven’t and won’t listen to. .

And that is my imperfect list, which I already want to change havng not included anything from Dog Eat Dog or Mingus, ah well, maybe another day I will make it top 45!