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Joni Mitchell and the Big Yellow Environment

by admin on November 9, 2012

What comes to mind when you hear, “save the environment”? Recycling, turning off the light whenever you leave a room, turning off the water from the sink while brushing your teeth? The sad truth is, most people in the United States and other first world countries take simple luxuries we have at our fingertips for granted. That piece of plastic and metal that makes an annoying beeping sound in the morning? Also a luxury taken for granted. Joni Mitchell, a Canadian singer and songwriter from the early 1970’s, agrees. In her 1972 interview with Alan McDougall, she recalled “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.”[1] The purpose of Big Yellow Taxi, according to Mitchell,was “to tell everyone how humans have destroyed and continue to destroy the natural beauty of the earth.”[2]

The famous lines in the chorus of her song speak of humanity’s tendency to take what it has in this beautiful environment for granted:

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.

Since this was the repeated refrain, it was the main message that was sent across to listeners. “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” draws attention to what people have been doing to the environment to take advantage of it. Since Mitchell wrote the song on her trip to the beautiful green Hawaii, she got to see how much people really take advantage of life-sustaining places.

The third verse of “Big Yellow Taxi” makes reference to a very pressing environmental issue of the day: DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichlorethane, which was a widely used pesticide in the United States. In this verse, she pleads with farmers to terminate the use of DDT in gardens, as it is harmful to birds such as osprey and eagles. Her line, ““Hey farmer, farmer put away that DDT now. Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees. Please!” was a plea to the government to help save the animals that thrived in the farming environment.

This song has become widely known and widely covered, as the many environmental issues that were faced back then are still relevant today. The final verse of the song is:

Late last night the screen door slam

 And a big yellow taxi took away my old man.

The big yellow taxi in this song is what everyone has been doing to the environment, and the old man is our environment. This song still has a huge impact on the environmental causes for today, as it brings to awareness how we as humans have been treating our surroundings. “Big Yellow Taxi” is a brilliant synopsis of how we do not treat our environment with respect; the song, like our environment, is there for everyone to listen to and invites us to reflect upon our actions.

Emma Anderson November 26, 2012 at 9:36 pm

I love Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi,” as do many others. I think it’s one of those songs that is pretty ubiquitous in our culture today. Whether or not you know the title of the song or that the original artist is Mitchell, I feel that a lot of Americans can sing at least a verse from this song, which makes that much more of an important environmental protest song. The lyrics are explicit in their message and it being such a common song to appear in commercials, shows, movies, and other forms of mass communication make it a very important eco-protest song. A great example of a web article that incorporates both themes of this course: music and the environment. Very well written and organized.

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