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‘Big Yellow Taxi’ by Joni Mitchell – Classic Hit or Miss

“Big Yellow Taxi” is a song written and originally recorded by Joni Mitchell in 1970. It was a hit in her native Canada (#14) as well as Australia (#6) and the UK (#11). It only reached #67 in the US in 1970, but was later a bigger hit there for her in a live version released in 1975, which peaked at #24. Charting versions have also been recorded by The Neighborhood (who had the original top US 40 hit with the track in 1970, peaking at #29), Maire Brennan, Amy Grant, and Counting Crows.

Mitchell said this about writing the song to journalist Alan McDougall in the early 1970s: 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 song is known for its environmental concern – “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot” and “Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT now” – and sentimental sound. The line “They took all the trees, and put ‘em in a tree museum / And charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ‘em.” refers to Foster Botanical Garden in downtown Honolulu, which is a living museum of tropical plants, some rare and endangered. In the song’s final verse, the political gives way to the personal. Mitchell recounts the departure of her “old man” in the titular “big yellow taxi”, which may refer to the old Metro Toronto Police patrol cars that until 1986 were painted yellow. In many covers the departed one may be interpreted as variously a boyfriend, a husband, or a father. The literal interpretation is that he is walking out on the singer by taking a taxi; otherwise it is assumed he is being taken away by the authorities. Mitchell’s original recording was first put out as a single and then was put on the album Ladies of the Canyon in 1970. A later live version was released in 1975 and reached #24 on the U.S. charts. Mitchell’s playful closing lyrics have made the song one of the most identifiable in her repertoire, still receiving significant airplay in Canada. In 2005, it was voted #9 on CBC’s list of the top 50 essential Canadian tracks. In 2007, Joni Mitchell released the album Shine that includes a newly recorded, re-arranged version of the song.

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