Singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin knows exactly where she was on June 22, 1971, the day Blue, Joni Mitchell’s fourth album, came out: first in line at a southern Illinois record store, awaiting new treasure from her favorite artist.
After Carole King’s Tapestry arrived on Feb. 10, 1971, future author and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame historian Holly George-Warren sat on a floor of green shag carpet in her lavender-walled North Carolina bedroom and played it so often, she wore out its grooves.
Warren, then 14, and Colvin, 15, didn’t just spin those discs, they internalized them, as did future banjo wizard Béla Fleck and countless other teens — and adults — who sang Tapestry songs around campfires and scribbled Blue lyrics in their notebooks. On these albums, Mitchell and King expressed real, soul-baring emotions rarely heard in popular music — especially from women. And by exposing their own vulnerability, both revealed something else: incredible strength.
New York native King wrapped her earthy, soulful alto voice around lyrics extolling loyalty, love and friendship, while Canadian-born Mitchell’s sometimes-stratospheric mezzo-soprano unspooled poetic narratives of exotic adventures and far-flung lovers. But embedded in both was the sound of emboldened women taking more control of their lives — and expecting to feel the earth move as they did so.
They wanted to navigate the world on their terms, without a “piece of paper from the city hall,” as Mitchell trills in “My Old Man,” or even, as King implies in the breakup song, “It’s Too Late,” without a man at all. But Blue and Tapestry moved the earth all right, proving that music by women who forthrightly document their pain — and pleasure — would sell. A lot.
In a year that produced some of the most revered albums in pop music history — John Lennon’s Imagine, George Harrison’s The Concert for Bangladesh, the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Janis Joplin’s posthumous Pearl among them — Blue and Tapestry share special significance because they shifted the musical landscape, ushering in a confessional songwriting style that has inspired generations of artists since.
Rolling Stone magazine’s third “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list, published in October, bumped Tapestry up to No. 25 from No. 36, the position it held in the 2003 and 2012 versions. Blue, the top-ranked work by a woman, climbed from No. 30 to No. 3. (George-Warren, author of Janis: Her Life and Music, was a voter.) Tapestry also sold 25 million copies and spent 318 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart. King became the first woman to collect simultaneous Album, Record and Song of the Year Grammys and the first solo female Record of the Year winner (for “It’s Too Late.”) She’s still the only female to spend 15 consecutive weeks at No. 1 of the Top 200 chart.
As myriad other accolades confirm, Blue and Tapestry share a cultural impact that’s still reverberating 50 years later.
Brandi Carlile and her wife might never have reached the altar if the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter (“The Joke”) and producer hadn’t learned to love Joni Mitchell, starting with Blue. Carlile, who sang at “Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration” in 2018 and performed Blue in its entirety in 2019, had dismissed Mitchell years before, after hearing a lyric she hated in Blue’s first track, “All I Want.” But as they drove toward a Michigan cabin for their first extended date, Catherine Shepherd popped Blue into the CD player.
“I started laughing, and I was like, ‘Oh God, just skip to the renew you, shampoo you line. I don’t like Joni Mitchell,’” Carlile recalls, speaking from their home in Maple Valley, Washington. “We had our first moment of tension, where she was like, ‘I actually don’t know if I can accept you not getting your head around Joni Mitchell.’”
Mitchell’s music was too heteronormative, and not “tough,” Carlile argued. Shepherd replied, “You never even listened past this song. You know what ‘Little Green’ is about? Listen to it. You need to rethink what tough means to you.”
Carlile then claims, “Honestly, Blue threw me for such a loop. … It caused me to reevaluate my very definition of femininity, and what tough was. I heard ‘Little Green’ and realized it was the toughest song that had ever been written.”
“You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed/Little green, have a happy ending,” Mitchell sings, evoking the pain of a loss we learned, much later, was her own baby.
The album changed her, Carlile says.
“It put me in touch with a person inside of me that I had been keeping at bay for most of my life,” she admits. “I’ve always struggled with feeling content and settled into my gender, and Joni’s toughness and her femininity, they’re so permeating. Blue is the first record that ever really taught my soul anything. And it caused me to embrace a more delicate side of my voice and my musical presentation and made me feel whole as an artist.”
By the time she was 18, Colvin had learned Mitchell’s odd guitar tunings, developed to accommodate her left hand, which had been weakened by polio. She then began performing. Half her songs were Mitchell covers.
“She’s the biggest influence in my life,” says Colvin, who eventually branched out and earned three Grammys, including Record and Song of the Year for “Sunny Came Home.” When Colvin inducted Mitchell into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, they were already friends. Colvin had recorded her second album, co-produced by Mitchell’s then-husband Larry Klein, at their Los Angeles home.
“Joni is a great storyteller,” Colvin, who now resides in Austin, says. “She has a wonderful duality of street-smart, bawdy vernacular and elegant, intelligent insight … like her lyrics: razor sharp and bare and cutting and gorgeous.”
Razor sharp, like the blades Mitchell would skate away on in “River,” the second-most covered song in her canon. Sorrow and regret reverberate in each note as she mourns dismissing “the best baby that I ever had” — likely ex Graham Nash, also referenced in the cheerier “My Old Man.”
Nashville singer-songwriter Emma Swift marvels at the detail in Mitchell’s imagery. “The omelette in ‘California’ or the blue TV screen in ‘A Case of You’ just add to that sense of the songs being so raw, so intimate. … It’s like a diary entry,” she observes. “And she’s a painter. She confesses (in ‘A Case of You’), ‘I am a lonely painter/I live in a box of paints.’ … The songs are so visual, and the album’s called Blue. It’s shot through with this color that we think of not only as the color of sadness, but also the color of sky.”
Chatting from England while sequestering with partner Robyn Hitchcock, Swift adds, “Blue is an innocence-lost record, and grieving — not just relationships, but the person she used to be. That’s what makes it so relatable.”
Rufus Wainwright, who performed Blue songs in the “Joni 75” celebration, appreciates their stark simplicity. “I have learned over the years,” he says, “in making records, less is more.”
Accompanying herself on piano, acoustic guitar or Appalachian dulcimer, Mitchell purposely kept her arrangements spare, augmented only by Stephen Stills’ guitar and bass on “Carey,” Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s pedal steel on two tracks and Russ Kunkel’s drumming on three. Her then-boyfriend James Taylor played guitar on “California,” “A Case of You” (about her dalliance with Leonard Cohen) and “All I Want,” which, like “Blue” and “This Flight Tonight,” are about her drug-addicted lover.
She could call the shots because she produced her album — a then unheard-of feat, especially for a woman. That freedom allowed Mitchell to fully reveal herself for the first time, Carlile says, adding, “There was a small period in time when we really got inside of Joni’s heart — where Joni went ‘All right, come on in.’”
Unlike observational songs such as “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Chelsea Morning” or “Woodstock,” all popularized by others before she recorded them, the songs on Blue were so personal, Mitchell told an interviewer that Kris Kristofferson had cautioned her, “God, Joan, save something of yourself.”
The result is so singular, Carlile says, “No one’s ever been able to complete a successful derivative.”
Australia-born Swift received Tapestry for her 12th birthday, and became captivated by its mix of tenderness, vulnerability and joy.
“I think of it as a rite of passage album, something I listened to a lot on the path to womanhood,” she says. “It really takes me to a very emotional place. Songs like ‘Beautiful’ and ‘I Feel the Earth Move’ can have me feeling really effervescent and dancing around the room. And then I’ll flip over to side B and play ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow,’ and I’ll just be destroyed. And that’s a real achievement.”
Swift cites Taylor Swift (no relation) as the most successful example of an artist carrying on King’s work — “writing these incredibly intimate songs about things not working out, but also making them bop, and also making them go to No. 1.”
In an email, Taylor Swift calls King’s work “a master class in songwriting in its very purest form.”
“Tapestry is an album that envelopes you, immediately and permanently,” she writes, adding, “(It) will always be the album I put on when a part of my heart needs to heal, (or) if I need to dance or simply feel less alone.”
Like Taylor Swift, King started her career early. At 18, she was already a mother, wife, and with then-husband Gerry Goffin, a Brill Building hitmaker. Their first was the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” their last was Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Encouraged by her friend James Taylor, King finally recorded an album after leaving Goffin and moving to LA’s folk-rock enclave, Laurel Canyon — where she morphed into the natural woman depicted on Tapestry’s cover. She turned the song itself into an earth-mother anthem.
To Colvin, also a fan of artists like Janis Joplin and Laura Nyro who rejected the glitz, it meant, “You didn’t have to pretty yourself up. It just wasn’t necessary.”
King also reshaped “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” aided by “The Mitchell/Taylor Boy-and-Girl Choir.” Instead of a hopeful pop tune, it became what Emma Swift describes as “this desperate, yearning ballad” — one that spoke to young women exploring sexuality at a time when increasing freedom clashed with continuing, pre-Roe v. Wade condemnation.
But with “Beautiful” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” King offered Mister Rogers-worthy odes of support and encouragement.
Aubrie Sellers, who grew up listening to Tapestry, calls the Lou Adler-produced album “flawless.”
“What translated to me the most, besides the songs, is that natural ease that she had when singing,” Sellers says. “That’s what I strive for … to have it come from deep in your soul.”
Labeling King “one of the greatest living songwriters ever,” Carlile confesses, “I’m just in awe of her.” She’s even adopted King’s keyboard-pounding, callus-inducing piano style, enthusing, “I love how heavy-handed she is.”
“Carole King and Joni Mitchell opened the door for women like me, and men, too, to really lay bare our experiences,” says Emma Swift. “To me, that’s the goal of songwriting — to confess as much as possible in the most relatable way.”
Citing Carlile as a prime example of Mitchell and King’s continuing impact, George-Warren mentions the same line from “Blue” that Carlile used to title her performance: “Songs are like tattoos.”
“That’s an incredible line that really applies to both albums,” George-Warren says. “Like tattoos, they’re permanent. They’re gonna be with us forever.”
Photo Credit Jim McCrary