Listening: Ladies of the Canyon

I had Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon on the turntable Friday morning while I toiled away at the news desk, which most often in these COVID times resembles my home desk complete with visits from bored golden retrievers. When it occurred to me that the LP has been in my possession for 50 years, I found myself in awe of the passage of time but even more in awe of how timeless a collection of songs it is.

From the opening jangle of “Morning Morgantown” to the gentle chorus of “The Circle Game,” Ladies of the Canyon is as perfect an album as a singer-songwriter could compile. No one does sweet melancholy or thoughtful whimsy as well as Mitchell does on this album. Of course, she did so even better on Blue, her next effort, but this is the one that I played Friday morning.

I remember the first time I heard the album being charmed by “Morning Morgantown” but then blown away by the second song, “For Free.” It’s a first-person story of a woman who “slept last night in a good hotel” and “went shopping today for jewels” and has made a good living playing music “for fortune and those velvet curtain calls.” As she stands on a corner, she is drawn to a street musician playing his clarinet as people walk by, not paying much attention. “He was playing real good, for free.” She thinks about walking over and playing and singing with him, but doesn’t, and the song ends with her mournful piano underneath a soaring, jazzy clarinet solo. Five decades later the song still brings wistful tears to my eyes.

The album is chock full of delightful words and music, and halfway through the second side it’s clearly the best album Joni had done so far. (This was her third project.) But with the three closing tunes, Ladies of the Canyon transcends not just her own previous work but most everything else that musicians were doing at the time (or since).

“Big Yellow Taxi” was a fun little ditty about paving paradise and putting up a parking lot, containing the most dated lyric in the collection: charging people “a dollar and a half” admission to the tree museum as if that’s a lot of money.

“Woodstock” had been a big hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young a few months earlier, and Mitchell’s take on the song she wrote is moodier and eerier.

And “The Circle Game” is a lovely singalong about growing up that Mitchell had written four years earlier and turned out to be a nice way to end an epic album.

I have taken good care of Ladies of the Canyon over 50 years, so it still plays just fine on my turntable, thank you. It could have been more, but I don’t know how — or at least I didn’t until I heard Blue.

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