Political Songs | Big Yellow Taxi – Joni Mitchell

Back in 1970, the famous songbird penned the iconic lyrics that are increasingly relevant as capital engages in the large-scale destruction of our planet. 

There’s a parking garage near where I used to live, here in Johannesburg, that makes me think of the quirky, green anthem, Big Yellow Taxi, by Canadian-born singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, written 50 years ago in November 1969.

But the story of the song first. 

“I wrote Big Yellow Taxi on my first trip to Hawaii,” Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times in an interview back in 1996. “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.”

Released as a single in 1970 and included on her third album Ladies of the Canyon, Big Yellow Taxi has become an environmental anthem. There was something about 1970. That year alone produced a number of green protest songs including Hungry Planet by The Byrds, The Kinks’ Apeman, After the Gold Rush by Neil Young, Hungry Planet and Cat Stevens’ Where Do the Children Play? But as Charles Morris recently wrote in the Financial Times, Mitchell’s song was “the most renewable of all” and “proved sustainable”.

Rising environmental anguish

At least 456 artists have recorded Big Yellow Taxi, and since 1990 someone has recorded it virtually every year. Mitchell herself has recorded it three times. The song’s lyrics are cinematic – vivid colours, scenic movements and germane descriptions, all economically fitted into just 197 words. This is a songwriter who knows how to craft a multi-layered story. “The song’s genius lies in the joyful, jaunty rhythm of Mitchell’s acoustic guitar and delightful melody being at odds with the sombre lyrics,” wrote Morris.

Mitchell was in tune with current affairs when she wrote the song in 1969. Like now, there was a rising anguish about the environment. America had just experienced its worst oil spill caused by an oil platform explosion off Santa Barbara, California. It spilt over 41 million litres of crude oil along the Pacific coast, and as Morris wrote, “proved formative in the birth of the modern environmental movement”. In the same year, the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire.

Closer to Mitchell’s home in Laurel Canyon near Los Angeles, was a battle to save the redwood forests, which were threatened by developers who wanted to chop them down to build shopping centres and other amenities. Even though Mitchell was specifically referring to the Foster Botanical Garden in downtown Honolulu in Big Yellow Taxi, the battle for the redwoods was big news at the time, so it must also be implied in these lyrics – if they get chopped down eventually people will only see them in “tree museums”.

They took all the trees 
Put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people 
A dollar and a half just to see ’em. 

She pleads with farmers to stop using the pesticide DDT, as Americans became aware that their food was being contaminated by its use – those spotless apples looked great but held hidden dangers. DDT was largely responsible for the great decrease in the populations of fish-eating birds, such as the bald eagle, brown pelican and osprey. In 1972, the use of DDT was banned in the US. However, DDT is still used in some areas of the world.

Big Yellow Taxi’s most striking part is its chorus:

Don’t it always seem to go 
That you don’t know what you’ve got 
Till it’s gone 
They paved paradise 
And put up a parking lot.

It is such a truth – if humans would consider consequences ahead of time, they might make different decisions. And it is applying to more than just Hawaii. For that reason, Big Yellow Taxi’s universality has travelled over decades and across borders, including here in South Africa. 

Returning to Johannesburg

About 15 or 20 years ago, there was an open area of veld near where I used to live in Auckland Park in Johannesburg. Not quite paradise, but a green lung with trees and grass, enough space to walk the dogs, teach my kids to cycle and open to anyone to walk in and chill. It was next to the university’s swimming pool and across the street from what was then the city’s best bookshop, Boekehuis. 

Culture journalist Percy Zvomuya described the welcoming bookshop, which was in a restored old house, as “a lekgotla for the city’s intellectuals and a stockist of tomes that you ordinarily do not find in the book-chain shops” in an article for the Mail & Guardian. In addition to it having been a haven for book lovers, Boekehuis also had historical significance: the house it was in once belonged to Ruth Eastwood, the daughter of Afrikaner communist and anti-apartheid activist Bram Fischer. Eastwood used to provide a hideout for activists on the run from the apartheid authorities.

But we’ve all seen this movie before.

Where the pool was is now a bland, chain-store driven shopping mall that opened its doors in November 2001. Where the veld was is now a pavement-to-pavement, boxy, three-storey parking garage – it is connected with a pedestrian bridge to a major bank’s call centre, in an equally ugly building. One could not ask for a bigger symbol of the alienation brought on by capital.

Across the road, Boekehuis was closed after 12 years in 2012 by its owners, Naspers, which is one of South Africa’s wealthiest companies. Valued at the time at more than R120 billion, the media conglomerate squealed that it cost R1 million to run the shop.

In an attempt to stave off the closure, more than 350 eminent writers, artists, jurists, academics and others sent an open letter to the Naspers authorities. But to no avail.

Where Boekehuis was is now a pizza-chain restaurant.

Parking lots to parks

But Mitchell, now 76 years old, says not all is lost. In an interview with the music magazine Mojo earlier this year, she said that Big Yellow Taxi “is a powerful little song because there have been cases in a couple of cities of parking lots being torn up and turned into parks because of it”. And that’s a fact.

The reverse is also happening. Industrial ruins like unused highways, bridges and railroads have been transformed into parks, parklets and boulevards in cities across the world. There’s hope. 

The line from Mitchell’s other 1970 song Woodstock – which was, as The Nation news magazine described it, “a lament, grieving for a halcyon time that was already beginning to slip away” – may then be interpreted literally:
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.

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