Joni Mitchell

Big Yellow Taxi

Song Review by

"Big Yellow Taxi" is one of Joni Mitchell's best-known songs, though it is atypical of her work in general, both in terms of music and subject matter. Mitchell noted in interviews that she was inspired to write the song by a trip to Hawaii, when she looked out her hotel window at the beautiful landscape, then gazed down and saw a parking lot. This gave birth to the song's chorus in which Mitchell repeats the cliché that you don't know what you've got till it's gone, adding, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." In the first three verses, Mitchell elaborates on this message of environmentalism until, in the fourth verse, she suddenly turns to more personal and characteristic subject matter, recounting how, the night before, a "big yellow taxi" took away her "old man," i.e., lover, and repeating that you don't know what you've got till it's gone. The song's lyrics are completely undercut by its music, which is up-tempo and set to an exuberant melody. Since much of Mitchell's music up to this point had been folkish and somber, this too was a surprise. But it didn't hurt the song's commercial appeal. "Big Yellow Taxi" was released on Mitchell's third album, Ladies of the Canyon, in March 1970. The album was a far greater success than its predecessors, reaching the Top 20 and eventually selling over a million copies. A group called the Neighborhood quickly covered "Big Yellow Taxi" as a single, and their version peaked in the Top 40 in August. By then, Reprise, Mitchell's label, had rushed her version out as a single, but it was only able to become a minor chart entry. Nevertheless, the song was beginning to make its way toward becoming a standard, a fact underscored when middle-of-the-road orchestra leader Percy Faith covered it in 1971. Bob Dylan, meanwhile, had cut a version during his sessions for his 1970 New Morning album, though it was not included on that LP. In 1973, when Dylan declined to renew his contract with Columbia Records, the label put out a shoddy collection of outtakes, Dylan, among them his recording of "Big Yellow Taxi." The release may have been inadvertent, but having Bob Dylan cover a song doesn't hurt its reputation. Mitchell tended to use "Big Yellow Taxi" as an upbeat show opener at her concerts, and her live version of the song, backed by Tom Scott & the L.A. Express, was featured on her Top Five live album Miles of Aisles in late 1974. She tried releasing this version as a single, and was rewarded with a Top 40 hit that matched the Neighborhood's ranking. Over the years, as Mitchell observed, "Big Yellow Taxi" became something of a children's favorite, a development she seemed to have conflicting feelings about as her later work struggled to find an audience while a song she called "a nursery rhyme" and "a ditty" remained popular. In 1994, Amy Grant recorded "Big Yellow Taxi" for her House of Love album, and a single release put it back into the lower reaches of the charts. Mitchell's own recording was featured on the television soundtrack for Friends in 1995 and on her belated best-of collection, Hits, in 1996, the same year that a live version from 1970 came out on Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival. In 1997, Janet Jackson sampled the song prominently in the first track to be emphasized from her chart-topping The Velvet Rope album, "Got 'Til It's Gone."

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Ladies of the Canyon 1970 Reprise 2:16
No Image 1973
Various Artists
Warner Bros.
Friends: Music from the TV Series 1995
Various Artists
Reprise 3:59
Big Yellow Taxi 1996 Reprise 7:53
Hits 1996 Reprise 2:14
Girls in the Valley 2001 POPTOONES 2:12
Dreamland 2004 Rhino 2:17
Shine 2007 Hear Music 0:00
The Fiddle and the Drum 2009 Koch Vision
The Studio Albums 1968-1979 2012 Rhino / Warner Bros. 2:15
Transmission Impossible 2016 Eat to the Beat 3:50
100 Greatest Acoustic Songs
Various Artists
Rhino 2:16
100 Greatest Chilled Pop
Various Artists
Rhino 2:16
100 Greatest Dance Tracks
Various Artists
Rhino
100 Greatest Summer Songs
Various Artists
Rhino 2:16
Girls Run the World
Various Artists
Rhino 2:16
Happy Mother's Day
Various Artists
Rhino 2:16
Hits Of The 70s [2019]
Various Artists
Rhino 2:16
Mother's Day
Various Artists
Rhino 2:16