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'Big Yellow Taxi': Kathryn Calder breaks down the Joni Mitchell classic
By
Kerry Martin

Published

September 8, 2015

Genre

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This week at CBC Music, we are asking the question, "What song do you think should be taught in school?" Some people have chosen a long list of contenders to be their answers, while others have chosen one song, highlighting each teachable moment. Solo musician andNew Pornographers member Kathryn Calder is one of the people who did the latter. Read her breakdown of Joni Mitchell's beautiful song "Big Yellow Taxi," below.

[Joni Mitchell] is an equally amazing songwriter/producer/lyricist/musician/painter who has had a huge impact on musicians and music fans all over the world. Her song "Big Yellow Taxi" is one of her most well known songs, and the environmental issues she discusses are still relevant today. She talks about development and the natural habitat loss that inevitably goes along with building:

"They paved paradise,
And put up a parking lot.
With a pink hotel, a boutique,
And a swinging hot spot."

She talks about the commodification of our natural resources. This verse always makes me think of bottled water as a parallel:

"They took all the trees,
And put them in a tree museum.
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see 'em."

She also talks about DDT and pesticide use. Although DDT has been banned since 1972, when this song was released in 1970 it hadn't been banned yet. Pesticide use is still an enormous part of the agriculture business, despite the fact that we know relatively little about the damage it causes to the people, plants and animals that we share our world with. Especially in regards to the bees that are dying at alarming rates, which has been linked to pesticide use.

"Hey farmer, farmer,
Put away that DDT now.
Give me spots on my apples,
But leave me the birds and the bees,
Please."

The last verse is more personal, which changes the tone of the song into more of a philosophical reminder to cherish the things we take for granted, environmental or of the heart, before we lose them:

"Late last night, I heard the screen door slam,
And a big yellow taxi took away my old man."

And the chorus throughout keeps reminding us:

"Don't it always seem to go, 
You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

According to an interview she did in the late '90s with the LA Times, some parking lots have been turned into parks because of her song! It's a fantastic example of a great Canadian song that uses music for a positive message.

Follow Kathryn Calder on Twitter: @kathryncalder

What song do you think should be taught in school? Let us know here!