"Big Yellow Taxi" is a song written and originally recorded by Joni Mitchell in 1970. It was a hit in her native Canada (No. 14) as well as Australia (No. 6) and the UK (No. 11). It only reached No. 67 in the US in 1970, but was later a bigger hit there for her in a live version released in 1975, which peaked at No. 24. Charting versions have also been recorded by The Neighborhood (who had the original top US 40 hit with the track in 1970, peaking at No. 29), Maire Brennan, Amy Grant and Counting Crows.
Mitchell said this about writing the song to journalist Alan McDougall in the early 1970s:
I wrote 'Big Yellow Taxi' on my first trip to Hawaii. 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.
The song is known for its environmental concern – "They paved paradise to put up a parking lot" and "Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT now" – and sentimental sound. The line "They took all the trees, and put 'em in a tree museum / And charged the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em." refers to Foster Botanical Garden in downtown Honolulu, which is a living museum of tropical plants, some rare and endangered.
In the song's final verse, the political gives way to the personal. Mitchell recounts the departure of her "old man" in the titular "big yellow taxi", which may refer to the old Metro Toronto Police patrol cars that until 1986 were painted yellow. In many covers the departed one may be interpreted as variously a boyfriend, a husband or a father. The literal interpretation is that he is walking out on the singer by taking a taxi; otherwise it is assumed he is being taken away by the authorities.
Mitchell's original recording was first put out as a single and then was put on the album Ladies of the Canyon in 1970. A later live version was released in 1975 and reached No. 24 on the U.S. charts. Mitchell's playful closing vocals have made the song one of the most identifiable in her repertoire, still receiving significant airplay in Canada. In 2005, it was voted No. 9 on CBC's list of the top 50 essential Canadian tracks.
In 2007, Joni Mitchell released the album Shine that includes a newly recorded, re-arranged version of the song.
Counting Crows featuring Vanessa Carlton (on back-up vocals) cover of the song is featured on the soundtrack to the film Two Weeks Notice and is the most successful version to date (U.S. Billboard Adult Top 40). Originally the song was a hidden track on the band's 2002 album Hard Candy and did not include Vanessa Carlton until it was to be featured in the film. New releases of the album included it as a track with her added, as with her in the video, although Counting Crows and Vanessa Carlton did not appear in the video together or record together. This song became the band's only Top 20 single in the UK, peaking at No. 13. This version slightly changed Mitchell's original lyrics to describe when the eponymous taxi took "my girl" away, instead of Mitchell's "my old man".
There are various slight alterations of the lyrics from different versions. Joni Mitchell's original version runs
They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
Then they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em
while in Amy Grant's version, the people are charged "twenty-five bucks", and in Joni Mitchell's 2007 re-recording the people are charged "an arm and a leg".
Bob Dylan instead of singing about the "big yellow taxi" that "took away my old man" sings "A big yellow bulldozer took away the house and land". Similarly, in Mitchell's live version of the song released on Miles of Aisles in 1974, she sings about "a big yellow tractor" that "pushed around my house, pushed around my land". She then repeats the same verse, but with the original lyrics.
An animated music video of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" was produced by John Wilson of Fine Arts Films as an animated short for the Sonny and Cher TV show in the mid 1970s. The only commercial release of this full-length music video was in the Video Gems home video release on VHS titled John Wilson's Mini Musicals but also released as The All Electric Music Movie. The home video also contains an animated music video of Joni Mitchell's song "Both Sides Now".