Mitchell (from a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times): "I wrote 'Big Yellow Taxi' on my first trip to Hawai'i. 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."
This song is about taking things for granted and then missing them when they're gone. In the first verse she uses Waikiki, Hawai'i as an example. It used to be paradise but now it's a fakey tourist destination. When you fly over the islands all of the other islands are nice and green, but when you go over O'ahu you see Waikiki and Honolulu buildings.
The line, "Took all the trees, put 'em in a tree museum, charged the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em" refers to Foster Gardens, a place in Waikiki which is basically a tree museum. It's a huge garden full of trees so tall you feel like Alice in wonderland. DDT is an insecticide which is put onto plants. The insects get poisoned by the insecticide, the birds eat the insect, the bird's eggs are brittle when they are laid, the bird tries to sit on it, and they crack. This is why bald eagles are now endangered.
At the end of the song, her boyfriend leaves her. It sounds like she tried to make him better and ended up losing him instead. (thanks, nelia - Honolulu, HI, for above 3)
The line, "They paved paradise and put up the parking lot" refers to the destruction of The Garden of Allah, a Hollywood hotel renowned for its rowdy celebration parties.
In 1975, Mitchell released a live version that hit #24 in the US.
A group called The Neighborhood hit #29 in the US with their version of this in 1970. Others to cover this include Percy Faith, Bob Dylan, Amy Grant
, and Counting Crows (with Vanessa Carlton
singing backup). Janet Jackson also sampled it in 1997 for her hit "Got 'Til It's Gone
," thanks to her producer Jimmy Jam
, who is a big Joni Mitchell fan.
At the suggestion of Joni Mitchell, Amy Grant updated some of the words on her version, for instance changing the price of the museum from $1.50 to $25. Her cover was released as a single in 1995 peaking at #20 in the UK and #67 in the US.
Mitchell included a slightly revised version of this song on her 2007 album Shine. She explained why to Mojo magazine February 2008: "It fits the record. I didn't have to change anything except the price, which went from 'a buck and a half' to an arm and a leg."
Janet Jackson sampled the line, "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone" in her 1997 song "Got 'Til It's Gone
." (thanks, Eddie - Brooklyn, NY)
The Counting Crows covered the song as an afterthought and originally for a hidden track on their 2002 album Hard Candy. It was only released as a single after Vanessa Carlton's back-up vocals were added for a new version that featured on the soundtrack to the 2003 movie Two Weeks Notice. Their version became the band's only Top 20 single in the UK, peaking at #13. In the US it reached #42.