Joni Mitchell is an urbanist. Who else could write a line like: “Shine on worldwide traffic jams, honking day and night. Shine on another asshole, passing on the right. Shine on all the red light runners, busy talking on their cell phones.” Mitchell wrote that line for her 2007 song “Shine.” In it, she surely sounds like a safe streets crusader as she pined for “a safe place for kids to play.”

The performance of Shine echoed through the canyon of the Columbia Gorge this past weekend at Mitchell’s concert was a reminder of that. Mitchell performed with hometown hero Brandi Carlile, who shepherded the Joni Jam together and covered “Shine” to commemorate the Gershwin Prize awarded Joni by PBS in March. Brandi and Joni sounded a bit like Futurewise staffers as they lamented “fertile farmlands buried under subdivisions.” The line sounded especially haunting echoing across the unfurling, enchanting beauty of the Columbia River Valley, which thankfully has yet to be blanketed in suburban sprawl development.

On June 10, 2023, Joni Mitchell played the Gorge Amphitheatre with Brandi Carlile, Lucius, Annie Lennox, Celisse, and more special guests. (Doug Trumm)

Unburdened by jargon or plannerspeak, Mitchell makes a case for climate activism and urbanism in songs like “Shine” and “Big Yellow Taxi” that condenses down years of toiling at publications like this one down into a digestible earworm format. “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” another famous Joni line quips, again targeting sprawl and car culture, but written in 1970.

The sprawl has marched on and the worldwide traffic jam has continue honking day and night since Mitchell wrote those songs. But awareness does seem to be steadily building that there has got to be a better way to live than the car-centric sprawl we inherited and a way to stop our headlong charge off the cliff of environmental destruction. Climate activism can feel like young people yelling into the void, but Mitchell’s songwriting bridges a generational divide. Seeing 26,000 people hanging on to every word of Mitchell’s “Shine” last Saturday was enough to give some hope.

Here are the lyrics to Shine in their full glory:

Oh, let your little light shine
Let your little light shine
Shine on Vegas and Wall Street
Place your bets
Shine on all the fishermen
With nothing in their nets
Shine on rising oceans and evaporating seas
Shine on our Frankenstein technologies
Shine on science
With its tunnel vision, tunnel vision
Shine on fertile farmlands
Buried under subdivisions

Oh, let your little light shine
Oh, let your little light shine
Shine on the dazzling darkness
That restores us in deep sleep
Shine on what we throw away
And what we keep

Shine on Reverend Pearson
Who threw away
The vain old God
And kept Dickens and Rembrandt and Beethoven
And fresh plowed sod
Shine on good earth, good air, good water
And a safe place
For kids to play
Shine on bombs exploding
Half a mile away

Oh, let your little light shine
Let your little light shine, shine, shine
Shine on worldwide traffic jams
Honking day and night
Shine on another asshole
Passing on the right
Shine on all the red light runners
Busy talking on their cell phones
Shine on the Catholic Church
And the prisons that it owns
Shine on all the Churches
They all love less and less
Shine on a hopeful girl
In a dreamy dress

Oh, let your little light shine
Shine, shine, shine
Let your little light shine
Shine on good humor
Shine on good will
Shine on lousy leadership
Licensed to kill
Shine on dying soldiers
In patriotic pain
Shine on mass destruction
In some God’s name
Shine on the pioneers
Those seekers of mental health
Craving simplicity
They traveled inward
Past themselves
Let their little lights shine
May all their little lights shine

Joni Mitchell, “Shine” 2007

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.