FEATURE: Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock: Both Sides Now




Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock

PHOTO CREDIT: Jack Robinson/Getty Images  

Both Sides Now


I do not often look at songs and their cover versions...


 IN THIS PHOTO: Joni Mitchell in 1970/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

but there is something about Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock that compelled me to investigate further! It is quite apt timing, really: Woodstock 50 (the fiftieth anniversary of the original Woodstock) is in the news and many are wondering whether it will happen at all. A lot of festivals are beset with issues and drawbacks but it seems like this one might not occur. It is a shame because, even though the line-up announced so far is not terrific, marking a truly terrific point of history is necessary. I was not alive when the original Woodstock occurred back in 1969 but that sense of coming together in a three-day festival of peace and love was very much needed. Not that Woodstock was free of any problems itself. There was a bit of violence and upset; there were problems with people sneaking in and a few blacker moments did threaten to ruin what was an otherwise wonderful celebration – including the dreadful weather. This happens at festivals now so we cannot see Woodstock as a disaster. A few big acts turned down invitations to play but we did see the likes of Joan Baez, Santana and The Who played. Despite some declined invitations and problems that arose during performances across the three-day festival, Woodstock has gone down as this iconic moment in music. It is a bit ironic that a song about the festival was written by someone who did not actually attend!

Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock was included in her 1970 album, Ladies of the Canyon, and is regarded as one of her finest songs. The story goes that Mitchell composed the song based on recollection and stories from her then-boyfriend Graham Nash. Mitchell’s manager had told her not to attend Woodstock – instead appear on The Dick Cavett Show – and, instead, the songwriter composed the track whilst watching images from Woodstock on the T.V. Mitchell felt that the fact she had been denied the chance to go/play gave her a unique angle. One can hear that sense of detachment but, as many noted, Woodstock seemed to articulate the feeling and essence of the festival better than anyone who was actually there! Not affected by the poor weather and technical blights, Mitchell penned this fantastic track from a comfortable and warm room. She was seeing all these wonderful images pour through and, clearly inspired, laced together some of her most evocative and beautiful words. In Woodstock, Mitchell told about a spiritual quest to Max Yasgur’s farm (where the festival was set); the festival was compared to the Garden of Eden. Mitchell brought in religious images and provided this grand, stunning song that definitely stays in the mind. When the army reaches Woodstock (“half a million strong”), you get a real sense of the togetherness and love that was in the air in 1969. The festival was a reaction to the Vietnam War and all of the tensions that were happening at the time.

Mitchell articulated the contrast of the war and the reaction by the American people – bombers flying in the sky; they turn to butterflies when faced with the peace and good vibes from the people. Mitchell is known for her incredible lyrics and ability to swim in the imagination. Whether something more unsettling and emotional or a song such as Woodstock; there are not many songwriters who have such an ability and variety. Mitchell would grow to dislike large festivals and what they stood for but here, on the Ladies of the Canyon track, you feel like you are at the festival. The song was the B-side to Big Yellow Taxi and, as B-sides go, there are few stronger in the music archives! I love the original and think that Mitchell’s delivery perfectly highlights key phrases and images. There is a great, wordless vocal in the chorus (in the background) and her voice rises and falls with emotion. It is a fantastic rendition but, like all inspiring songs, there have been some other renditions. Perhaps many associate Woodstock with the cover performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Around the time Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon was released in 1970, the Folk group released the song as the lead-off single from their album, Déjà Vu. Stephen Stills takes the vocal lead and is joined on harmony vocals by David Crosby and Graham Nash. They bring new life and insight into the song and, as I will explain in a second, the chorus reinterpretation is something that is particularly memorable. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had this stop-start instrumental in the chorus that gave it fresh nuance and delight.

My favourite interpretation of the song came from Iain Matthews’ Matthews’ Southern Comfort. The former member of Fairport Convention, again, brought something new to the classic song. It is strange to think that the band were pretty much through by the time Woodstock was recorded. Their version was released in 1970 – two great covers so soon after the original showed what an impact it had! – and was included on the U.S. version of the album, Later That Same Year. The reason the song became a hit was, when the band were due to perform a live set for the BBC in 1970, they needed an extra song. Matthews had just heard Woodstock on Ladies of the Canyon after buying it a week earlier; it was included in the set and, before long, there was huge demand. Matthews was reluctant to include it on the recently-released album from Matthews’ Southern Comfort but agreed it could be released as a single – their version of Woodstock became a huge smash! It is also said that Matthews felt a bit strange meeting Mitchell because of how he approached the song. Like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the arrangement was very different and Matthews, by his own admission, could not hit the high notes Mitchell did on the original. Mitchell confessed to preferring Matthews’ arrangement and melody. The band took the song apart and really gave it another angle.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Hippie girls at 1969’s Woodstock/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It seems strange that two covers were released in such short succession but Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s version did not resonate that hard. Many people prefer their version but it was not a huge success. Matthews’ Southern Comfort’s version reached number-one in October 1970 and remained there for two weeks. By the time the song gained U.S. plaudit in 1971, Matthews’ Southern Comfort were no more. Matthews quit the band in December 1970, claiming that the success of Woodstock had affected him. Rather than getting on with a new track, the interviews and press demands were getting too much. There was also an infamously bad soundcheck in Birmingham where Matthews left, took a train home and locked his door for a week. This all suggests a man who resented Woodstock and what it did to his life. In an interview in 2017, Matthews stated that it was an exciting time (1970) and the song is still creating opportunities for him today. That is wonderful to hear and, actually, I think I prefer the Matthews’ Southern Comfort version! I love the original and its terrific chorus vocals; the way Mitchell treats every line for passion and consideration. It is a spellbinding performance that has half of your mind at the festival as things unfold and the other with Mitchell as she watched the images come through – able to describe the essence and power of Woodstock without having to endure the crowds and the unpredictable weather!

 IN THIS IMAGE: The cover of Joni Mitchell’s album, Ladies of the Canyon (1970)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Matthews’ Southern Comfort sort of got rid of the high notes and the vocal acrobatics. Their version was straighter and relied on those sumptuous harmonies. It is a fuller rendition that is perhaps more reliant on vocals than punctuating the lyrics. All versions of Woodstock have a dreaminess and richness but I do love Iain Matthews’ take. His voice takes Joni Mitchell’s words in new directions and soothes the soul. Many purists favour the original but it is great that there are other versions out there. It is clear that the song held immense power back in 1970 and seemed to articulate a spirit that was in the air at the time. It is worth reading this paper that explores Woodstock and its creation: the background to Mitchell writing it and what messages it conveys. Indeed, Mitchell strayed away from political implications and lot of the protest song at the time. Instead, we have this Utopian vision of Woodstock. There are nods to bombers in the sky but there is this spirit of peace, masses converging to a wonderful place and everything being fine. This passage from Amy Kintner’s study seems to define what Woodstock was and stood for:

She chose to create a musical realisation of the aura and idealism of Woodstock, and the political utopianism she achieved lies in her refusal to simply memorialise the festival or proclaim its political efficacy. The song succeeds as an evocation of a generation’s utopian impulse, and Mitchell’s musical choices propel ‘Woodstock’ beyond the facts of the event itself because the song is not about the event itself. The lyrics may conjure sentimental memories for those who attended the festival, a fact of which Mitchell was surely aware, but the music of the song promotes nostalgia of an alternate kind: nostalgia for the utopian naïveté of a hopeful generation and its political dreams…

‘Woodstock’ summons this nostalgia and breathes life into it, offering a sonic utopia in which the dreams of a hopeful generation can continue to thrive. This is ‘Woodstock’s ideological deviance, its utopian legacy: just as ‘Woodstock’ helped transform its originator from excluded fan to arbiter of utopianism, so too does it transform its listeners. Here, we can return to the designation of Mitchell’s song as existing in a liminal (or Foucault’s heterotopian) space: while the song plays, the experience of ‘Woodstock’ as a transitional boundary or marginal space becomes available to listeners. The song both can and cannot take a listener back to the summer of 1969 but, alas, no matter where ‘Woodstock’ takes you, the song is an experience that comes with all the characteristic trappings of utopia: simultaneously a ‘good-place’ and a ‘no-place’, the song sounds forth and dissipates immediately, presenting a musical utopia in which Joni Mitchell, other musicians and, indeed, perhaps even historians can dwell, if only for five peaceful minutes”.

One can talk endlessly about Mitchell’s classic and what it represents. Maybe it is nostalgia of a wonderful time or the idealisation of a festival that, in spite of all the good and glory, has problems and has not been repeated. As we try to resurrect the bones of Woodstock 50, Mitchell’s Woodstock is a sad reminder of what was and what could never be. Maybe Mitchell’s disconnection from the festival and personal view is not a wholly accurate representation of Woodstock’s reality but one cannot fault the gravitas of the song. If you prefer the original and do not fancy the cover versions, one cannot deny how influential Woodstock is and how its Utopian visions struck Mitchell’s contemporaries in 1970. It is a song that moved the people back in 1970 and, almost fifty years later, its incredible aura and wonderful images…

INSPIRE and stagger the senses.