177: Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’

Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’, 1969

David Crosby’s Lighthouse Band, ‘Woodstock’, 2018

Fifty years ago this week, I was driving away from the Woodstock festival. Bill and I slogged our way through the traffic and the masses and the mud, were present at the first night of the show, and prudently (cowardly) took our leave for more sanitized pastures. Not that we weren’t transformed or transfixed. We were merely cutting out early from a mind-boggling festival. Had we known that our presence at The Mythical Event would be a major claim to fame for the rest of our lives, we might have stuck it out.

Joni Mitchell, 1969 (Photo Rod Pennington)

As far as the music went, I believed then as I still do today – the best of it can be better heard after a shower and a good meal, under headphones in a comfortable chair.

When I tell younguns about The Day, I focus on the social context. It was a Nixonian world. The WASP establishment ruled the airways, the record companies, the universities, and the Department of Defence. They were waging a war I then perceived as imperialist and trying to send me – ME!! – there to be killed. I was less than enthusiastic.

The counterculture, the hippies, the rock music fans, the anti-war demonstrators, were the seditious opposition. The establishment saw us as beyond the fringe. But through 1968 and 1969, just as the monthly body rose, so did the numbers of naysayers, marijuana smokers and record sales.

But the establishment media pretty much suppressed that, and our feeling in July 1969 was that we were illegitimate, disenfranchised pariahs. We saw an ad for the festival, we drove to upstate New York, and – mile after mile of car, rivulet joining rivulet into a stream and then a torrent and then a flood of long-haired freaks – we discovered that we were in fact not alone. It wasn’t just a music festival. It was the birth of a nation, a new option for living our lives.

I was walking along a country road on my way down to Yasgur’s farm

My most vivid image of the festival wasn’t the half-million on the hillside, the mud, or the music. It was approaching the site. The radio was reporting massive traffic snarls. We parked at the side of the road only a couple of miles from the turnoff (we got there early afternoon Friday). I remember the distance from the road to the site as an hour’s walk, but I wouldn’t bet the family farm on the veracity of that. It was that walk to Yasgur’s farm that’s indelibly engraved in my mind. All those hippies, all those hippies, all those hippies. Crawling out of the woodwork to form a new nation.

The story of the composition of the song ‘Woodstock’ is well-documented. Joni Mitchell’s consorts Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young reached the site by helicopter and a stolen truck hot-wired by Young. Dick Cavett wanted to feature Joni on a show about the festival, and her managers David Geffen and Elliot Roberts thought that an hour of national TV was more important than risking her getting stuck at the ‘muddy love-in’, and so kept her in New York.

But Crosby and Stills did make it back in time for the show, together with the Jefferson Airplane. Stills famously showed the cameras his mud-caked jeans.

The Macedonian Army — Bethel, NY, August 1969

Cavett: “Would you consider the festival a success?”
Crosby: “It was incredible. It was probably the strangest thing that’s ever happened in the world. (Audience applause.) Can I describe what it looked like flying in on the helicopter, man? It looked like an encampment of the Macedonian army on the Greek hills, crossed with the biggest band of Gypsies you ever saw.”

It was indeed a watershed event.

Stephan Stills’ Real Woodstock Mud

By the time they got to the Dick Cavett show, Joni had written what would become the theme song of the festival. “The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock,” said Joni. Crosby said that she had captured the feeling and importance of the Woodstock festival better than anyone who had been there.

It became a hit in CSN&Y’s raucous version (#11 in the US, the only song on “Déjà vu” in which they all played simultaneously), then commercialized even further by Matthews Southern Comfort (#1 in the UK). But of course we’re going to talk about Joni’s enigmatic original, predictably overshadowed by the more palatable treatments.

Billion Year Old Carbon, Murray-Dodge Hall, Princeton University

Perhaps some of my regular readers have noticed that I’ve been walking through Joni’s discography chronologically. We’ve discussed ‘Cactus Tree’ (the first album), ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ (the second album) and ‘For Free’ from “Ladies of the Canyon”, which is by all accounts a mixed bag, a collection of vivid songs, less cohesive than her first two albums, yet far more mature artistically, containing songs a league beyond almost all her previous work. Half of the songs could have fit comfortably into either of the first two albums, mostly ‘relationship songs’ (‘Morgan Morningtown’, ‘Conversation’, ‘Willy’, ‘The Arrangement’, ‘Rainy Night House’, ‘The Priest’, ‘Blue Boy’), albeit with a much more adventuresome sound palette. She plays piano on five of the album’s cuts, as opposed to on only one cut from the first two albums. She employs strings, woodwinds and stylized backing vocals (her own), admirably expanding her aural canvas.

We Are Stardust — Murray-Dodge Hall, Princeton University

For my money, every one of the other songs is superior to those seven. ‘Other’ songs, each one individual, all of them exploring new subject matters outside the realm of the strictly personal: ‘For Free’, ‘Ladies of the Canyon’, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, ‘Woodstock’, ‘Circle Game’. Each one an autonomous gem. It seems Joni had to go outside herself to hone her craft. It is this command of her lyrics, music and sound production that she employs so successfully a year later in her masterpiece “Blue” to explore her inner landscape with such acute, painful precision.

But we get ahead of ourselves. ‘Woodstock’ is ostensibly a celebratory anthem, a paean to the birth of a nation. Why does she couch it in a minor key? Why is the basic sound plaintive, pained, even anguished (the lead vocal, the tremolo Wurlitzer electric piano, the backing chorus of Macbeth’s witches)? Why? To tell you the truth, I have no satisfactory answer.

It is clear to me that Joni was strongly influenced by the Appollo 11 moonwalk three weeks earlier. And I can tell you that the metaphor of planes metamorphosing reoccurs as the central image in her song ‘Amelia’. And I fell in love with ying-yanged granite stump made of billion year-old carbon in front of the staid Murray-Dodge Hall at Princeton University.

A special treatment of the song has surfaced recently by The Lighthouse Band, David Crosby’s new group of kids including none other than Michael League (leader of Snarky Puppy) and Becca Stevens (a fine soloist in her own right and frequent collaborator of Jacob Collier). You don’t get no more au courant or relevant than that. Their collaboration on Crosby’s 2018 “Here If You Listen” is in my humble opinion as good as the best he’s ever done, and that’s saying a lot. And their treatment of ‘Woodstock’? Not the raucous CSNY hit, but a revisit to Joni’s treatment, just in luscious four-part harmony. Crosby, you may remember, is the one who ‘discovered’ Joni–as if time or air could be discovered.

Joni’s ‘Woodstock’ is intriguing enough to have inspired some 351(!!!) documented covers of the song (according to the official Joni Mitchell site). I admit it remains an enigma for me. A riveting, beautiful, inspiring, iconic enigma, proof that the true Woodstock is in our minds.

I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who I am
But you know life is for learning

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden


If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

The Dick Cavett ‘Woodstock’ Show
Songs of The Week about Joni Mitchell
072: Stephen Stills, ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ (“Just Roll Tape”)