177: Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’

Posted by on Aug 16, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week |

Forty-four years ago today, 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 Defense. 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.

The Monterey Festival of summer, 1968, had 35,000 attendees. Woodstock had half a million. 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 a nation. It wasn’t just a music festival. It was the birth of 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. Crawled 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.

Joni’s treatment of ‘Woodstock’ is intriguing enough to have inspired some 251 documented covers of the song (according to the official Joni Mitchell site). I admit it remains an enigma for me. A riveting, beautiful, inspiring enigma, proving 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”)

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6 Comments

Steven Salemi
Aug 16, 2013 at 7:25 pm

Jeff, “Leaving Woodstock Early” may not be as uncool or historically-tragic as it sounds…on the contrary, it has distinct possibilities….

Like most men our age, I remember MAD Magazine content extraordinarily well, given how long ago it was. There was a column, maybe by Dave Berg, about what was “In” (Cool) and what was “Out” (Square). With the usual MAD-Intelligence, the writer observed that some things were SO FAR OUT (Extremely Square or Bizarre) that they were actually IN (Cool). So, for example, driving an expensive Ferrari was actually “OUT” whereas driving a Checker Taxi Cab was IN — you get the idea.

In other words, ANY OLD HIPPIE can ATTEND Woodstock and dutifully stay the entire time (OUT!), but only a very special old hippie is cool enough to LEAVE EARLY! We’re not worthy, we’re scum! You left early enough to avoid getting mud on your pants!

Keep up the good work Jeff, love your musical reflections and ruminations.


 
Recruiting Animal
Aug 17, 2013 at 1:02 pm

I met a guy who was at Woodstock and he told me that it was awful. I remember him mentioning the heat and the flies. The movie was great but it gave you the impression that if you were there you would be skinny-dipping with gorgeous girls which, as an adult, I can assume wouldn’t be true.

It was a pretty picture of the counter-culture rather than the thing itself.


 
Etay Vider
Aug 27, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Great column, Jeff!
I love this song – both Joni’s original, as well as CSN&Y’s version (I haven’t heard the other 250 covers). I also love, love Ladies of the Canyon, although I haven’t heard it for quite a while. I was only 5 years old in 1969, and living in a poor dusty little country in the middle-east, surrounded by an ocean of enemies. So, naturally I didn’t hear about Woodstock until the movie came out 😉
I did, however see a couple of minutes of the Apollo 11 moon landing, as televised by Mabat on Israeli TV. There was only one channel of TV in Israel, at the time, and it broadcast only in black & white. But nonetheless, it made a tremendous impression on me, as well.
It was only in high school (1978-1982) that I first heard of Joni Mitchell and her wonderful music. Ladies of the Canyon was the first Joni album that I heard, and owned.


 
Amy Selwyn
Oct 3, 2013 at 5:19 pm

I stumbled upon this blog by accident…looking up info on Leon Russell and his 1971 Homewood Sessions. I am SO happy I got here! This is a fantastic blog. I am loving it. You’re writing about the artists I treasure: Leon, Joni, Dylan, hopefully Jackson Browne, Neil Young. In other words, the greats. Love your observations and just delighted to be part of this community.


 
jeff
Oct 3, 2013 at 5:54 pm

Why, thank ye ma’am. We aim to please.


 
Dougdenslowe
Feb 10, 2015 at 3:51 am

I discovered your writing yesterday,while watching Simon and Garfunkel 1981 Central Park Concert.Joni Mitchell has had a place in my heart since Ladies of the Canyon LP.My good friend was in a band (Foxtrot) in L.A. during the early 70’s,and
his group played at Cher and David Geffen’s party.When I say “everybody was there”it’d be an understatement!Everyone who appeared on Sonny and Cher’s T.V.show,plus their individual programs,plus tons of bands who had played with Sonny and Cher during their bubblegum days.Needless to say,Joni was there.(I may be mistaken,but I believe this was the same week as her Newsweek cover)She was with her “lawyer boyfriend”(assuming Newsweek got it right)and I walked up to her,bowed and asked her to dance.Now I’m not a good dancer,most drummers aren’t(see Ringo in A Hard Days Night,a you’ll get the picture)but the chance to dance with Joni was a one time deal.I had seen Joni,often,down at the Rainbow Bar and Grill,always alone at a table,but never had the nerve to intrude on her.We danced for three songs,often laughing at each other’s clumsy dance steps.I made sure my friends in the band saw me,I made the most of my opportunity.If she hadn’t been with someone,I’m sure I would have at least introduced myself,but I left it at a few lovely dances.I never did see her alone at the Rainbow again…….


 

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