By the time we got to Woodstock…
Okay, I have to admit that Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock is not one of my favorite songs in this concert setlist — I find some of Joni’s melodies very odd. That said, I love Chris Eastburn’s vocal arrangement as it gets into harmonies that are so textured and unusual. Not my favorite song, but a really great musical experience that I enjoy in each hearing.
So I looked into the song some more and find I’m growing to appreciate it more and more.
Joni Mitchell was not at Woodstock for the festival. She was in New York City, taping an episode of the Dick Cavett Show and watching news reports of the festival on television. She also heard about the experience from her then boyfriend, Graham Nash, who had just formed Crosby Stills Nash and Young from members of Buffalo Springfield, The Hollies and The Byrds. In the documentary film, Stephen Stills says, “This is the second time we’ve ever played in front of people, man, we’re scared sh-tless.”
Joni’s version of Woodstock appeared on her landmark album “Ladies of the Canyon” and was the B-side to “Big Yellow Taxi.” Oh, and that first line about meeting a child of god? Probably a reference to Matthew 5:9, to wit, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” (King James).
Okay, so then her boyfriend Graham Nash records the song with his band (she’s going to leave him soon for James Taylor) and they rock it up a bit. Here’s a version from the 25th anniversary concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:
Down the rabbit hole we go! CSNY’s Woodstock did well in the States, but in the UK and Canada, the version that charted was by Ian (sometimes Iain) Matthews and his band Matthews Southern Comfort (here with groovy historical footage):
Matthews was an early member of Fairport Convention and one of his bandmates from that group, guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson, performed a solo version of Woodstock for Joni at a tribute concert in 2000:
Another guitar hero, and former Joni Mitchell beau, James Taylor, also did a solo acoustic version. This one has no video because it was recorded for radio: Howard Stern’s radio show (JT does Stern? Surprised me).
Finally, you know how I mentioned up top that Joni’s melodies seem kind of jarring to me? She uses a lot of big, odd intervals that I’m not crazy about. Still, things could get a lot weirder, as Led Zeppelin proves:
(that was an interlude pulled out of a long Dazed and Confused — they did that a lot in live shows in the early 1970s, like this one.)
After all that, I’ve come to appreciate the song a lot more, and I love how the women of Newton Family Singers are singing those crazy chords. The band does some interesting things on this one (go Jethro!) but even a capella, I think the vocal arrangements alone evoke the hazy, optimistic, psychedelic 1960.
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Jack Cheng directs the Clemente Course in Dorchester, excavates in the Middle East, and writes in Waban, MA.