November 17, 2021 • 1:45 pm

I posted this live performance of “Woodstock” about 10½ years ago (been a long time here, eh?), but I saw it again on those infernal YouTube “suggestions” on the right. And once again I was mesmerized by the quality of Joni Mitchell’s artistry. She wins the trifecta of rock/folk musicianship: superb at singing, playing an instrument, and writing songs—something that only artists like Paul McCartney, Stephen Stills, or James Taylor can do.

This version is from 1970, and shows how much music can be made with a voice, a piano, and a great tune. Joni introduces the song with a story about how she didn’t get to go to Woodstock, and so wrote the song after watching the show on television. You can read more at the Wikipedia link above.

Crosby, Still, Nash & Young also performed an album version in 1970 that rocks much harder than Joni’s, and truly I can’t say which I like better. This really is “apples and oranges.”

Backstory of the CSN&Y version (from Wikipedia):

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had learned the song from Mitchell herself, who was Nash’s girlfriend at the time, but the band’s version introduced major changes in tone. Jimi Hendrix was involved early in the song’s development, and a recording taped on 30 September 1969, half a year before the album came out, with Hendrix playing bass and overdubbing guitar was released in 2018 on the album Both Sides of the Sky. Sound engineer Eddie Kramer stated that with Jimi “… helping the song along, it sounds like Crosby, Stills & Hendrix”. The final version had Stephen Stills singing a slightly rearranged version of Mitchell’s lyrics which put the line, “we are billion year old carbon” — which only appeared in her final chorus — into each of the first three choruses. Then that line was replaced with “we are caught in the devil’s bargain” in the last chorus, which was also in Mitchell’s final chorus.

“Woodstock” was one of the few Déjà Vu tracks where Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young all performed their parts in the same session. Later the original lead vocal by Stephen Stills was partly replaced with a later vocal recorded by Stills, who recalled: “I replaced one and a half verses that were excruciatingly out of tune.” Neil Young disagreed, saying that “the track was magic. Then later on [Crosby, Stills & Nash] were in the studio nitpicking [with the result that] Stephen erased the vocal and put another one on that wasn’t nearly as good.

26 thoughts on ““Woodstock”

    1. Agree. That’s the definitive version to my taste, ear glued to a transistor radio.
      I’m glad our host likes Joni, though (and Gordie.). They are treasures.

      ‘Twasn’t always so, though. Many Canadian artists were over-exposed on Canadian AM radio stations because the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission imposed Canadian content rules on their broadcast licences. We teenagers naturally felt that these acts couldn’t be any good if bureaucrats over 30 were trying to force them down our throats. Some stations retaliated by playing their Can-Con “beavers” in the 3-6 a.m. slot….especially radio station CKLW, ostensibly in Windsor, Ontario, but in reality an enormously influential Detroit Motown station. Its news segments consisted mostly of Motor City shootings. It located its 100,000-watt transmitter, broadcasting at 800 kHz, across the river in Canada to evade FCC power restrictions. (The DJ Wolfman Jack worked a “California” station in Mexico using the same dodge.)

      Many of us discovered our own pop culture only as over-30s ourselves, especially if we had gone to high school anywhere within the (huge) range of “The Big 8”. Films too.

      Fun memories.

      1. They had content rules like that in France (no more than 3 American/British tunes per hour, or something similar), and in the UK, the BBC wasn’t keen on playing the young people’s music, so there was an off-shore station for them. In the U.S. it was radio station bliss; DJs who really liked the music and played “deep album” cuts instead of just the hits.

        And that included Joni and Gordon! (I still haven’t seen that documentary on him.)

        Can-Con “beavers”…. well, that’s one I hadn’t heard before.

    2. I was not aware of this cover by Matthews Southern Comfort. We have very different tastes. To me this is one of the worst (perhaps THE worst) covers of a Joni Mitchell song I have ever heard. But diversity is good, and I am glad there are enough versions of this song to make all of us happy!

      1. THE worst! That’s so funny! It’s the only version that went to number one anywhere. But then, if I thought about it I could probably come up with a long list of number one songs that I hated.

  1. I much prefer the CSN&Y version as its tone seems more inline with the Woodstock Music Festival. The Hendrix connection was new to me. That Steven Stills thought his vocal was out of tune but Neil Young that it was perfect is hilarious. Stills was undoubtedly right but Neil Young likes out of tune vocals as he makes it work in his own music.

  2. She watched Woodstock on TV. I had no idea it was on the TV. I knew they filmed most of it and made a movie from that which I did see. Also there was a three record album of Woodstock.

      1. Oh Okay, She said watching on TV as if the thing was televised. I did not think so but I was overseas at the time and did not know. I saw the movie at a theater in London i think. Several people were smoking weed in the theater, I remember that.

  3. David Crosby recorded a much more recent version of Woodstock with youthful collaborators Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis, and Michael League on his 2018 album Here if you Listen. This is probably my favourite version. Gorgeous.

  4. I’ve never been a huge Joni Mitchell fan, although when I say “huge,” that simply means “not in my regular rotation.” But my favorite song of hers is one I’ve rarely heard people mention: Free Man in Paris.

  5. “She wins the trifecta of rock/folk musicianship: superb at singing, playing an instrument, and writing songs—something that only artists like Paul McCartney, Stephen Stills, or James Taylor can do.”
    I’d add Paul Simon to that list.

    1. I would add Jackson Browne, too – though I know many would perhaps disagree. My Oregonian sister very recently saw him and James Taylor playing in a double bill – she preferred Taylor’s set (Browne insisted on playing new stuff she wasn’t familiar with, which might partly explain it) but the two playing together were apparently sublime.

        1. Indeed. The first composition of his I heard was “These Days” on an album by folkie Tom Rush in early 1970. I had no idea it was JB’s composition, as I wouldn’t hear of him for several years until he’d released his own album a few years later. Apparently he was part of the NYC scene as a teen-aged refugee from California, and was already creating music his peers recognized and recorded.

  6. I heard Joni sing “Woodstock” at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, but the only reason I know that I did is because Wikipedia says she sang it there, and I was there for the whole festival. Unfortunately, beyond a few acts (Hendrix, EL&P, Donovan), my memory of the whole 5 days is rather foggy (I wonder why!) and my journal isn’t helpful either (“Listened to music”, “listened to more music”).

    1. Conclusive proof that you were there, given the old saying about the ’60s (I know you mentioned 1970, but the sixties was a so-called “long decade”).

  7. Don’t know if it’ll be your cup of tea, but Richard Thompson performed a memorable live version at a tribute concert for Joni Mitchell. Another band was supposed to perform it but wasn’t able to get there, and Thompson was asked to step in, with very little prep time.

      1. I’m not a huge fan, but Thompson is very talented.

        He used to be in Fairport Convention. Their original male vocalist, Iain Matthews, had a hit with “Woodstock”. (His name is Ian Matthew McDonald, but changed it to avoid confusion with Ian McDonald, who played in King Crimson and Foreigner and at one time was the boyfriend of Fairport’s original female vocalist Judy Dyble. Small world.)

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