Here we are again with VERSIONS – our look at the songs, the performers and the interpretations by performers of the songs. This week Jonathan Aird looks at the Joni Mitchell classic ‘Woodstock’.
It was the archetype for festivals, and the peak of the hippy dream. It’s a name that rings down the years due to the extraordinary line-up that played the three days of peace, love and music, and also because of the stunning film made of the event. And the mud. And because it was enshrined in glowing memory by the queen of the folk-singers, Joni Mitchell. Ironic, of course, that Joni never actually got there – she had
to choose between dropping in at the festival and making a planned TV appearance, and The Dick Cavett Show won.
The feeling of the time was there though, and she knew plenty who had made it through and somehow that was enough to encapsulate the whole event, and the spirit of the age, in song. It quickly got covered – three versions came out as singles in 1970, Joni’s recording as the B-Side to ‘Big Yellow Taxi‘, the CSNY version which took the gentle folky feeling and rocked it out and Matthews’ Southern Comfort who got a huge hit out of it in the UK with a jazzy/folk-rock version. And it’s the last two versions that many covers lean towards – the funky rock of CSNY or the jazz lilt of Ian Matthews. Not that Joni gets left out entirely, as we shall see.
The song is a hymn to an ideal – the hippy pilgrimage to the gathering where the holy music will be played. A place where disillusionment can be shed by joining a band, where one’s place in the cosmos can be determined from getting back to the land, and connecting with the roots of the world. That the festival would be declared a disaster area, and that Yasgur’s Farm was left in an eco-unfriendly mess somehow doesn’t detract from the song – this is the dream, not reality. It’s the reality that could be achieved if everyone were to dream the same dream. It could be ludicrous – and yet there is too much optimism coupled with too much longing for a place in the world that is understood for it to be anything other than a shining hope. It’s ok to hope for better – it doesn’t make you a fool.
We’ll have the Joni version, of course, to compare against but the other two big hits are well enough known that we’ll skip past them. There’s a great version by Hendrix and Stills on the Hendrix ‘Freedom‘ album – but that seems to have been policed off Youtube. It’s worth getting ‘Freedom‘ for that and another Hendrix/Stills collaboration ‘$20 Fine‘, so cool. Led Zeppelin also incorporated ‘Woodstock‘ into their live set – and maybe that would have made the cut if a decent version – sound quality wise – could have been found. It’s certainly different.
Joni Mitchell (1970) Recorded for the ‘Ladies of the Canyon‘ album, a perfect dream of a song, that splinters into hallucinatory visions of peace and love. Altamont is just around the corner though. This is a live recording – just Joni and a piano and an incredible shivers making singing voice.
America (2014) From the ‘Back Pages‘ album, this is a version which leans mainly on the Matthews’ Southern Comfort recording – with a little of Joni’s vocal effects thrown in for good measure. Lovely harmonies, as you’d expect.
Richard Thompson (2000) Recorded at a tribute to Joni Mitchell, with the songwriter herself looking on and seemingly pleased with the rendition. Richard Thompson works his solo acoustic guitar magic on the song. Expect elaborate frills.
Darlingside & Heather Maloney (2013) A group of musicians who weren’t even born when Woodstock happened, and yet they clearly connect with it as they squeeze every ounce of emotion out of the song. There’s fiddle and stomp drum and banjo – this is Darlingside after all – and Heather Maloney has such a perfect voice for delivering the song – truly lovely.
There’s time to sneak in just one final version, which really speaks for itself: John Otway gives the classic a deconstruction.