Saturday, 28 March 2009

By The Time We Got To Woodstock

At the risk of sounding like an aging baby-boomer hippy, I would just like to point out that it will be forty years this August that the Woodstock Festival took place in New York State, USA. Just for the record, I didn’t go – my mum probably wouldn’t’ve taken kindly to me rushing off with a huge ‘Keep on Truckin’ rucksack saying that I was just off to the States for a few weeks as a) I was only 13 and b) I would’ve had to be back in time for tea anyway. Also, my head was still in the singles chart at the time and would not become aware of ‘real’ music until after a year or two further had passed.

Nevertheless it was a major event, which in a rush of ultimate irony bearing in mind that everybody claimed to have been there, was immortalised in song by probably the one person apart from me who wasn’t there – Joni Mitchell. ‘Woodstock’ by Ms Mitchell, whose manager persuaded her that rather than play Woodstock, a TV appearance on the Dick Cavett show would be preferable to her career, was written on the basis of hearsay information imparted by her then boyfriend, Graham Nash who along with the remainder of the planet, did attend (allegedly).

‘Woodstock’ is a strange song. Joni’s original version appeared on her ‘Ladies of the Canyon’ album and whilst having a spot-on lyric, has a rather challenging melody which contains all manner of vocal-straining interval jumps but doesn’t really seem to benefit much from them. It is very symptomatic of Joni’s style of that time and meanders along to a dulcimer backing for rather too long. I am a big Joni fan but lyrics aside, this doesn’t really do much for me. Not the most auspicious of debuts for an iconic song.

But then along came Crosby, Stills Nash & Young to grab it by the scruff of the neck on their 1970 effort ‘Déjà Vu’ and put some muscle into its rhythm and cleverly hide many of the odd interval jumps in a mass of four part harmony. This version was a hit and not surprisingly – it is a rockier, more confident and ultimately superior version to Joni’s own.

The third version is one I own myself and it is by Matthews Southern Comfort. Where CSN&Y rock, MSC sort of swirl in a myriad of steel guitar and primitive synths. Iain Matthews, the leader of the band, clearly didn’t fancy Joni’s roller-coaster melody either and so totally ignored most of the jumps and just smoothed over them giving it a much more singable ambience. Whether or not this was done for convenience or artistic licence, it was certainly a hit with the British public who voted it up to number 1 in the Sept 1970 singles chart. This is the version I heard first so discovering the original years later was a bit of a shock as the melody is just not the same.

Which rather begs the question; do I really like ‘Woodstock’ or do I just like the subsequent appropriations? One thing is certain; I love the lyric which nails the atmosphere beautifully. Perhaps I’m an aging hippy after all?


Charlie said...

You love "Woodstock." It's a great song when done by CSN&Y and MSC. I've never been a Joni Michell fan and have often been deemed a no-nothing because of it. However, you hit on my biggest criticism of Mitchell: her high pitched vocal wail that often makes her unlistenable. To me the problem is not the melody, the arrangement, or the production. It's her voice and the sometimes excruciating tricks she plays with it.

musicobsessive said...

Charlie - I'll go half way with you on this one. I do like Joni but would agree her early work has a certain 'difficulty' in some of the melodies and 'Woodstock' is one of them. After about 'Blue' she calms down a bit and becomes a lot more approachable. Best period is 1971-1975 IMO.

Jayne said...

I didn't realise that MSC wasn't the original version of this song! I really like it - the wandering lyrics do it for me.

I'm not sure whether I am tempted to seek out Joni's original or not... I usually always prefer the original to a cover, but in Joni's case... well I love 'Big Yellow Taxi' but it's the Amy Grant version I have on my ipod, if you see what I mean! I agree with Charlie - Joni's vocal tricks are somewhat tricky listening. But maybe I have't heard her best years.

musicobsessive said...

Hi Jayne. I'd only seek out the original for interest as I don't think it presents well. Do have a listen to the CSN&Y version though, it's very good.

Nevertheless if you want to hear Joni at her best (and least 'awkward') try 'Court and Spark' - my usual recommendation to 'beginners'. Once you've got the feel for her style then go for my personal favourite, 'For the Roses', a work of unparalleled depth.