The Story Behind the Song "Woodstock" by Joni Mitchell

Updated on April 21, 2019
Kaili Bisson profile image

Rockin’ before she could walk, a vinyl hound who can’t remember a thing because the words to all songs from 1960-2018 are stuck in her head.

A photo of Joni from 1974.
A photo of Joni from 1974. | Source

The lyrics in this tune make Woodstock sound like a dreamy utopia where everything was all about peace, love and understanding. The reality of the festival itself may have been something completely different, but the images evoked by the song remain.

Woodstock Music and Art Fair

Three days of peace, art and music, brotherly love and flowers in your hair. That was the way it was supposed to be. The other side of the coin saw organizers of what turned out to be a four-day event who were ill-prepared for the throngs that descended on Yasgur's farm in upstate New York, endless rain that turned the fields to mud, traffic jams that stretched to the horizon and lots and lots of bad "trips."

What actually occurred on August 15-18, 1969 was some wonderful, mad combination of all of the above. It became an iconic happening during the last days of the crazy '60s and a seminal moment in rock and roll.

Thirty-two distinct musical acts performed day and night for an estimated crowd of over 400,000. All of the biggies of the day were there, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Santana, Ten Years After, Joan Baez, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Who. If you love Woodstock, check out my series on the artists who were there, beginning with Ritchie Havens on Day 1.

So much has been written about this festival in the intervening years. There have been films, books and live LPs released, and even a few music festivals to mark the anniversary of the original event. But perhaps no one has captured the spirit of the thing better than someone who wasn't even there.

"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"

Who Wrote "Woodstock"?

This wonderful, evocative tune was written by Canadian poet and songstress Joni Mitchell. And yes, Joni wasn't even on the bill for the festival, nor did she attend to hang out with her friends.

Joni had just finished up a gig at The Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, where she was the opening act for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and they were all headed to Woodstock, where CSNY were scheduled to make their second-ever live appearance, the first having been in Chicago. When they got to the airport in New York on the afternoon of Sunday August 17th, there was already chaos around securing spots on helicopters heading for the concert site as well as massive delays ferrying performers back and forth. Joni was booked to do an interview on The Dick Cavett Show the very next day, and her manager David Geffen was worried that Joni wouldn't get back from the concert site on time to do the talk show. So, she sadly remained in New York on her own while CSNY headed for Woodstock, where they eventually took the stage at 3am on Monday the 18th.

Joni wrote the lyrics and music while staying in New York, crafting the words based on live televised news stories about the event and from what her then-boyfriend Graham Nash shared with her.

The result? According to Nash's musical partner David Crosby, Joni "captured the feeling and importance of the Woodstock festival better than anyone who had actually been there."

Joni Performing "Woodstock" in 1970

A Brief Biography of Joni Mitchell

Volumes have been written about this fabulous lady. From her humble beginnings on the prairies in Canada, Joni evolved into one of the most talented songwriters and performers of the '60s and '70s. Though perhaps her music isn't as well known today, she has been recognized time and again for her influence on other artists.

Roberta Joan Anderson was born November 7, 1943 in Fort Macleod, Alberta, to a father who was a grocer and a mother who was a teacher. When Joni was nine, she and her family settled in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a place later made famous by The Guess Who. It was around this time that Joni contracted polio, and when she was released from the hospital, her artistic bent completely took over.

Joni loved music, and her early influences included classical piano and composers like Mozart. Joni took up ukulele and later taught herself to play guitar. More than anything, though, Joni loved art, and she was forever sketching and painting. She struggled in school, and it wasn't until high school that a teacher recognized her talent for words and helped her to channel that side of creative nature through poetry by telling her "If you can paint with a brush, you can paint with words."

Joni's first paying musical gig was at the Louis Riel Coffeehouse in Saskatoon in 1962, though it wasn't long before she was on the move again. Joni signed up to study art in Calgary, Alberta, but found the classes stifling. She became a regular performer at a small club in Calgary and dropped out of art school after only a year.

But the bright lights of Toronto were beckoning. Joni headed east and became one of hard working artists on the burgeoning folk scene in Toronto's Yorkville. A short-lived marriage to American folk singer Chuck Mitchell gave Joni a new surname and entry into the US. An appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966 was just the beginning for Joni, who moved to New York City in 1967 after her marriage to Chuck ended. She played concerts up and down the coast, and a chance meeting with the already-famous David Crosby in Coconut Grove, Florida in the late summer of 1967 proved to be the turning point. Joni was on her way.

Photo of side two of "Ladies of the Canyon"
Photo of side two of "Ladies of the Canyon"

Five Musical Facts

  1. According to Joni's website, "Woodstock" has been covered by 347 different artists.
  2. Joni first performed "Woodstock" at The Big Sur Festival on September 13, 1969. The film "Celebration at Big Sur" captured the artists of the day about a month after many of them had performed at the Woodstock festival.
  3. Joni included "Woodstock" on her third LP "Ladies of the Canyon", released in April 1970. It had previously been released as the B-side of the single "Big Yellow Taxi."
  4. CSNY recorded "Woodstock" for their 1970 LP entitled "Déjà Vu." Their version of the song peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in May 1970.
  5. The cover recorded by Matthews Southern Comfort actually did better in some markets than the CSNY version. MCA records agreed to release this version of the song in the UK only if the CSNY version didn't make it on the UK music charts. The version by Matthews Southern Comfort went on to reach #1 in the UK and #5 in Canada.

But I don't know if I would have written the song 'Woodstock' if I had gone. I was the fan that couldn't go, not the performing animal. So it afforded me a different perspective.

— Joni, in an interview for Life Magazine, August 1994

Crosby, Stills & Nash's Version of "Woodstock"

So Many Versions of "Woodstock"

This song has been covered by such diverse artists as James Taylor (three times), Led Zeppelin, Bonnie Raitt and America. CSNY recorded it twice, CSN once and David Crosby also covered it on a solo album.

Each artist has put their own spin on it; some remaining true to Joni's original version, others (including CSNY) modifying the words slightly and treating it to more of a rock edge.

One cover of the song that is not noted on the list on Joni's website is one by Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys. Released in 2018, the posthumous album "Both Sides of the Sky" includes a version of "Woodstock" recorded on September 30, 1969 in the Record Plant studios, and features Jimi on bass instead of guitar and Stephen Stills on vocals. This version was actually recorded months prior to the release of the CSNY version.

Jimi and Joni first met in March 1968 in Ottawa, Canada, when both of them were in town for concerts. Jimi wrote the following about Joni in his diary:

March 19

Arrived in Ottawa. Beautiful hotel. Strange people ... Beautiful dinner. Talks with Joni Mitchell on the phone. I think I'll record her tonight with my excellent tape recorder (knock on wood). Hmmm ... can't find any wood ... everything's plastic. Beautiful view.

Marvelous sound on first show. Good on second. Good recording. Went down to little club to see Joni, fantastic girl with heaven words.

Matthews Southern Comfort Performing "Woodstock"

Which version of "Woodstock" do you prefer?

See results

© 2019 Kaili Bisson

Comments

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    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      2 months ago from Canada

      Hi Rajan, so glad you enjoyed the article. I will need to do more articles about Joni. We Canadians are very proud of her! She had a very serious stroke in 2015, and sadly, she doesn't perform anymore.

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      2 months ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      I had no idea about Woodstock song and festival, nor I had I heard about this wonderful artist Joni. She had talent and I liked her version the best. I wonder why the Matthews Southern Comfort look and sound so morose.

      Thanks for this enlightening article, Kaili.

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      2 months ago from Canada

      Hi Flourish and thank you.

      Ya, I had to chuckle at these guys too. I couldn't decide if the singer was high or just really nervous ('I can't see you, so you're not there').

      It was the Matthews Southern Comfort version that got airplay here. The A-side of Joni's single got a lot of airplay, but "Woodstock" didn't. Nobody figured the Woodstock festival was going to be as big as it turned out to be, and lots of people later regretted not being there, even with all the chaos.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      2 months ago from USA

      I liked her teacher's inspiring words to her as a child. The Matthews Southern Comfort version involves such little stage presence and they look so stoned that I had to chuckle.

      I wasn't quite born when Woodstock took place, but if I had been, I would've skipped it. Although I sure love music, all that mud, open use of drugs, sex in public with whoever, lack of toilets or showers, etc. Plus, I think lots of people couldn't even hear the musicians. I would have made up an excuse like I had to appear on The Dick Cavvett show or something and skipped it. I don't think it affected Joni Mitchell. Great job on the article!

    • Kaili Bisson profile imageAUTHOR

      Kaili Bisson 

      2 months ago from Canada

      Thank you so much Mel. Yes, she is such a super talent...we are very proud of our Joni!

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      2 months ago from San Diego California

      Beautiful little lady this Joni Mitchell, and a talented poet too. Extremely captivating and highly readable history.

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