How Joni Mitchell Wrote “Woodstock,” the Song that Defined the Legendary Music Festival, Even Though She Wasn’t There (1969)

Among the slew of icon­ic late-60s acts who played Wood­stock 50 years ago, one name stands out con­spic­u­ous­ly for her absence: Joni Mitchell. Was she not invit­ed? Did she decline? Was she dou­ble-booked? Mitchell was, of course, invit­ed, and eager­ly want­ed to be there. The sto­ry of her non-appear­ance involves alarm­ing head­lines in The New York Times and an appear­ance on The Dick Cavett Show the day after the fes­ti­val that her man­ag­er, Elliot Roberts and label head David Gef­fen, decid­ed she sim­ply couldn’t miss.

Her sig­nif­i­cant oth­er at the time, Gra­ham Nash, reached the upstate New York fes­ti­val with CSNY, “by heli­copter and a stolen truck hot-wired by Neil Young,” reports the site Night­flight. But Gef­fen and Mitchell, see­ing the head­line “400,000 Peo­ple Sit­ting in Mud,” and a descrip­tion of the roads as “so clogged with cars that con­cert­go­ers were aban­don­ing them and walk­ing,” decid­ed they shouldn’t take the risk. (She described the scene as a “nation­al dis­as­ter area.”) Instead, they watched news about the mud-splat­tered event from Geffen’s New York City apart­ment (oth­er accounts say they holed up in the Plaza Hotel).

So how is it Mitchell came to write the defin­i­tive Wood­stock anthem, with its era-defin­ing lyric “we’ve got to get our­selves back to the gar­den”? In the way of all artists—she watched, lis­tened, and used her imag­i­na­tion to con­jure a scene she only knew of sec­ond­hand. CSNY’s ver­sion of “Wood­stock” (live, below, at Madi­son Square Gar­den in 2009) is the one we tend to hear most and remem­ber, but Mitchell’s—her voice soar­ing high above her piano—best con­veys the song’s sense of youth­ful hip­pie ide­al­ism, mys­ti­cal won­der, and just a touch of des­per­a­tion. (At the top, she plays the song live in Big Sur in 1969.) David Yaffe, author of Reck­less Daugh­ter: A Por­trait of Joni Mitchell describes the song as “pur­ga­tion. It is an omen that some­thing very, very bad will hap­pen with the mud dries and the hip­pies go home.”

Mitchell did make the Cavett Show gig, along­side Stephen Stills, David Cros­by, and Jef­fer­son Air­plane, all just return­ing from the fes­ti­val. But she didn’t have much to say. Instead, the gre­gar­i­ous Cros­by does most of the talk­ing, describ­ing Wood­stock as “incred­i­ble, prob­a­bly the strangest thing that’s ever hap­pened in the world.” Sur­vey­ing the scene from a heli­copter, he says, was like see­ing “an encamp­ment of a Mace­don­ian army on a Greek hill crossed with the biggest batch of gyp­sies you ever saw.” Lat­er on the show, Mitchell played “Chelsea Morn­ing” and oth­er songs, after per­for­mances by Jef­fer­son Air­plane.

“The depri­va­tion of not being able to go,” she remem­bered, “pro­vid­ed me with an intense angle” on the fes­ti­val. “Wood­stock, for some rea­son, impressed me as being a mod­ern mir­a­cle, like a mod­ern-day fish­es-and-loaves sto­ry. For a herd of peo­ple that large to coop­er­ate so well, it was pret­ty remark­able and there was tremen­dous opti­mism. So I wrote the song ‘Wood­stock’ out of these feel­ings, and the first three times I per­formed it in pub­lic, I burst into tears, because it brought back the inten­si­ty of the expe­ri­ence and was so mov­ing.”

She did final­ly get the chance to play “Wood­stock” at Wood­stock, in 1998 (above, on elec­tric gui­tar), for an appre­cia­tive long-haired, tie-dyed audience—many of them nos­tal­gic for a moment they missed or were too young to have expe­ri­enced. The per­for­mance high­lights the “sense of long­ing that became essen­tial to the song’s impact,” as Leah Rosen­zweig writes at Vinyl Me, Please. “Sure, it was the irony of the cen­tu­ry”: the song that best cap­tured Wood­stock for the peo­ple who weren’t there was writ­ten by some­one who wasn’t there. “But it was also a per­fect recipe for Mitchell to do what she did best: draw humans togeth­er while remain­ing com­plete­ly on the side­lines.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Joni Mitchell’s Clas­sic Per­for­mances of “Both Sides Now” & “The Cir­cle Game” (1968)

See Clas­sic Per­for­mances of Joni Mitchell from the Very Ear­ly Years–Before She Was Even Named Joni Mitchell (1965/66)

Young Joni Mitchell Per­forms a Hit-Filled Con­cert in Lon­don (1970)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • JV says:

    In the recent Bob Dylan doc­u­men­tary, there’s a scene where Dylan is hap­pi­ly strum­ming along to Joni singing Coy­ote, and he’s look­ing at her in a way I’ve nev­er seen him look at anoth­er per­son in all the footage I’ve seen of him: as an equal. At her peak she was right there with Dylan as the best of the best.

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