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.”