Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”: Voicing An Anthem For The 60s Hippie Ethos

By on April 29, 2015

Joni Mitchell has had a number of health issues over the years, and she is currently hospitalized and suffering from the mysterious affects of Morgellons Disease. But we thought we’d pause for a few moments to remember her song “Woodstock”: here she is singing it at the Isle of Wight concert in 1970, before she’s interrupted by a hippie named Yogi Joe — and then a curious thing happens: as he’s being hauled offstage, the audience begin booing their disapproval, while Mitchell makes an emotional appeal, asking them to show some respect for the performers. It’s quite a moment, the voice of a generation calming an agitated crowd who, it seems, had already forgotten what the song “Woodstock” was all about.

When Joni Mitchell came out on stage, the size of the audience at the Isle Of Wight amazed and frightened her, saying “It looks like they’re making ‘Ben-Hur’ or something!” All through her hour-long set, she had to deal with the noise of the rowdy and agitated crowds, and the frequent and distracting sound of small airplanes taking off. About two-thirds of the way through her song “Chelsea Morning” she stopped and told the audience “I don’t feel like singing that song very much. Let me play you one on the piano.” After singing “For Free,” Joni paused and spoke again to the crowd:

“You know maybe I’m kinda weird but when I’m sitting up here and playing and I hear all those people growling out there and people saying ‘Joni, smile for Amsterdam’ and stuff, it really puts me uptight and I forget the words and then I get nervous and it’s really a drag! I don’t know what to say. Just give me a little help, will ya?”

Just then she was interrupted by Yogi Joe, a hippie she knew from her time spent visiting the caves in Crete. He flashed her a peace sign as he jumped up on stage and sat down with his congas in his lap. Joni and the stage managers, fearing they might antagonize the crowds, allowed him to stay onstage, and while Joni sang “Woodstock,” he proceeded to play his drums.

JONI AT ISLE OF WIGHT

Joni told Q magazine in 1988 : “This guy I knew from the caves at Matala, Yogi Joe, he taught me my first yoga lesson, he leaps up on stage. He sits at my feet and starts to play the congas with terrible time. He looks up at me and says ‘Spirit of Matala, Joni!’ I bend down off-mic and say, ‘This is entirely inappropriate, Joe.’ It was ‘Woodstock’, of all the songs to be singing, because this was so different – it was a war-zone out there.”

As the song ended, Yogi Joe stood up and insisted on taking the microphone away from Mitchell so he could give his message to the people: “I have an announcement that I’ve been asked to make. Desolation Row is this festival, ladies and gentlemen.” The stage managers tried to talk him down as they pulled him away from the microphone, but he refused to cooperate, and the stagehands finally had to drag him away. The infuriated crowd, seeing him as one of their own, reacted defiantly, booing, complaining and nearly bringing Joni to tears as she attempted to play the piano intro to “My Old Man.” Her anger rose as she rallied her defenses, turned to the crowd and told them:

“Listen a minute, will ya? Will ya listen a minute? Now listen … A lot of people who get up here and sing, I know it’s fun, ya know, it’s a lot of fun. It’s fun for me, I get my feelings off through my music, but listen …You got your life wrapped up in it and it’s very difficult to come up here and lay something down when people … It’s like last Sunday I went to a Hopi ceremonial dance in the desert and there were a lot of people there and there were tourists … and there were tourists who were getting into it like Indians and there were Indians who were getting into it like tourists, and I think that you’re acting like… tourists, man. Give us some respect.”

JONI ON CAVETT 1

We thought we might pause a moment to remember when Joni Mitchell, despite what had happened at the Isle of Wight in August 1970, was once the voice of a generation, particularly early in her career. And we thought we’d take a moment to remember how she came to write “Woodstock,” one of her most famous songs, and remember her appearance on the The Dick Cavett Show, a prime-time national show, on what is now referred to as the “Woodstock” show because it was taped on the Monday after Woodstock weekend, August 1969.

As we said, Joni Mitchell did not actually perform at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, pre-billed as “3 Days of Peace & Music” — and you no doubt also know that the concert was actually moved from its original Woodstock, NY location to Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in the Catskills, near the town of Bethel, NY.

Just before the concert, out on the west coast, Graham Nash’s new group, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, had just played their first show, at the Greek Theater in L.A., and Joni Mitchell — she and Nash were, in Nash’s words, “an item” at the time — was their opening act. From there they had played a show together in Chicago, and then from there they were flying to Woodstock, which was going to be their third gig, but by the time they were getting on the plane, they were already hearing rumors that Woodstock kept miraculously “multiplying and multiplying.”

Nash: “First we hear 20,000 people will be there. Then, my God, we hear 100,000. Joni wanted to go, and I said ‘If you go, I can’t guarantee that I can get you out of there and back to do the Cavett show,’ which was an important show at the time.”

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young reached the site okay, by helicopter and a stolen truck hot-wired by Neil Young (true story!).

JONI ON CAVETT 7

Meanwhile, Mitchell and her manager, label mogul David Geffen, and manager Elliot Roberts, who had every intention of going, arrived at the La Guardia airport in New York City and that’s where Geffen saw a New York Times newspaper headline saying “400,000 People Sitting In Mud,” with the front-page article describing that the roads leading to the actual concert site — and, one presumes, back from it — were so clogged with cars that concertgoers were abandoning them and walking.

In other words, Woodstock had already been declared, in Mitchell’s own words, a “national disaster area.”

Geffen in particular was concerned that Mitchell might not be able to extricate herself from the mud and get back to New York City, where she was scheduled to appear on Dick Cavett’s nationally-televised talk show, along with Jefferson Airplane and CSN&Y. It was deemed too important for her career to have the chance to speak to Cavett before the live TV audience, and so the decision was made: Geffen turned to manager Elliot Roberts and said “You go, I’m staying here.”

Geffen then brought Mitchell to his New York apartment, where they watched news reports about Woodstock on TV (various sources also claim that Mitchell stayed in a hotel room, even a “posh Manhattan, Plaza Hotel suite,” but Geffen maintains that he’d kept an apartment in the city where there was plenty of room, and it doesn’t seem likely that Mitchell would have been put up in an expensive hotel suite if Geffen had a place for her to stay).

JONI ON CAVETT 9

Even though Mitchell missed her opportunity to experience it first-hand, she knew the importance of Woodstock even as it was happening. She wasn’t going to be up there on the stage; instead, she was going to experience it as a fan, although she would have to be content with updates on TV.

A curious thing happened that weekend: missing Woodstock motivated Mitchell to try to express what the concert meant at the time, to her generation, and so she sat down at wrote a song to try to capture that essence. “The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock,” she would say later. The song, “Woodstock,” flowed from her fingers, pen to paper, thrumming with a kind of purpose.

Lyrically, the song begins with a chance encounter with a “child of God,” walking along the road — a metaphorical muddy road to be sure — but she later claims that she was going through a kind of “born-again Christian trip” at the time – “not that I went to church,” she says.

Mitchell: “I’d given up Christianity at a very early age in Sunday school. But suddenly, as performers, we were in the position of having so many people look to us for leadership, and for some unknown reason I took it seriously and decided I needed a guide and leaned on God. So I was a little ‘God mad’ at the time, for lack of a better term, and I had been saying to myself, ‘Where are the modern miracles”‘ 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.”

JONI ON CAVETT 6

Well I came across a child of God, he was walking along the road
And I asked him tell where are you going, this he told me:
Well, I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm, going to join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land, set my soul free.

We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,

And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Well, then can I walk beside you? I have come to lose the smog.
And I feel like I’m a cog in something turning.
And maybe it’s the time of year, yes, and maybe it’s the time of man.
And I don’t know who I am but life is for learning.

We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

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,
Turning into butterflies above our nation.

We are stardust, we are golden, we caught in the devil’s bargain,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

“Woodstock” became a kind of invocatory call to alms, and a kind of highwater mark, planting a flag atop a mud hill for a whole hippie ethos that was struggling to find a voice, and Joni Mitchell gave it hers.

“Maybe it’s the time of year, maybe it’s the time of man,” she wrote, capturing the utopian spirit of the concert — but also recognizing that her generation needed to return to Eden, needing to get “back to the garden,” which of course meant she understood that part of the reason Woodstock was successful was that it was a rejection of where society was heading at the time — life was out of balance with nature, and the world becoming too corporate, too technological, too demanding. Mitchell also hallucinates about the “bombers riding shotgun in the sky, turning into butterflies above our nation” of “half a million strong,” saying that the generation of which she was also a part were “caught in the devil’s bargain” of the Vietnam War.

Curiously, she also connects everyone and everything in the known universe together by pointing out that we were all “star stuff,” just cosmic dust floating around in our various forms. “We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,” Mitchell wrote — which happened to be true, it turned out, although we’re not sure when Mitchell would have known this, as it wasn’t popularized just yet.

The idea had been published only a dozen years earlier, in 1957, in a scientific paper published in the Reviews of Modern Physics, written by Dr. Geoffrey Burbidge, an English physicist, his wife, his wife, E. Margaret Burbidge; William Fowler of the California Institute of Technology; and Fred Hoyle of Cambridge University — a collaboration noted by their initials B2FH.

The paper — which changed the whole landscape of the chemical evolution of the universe” — laid out the claim that thermonuclear reactions in stars could slowly seed a universe that was originally pure hydrogen, helium and lithium, the simplest elements in the periodic table, with heavier elements like oxygen, iron, carbon and others from which life is derived. Stars like the Sun burn hydrogen into helium to generate heat and light for most of their lives, until they run out of fuel and fizzle, or so the story goes. But more massive stars can go on to ignite helium to produce carbon and oxygen and so forth. Eventually the star explodes, tossing the newly minted atoms into space, where they mix with gas and dust and are incorporated into future stars. Successive generations of stars that coalesce from cosmic dust, burn and then explode would thus make the universe ever richer in heavy elements.

What all of this meant was that everything in our known universe — every one of our chemical elements — was once inside a star, which means that you and I, my brothers and sisters, “We are stardust.”

(Carl Sagan did not say we are “star stuff” until the publication of Cosmos, in 1980: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of Starstuff.”)

JONI ON CAVETT 11

In 1969, ABC-TV’s 32-year old Dick Cavett was considered the intellectual, hipper alternative to NBC’s much more popular late-night talk show host, Johnny Carson. Cavett, a graduate of Yale and a former joke writer for Carson, encouraged more free-form discussion among guests than Carson did, and he was much more comfortable with younger celebrities, which would include rock bands, although the ABC network executives weren’t particularly enthused that he wanted to include them as guests, saying to him: “What would you want them on for?’

As it turned out, on the afternoon off Monday, August 18, 1969, Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell, and David Crosby and Stephen Stills — many of the performers, and most of Cavett’s audience — came directly from their weekend at Woodstock for the taping the afternoon before the show aired. Stephen Stills pointed out the mud from the concert venue still caked on his jeans. (Jimi Hendrix, though scheduled to show up, played long at the festival and wound up too “zonked” to appear on television, Crosby telling Cavett that he’d played until 10 am that very morning).

JONI ON CAVETT 12

Dick Cavett asked Crosby: “Would you consider the festival a success?”

Crosby: “It was incredible. It was probably the strangest thing that’s ever happened in the world. (Audience applause.) Can I describe what it looked like flying in on the helicopter, man? It looked like an encampment of the Macedonian army on the Greek hills, crossed with the biggest band of Gypsies you ever saw.”

JONI ON CAVETT 13

Watch the “Woodstock” show here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Mitchell performed four songs, “Chelsea Morning,” “Willy,”For Free,” and an a cappella version of“The Fiddle and the Drum.” Stephen Stills sang his song “4 + 20,” and Grace Slick — who kept calling Dick Cavett “Jim” for some reason, to which Cavett jokingly said “You’ve got to learn my name, Miss Joplin” — briefly talked about her school days at Finch College, before her band, Jefferson Airplane, rocked through the revolutionary “Volunteers,” (“This generation got no destination to hold, pick up the cry / Hey now it’s time for you and me / Got a revolution”), as well as “Somebody To Love” (with Crosby joining in), and “We Can Be Together,” the latter marking the first time the word “fuck” was uttered on live television (airing the next night, Tuesday August 19th), somehow sneaking past the censors, even though they should have had enough time before airing to catch it.

Joni Mitchell’s version of “Woodstock” didn’t appear on an album until she recorded it for Ladies of the Canyon (1970), but CSN&Y recorded it for their Déjà Vu album, and on March 22nd, 1970, their version would enter Billboard’s Hot Top 100 chart at position #68, peaking at #11 on May 3rd, where it remained for two weeks, and it also spent 11 weeks on the Top 100. Two other covered versions made the Top 100 chart: The Assembled Multitude’s peaked at #79 for one week on October 18th, 1970, and Matthew’s Southern Comfort’s version reached #1, for three weeks, on the United Kingdom’s Singles chart on October 31, 1970; it then charted at #23 on the U.S. charts for two weeks on May 16th, 1971.

Geffen has said that when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young heard the song, they recorded it, and it became the anthem for Woodstock. The song plays over the Woodstock film’s credits. “As for the movie,” Geffen says, “I would not allow them to use the footage of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the movie unless they used Joni’s song with CSN&Y singing it as the theme of the movie. That’s how that happened.”

In the past several decades, Mitchell has expressed her sense of the failure of the “Woodstock generation” and even criticized those who, in states of false nostalgia, fetishize the event. She has even resisted being branded as a flower-child curio, wheeled out of retirement by made-for-television documentaries to provide pithily wistful comments about the era.

Despite saying here on the Cavett show that she didn’t understand anything about politics (“In Canada, we don’t do anything very political…”), Mitchell became more political as time went on, and she became a vociferous commentator on contemporary politics as well as many other topics, and its painful to know today that her beautiful voice — the voice of a generation — may have been silenced forever.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.