True Story of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”

While many have spoken about, filmed, and interview about Woodstock, only one song truly captures the essence of the festival, Joni Mitchell‘s Woodstock. What many people don’t know is that Joni Mitchell never even attended the epic festival.

Joni Mitchell

The Woodstock Festival Becomes a Generational Icon

In the Summer of 1969, what is often considered the apex of the hippie counter-culture took place in Bethel, NY. From Aug. 15-17 (and spilling over into the 18th) The Woodstock Music Festival rocked the country from Max Yasgur’s now famous dairy farm.

Dozens of now famous acts performed for the near half-million audience members (enough people drove up from nearby New York City that traffic backed up almost all the way to the NYS Thruway). Among the acts that performed were:

Richie Havens
Country Joe and the Fish
Janis Joplin
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Arlo Guthrie
The Who
Jefferson Airplane
Jimi Hendrix
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (CSNY)

It was CSNY that would lead to Joni Mitchell writing “Woodstock.”

Joni Mitchell Inspired to Write “Woodstock”

Joni Mitchell never performed at The Woodstock Festival. Due to transportation issues, she had to choose between the festival and appearing on The Dick Cavett Show. She was inspired to write the song instead by hearing about it from her boyfriend at the time, Graham Nash, of CSNY.

Driven by regret at not being able to perform at Woodstock, Mitchell produced a spacious, haunting song capturing the essence of the festival and of the hippie movement itself. The song appeared on Joni’s 1970 album, Ladies of the Canyon.

The best known rendition of “Woodstock” was recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. It is a distinctly “harder” sounding song than the original, featuring a muscular guitar intro and multiple harmonies on the chorus. Their version reached #11 on the U.S Charts in 1970.

Woodstock’s Legacy

Woodstock remains one of the most significant events in 20th Century America, and certainly the most significant concert in history (only Live Aid even comes close to its impact).

As with all great achievements, both the concert and the song have been imitated, to varying effect. The first attempt to remake the Woodstock Festival was the Altamont Free Concert of 1969. Billed as “Woodstock West” the show was a violent disaster leading to four deaths, including a homicide.

In 1994, a concert was held in Saugerties, NY, about an hour to the Northeast from Bethel. The festival was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the original. About 350,000 people attended, and the concert was considered a great success. Another concert was held in 1999 in Rome, NY, but this one ended in fire and rioting.

Woodstock was more than just a concert, and its namesake song became more than just a tune. Woodstock was a triumph of the human spirit, proof that for three days, half a million people can love each other and live in peace, if only for the music.

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