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Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ Best Captures The Festival, But She Wasn’t Even There

How A Masterpiece Came Together Through Secondhand Stories

On August 15, 2019

It’s August 19, 1969: One day after Woodstock. Joni Mitchell is making her debut on the Dick Cavett show. She’s immaculate: arms dipped in emerald velvet and wrapped around a caramel guitar — its bridge affixed with a single white rose. Her face is angular and expressive; her hair, like that of Alphonse Mucha’s Bernhardt, falls in segments over her eyes, which are closed. She sings — her voice bolstered by introspection and too much knowing for someone her age. Preps, popists, satin-shirted bolo tie boys, and, finally, Dick Cavett himself are stretched across Technicolor staircases, listening as the sandy-haired Canadian teaches them about New York mornings. It’s likely the first time many of them have heard her voice — its wriggling arpeggios and laser-sharp soprano.

Later on in the show, Mitchell relinquishes the spotlight. Her hands fold sheepishly across her knees, and she sits in a close circle beside Cavett and the members of Jefferson Airplane. Suddenly, David Crosby and Steven Stills waltz in like proud soldiers returned from war (which is, in a way, exactly what they are). The men are wrapped in caftans with sweat and dirt still stuck to their brows and pant legs from last night’s life-altering performance at Yasgur’s Farm. Mitchell, flanked by Stills, Cavett, and Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick, looks on with bated breath as Cavett turns to Crosby. “How was the festival?” he asks. “Would you consider it a success?”

“It was incredible,” Crosby replies. “It was probably the strangest thing that’s ever happened in the world.” The audience members begin to cheer, but he’s not finished. “Can I describe what it felt like flying in on a helicopter, man? It felt like an encampment of the Macedonian army on Greek hills… crossed with the biggest batch of gypsies you every saw. It was amazing.”

Mitchell makes a smirk, continuing to sit back as the others recount their fresh festival memories. She has nothing to contribute to the conversation, and she knows it. Why would she? She wasn’t there. She didn’t fly in on a helicopter, didn’t descend onto swarms of hippies. Though she was invited to Woodstock, she stayed behind at the urging of her manager David Geffen, who was afraid she’d miss her scheduled appearance on the Dick Cavett Show the following Monday.

The big rockstars like Slick and Crosby treated it as a coda to a weekend of spiritual transubstantiation. And Joni, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, treated it as a chance to listen, to take her tambourine-whacking comrades’ foggy memories and turn them into fodder for a masterpiece — a song which would capture the spirit of Woodstock better than any t-shirt, scholarly article, or critical analysis, a song written by someone who wasn’t even there.

In her book, Break, Blow, Burn, an analysis of several hundred years of western poetry, Camille Paglia calls Mitchell’s “Woodstock”: “Possibly the most popular and influential poem composed in English since Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy.’” Paglia, a contentious thinker whose opinions on sexual assault and #MeToo have led many to call her “dangerous,” continues, claiming Mitchell’s hymn to show an understanding of what it meant for thousands of people to have merged together without question or violence. “From that assembly rises a mystical dream of people on earth and of mankind’s reconnection to nature,” she writes.

A 1970 review of Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon in Rolling Stone calls “Woodstock” “mellowing” with a “quicksilver effect.” The album itself, writes the reviewer, is one of “departures, overheard conversations and unquiet triumphs for this hymnal lady who mingles the random with the particular so effectively.” And that she does. With “Woodstock,” Mitchell builds for herself a dream. Propped against the periphery of a great muddy spectacle, she imagines a mystical journey had by innocent individuals against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, amid the destruction of our ecosystems. Hers is a fictional tale rooted in particular events — whether those events were relayed secondhand or taken in through a grainy hotel television set. “The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock,” Mitchell once recalled to an interviewer. “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.”

Mitchell, at first, wrote the song “for her friends to sing,” as she put it in a BBC Live In-Studio in 1970 — quickly amending the statement with a jolty “…for myself to sing, as well!” The two versions are almost unrecognizable as the same song. CSNY’s is a rousing, guitar-solo laden, electronic organ-filled blues bop: totally anthemic, not at all melancholic. From the get-go, it’s all synthy guitars and rock ’n’ roll. Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” on the other hand, is a different beast. A dark jazz piano builds to an unsettling fortissimo. A dream is born.

Vocally, “Woodstock” is one of Mitchell’s most challenging songs. Listening to CSNY’s version side by side with hers, of course, makes the arrangement feel even more herculean. Her voice wriggles, crossing octaves, making statements in mid voice, raising questions in falsetto. In my opinion, the only other time she executes like this is on “A Case of You” — and perhaps also “Cactus Tree” — two songs which convey heaps of meaning.

At their core are themes of love and humanity: freedom-seeking women both full and hollow-hearted; men so precious you can only consume them as you would wine; and humans understanding, finally — altogether in one place — that they are mere piles of billion-year-old carbon. Sure, there are plenty of other tracks where Mitchell’s voice soars and bounces across time and space, somersaulting through litanies of obliqueness. But not all are as painfully felt, as massively significant as songs like “A Case of You,” in which Mitchell inserts herself, “the lonely painter” or “Woodstock,” in which she melds into a crowd of half a million — and as a lone wanderer, becomes a spokeswoman for them all.

And yet, she makes no promises for her generation; providing little in the way of hope. If anything, the song is more a warning from someone who’s already felt the potential hiatus more strongly than her glittering compatriots. “Woodstock” begs us to stay in that place of hippy grazing, to not let the illusion fade. As David Yaffe, author of Reckless Daughter: a Portrait of Joni Mitchell, writes of the song, “It is purgation. It is an omen that something very, very bad will happen when the mud dries and the hippies go home.” Peace and love, for Mitchell, is very serious business. And getting ourselves back to the garden — well, that’s how we stay out of Gomorrah.

Mitchell’s absence from Woodstock created a sense of longing that became essential to the song’s impact. Sure, it was the irony of the century, but it was also a perfect recipe for Mitchell to do what she did best: draw humans together while remaining completely on the sidelines. For Mitchell, it’s the only place she’s ever thought or known to exist — on the outside. Born Roberta Joan Anderson in Alberta, Canada, in 1943, she suffered with polio starting at age nine. She endured multiple near bouts with death and eventually took up singing — as well as smoking — to cope with her condition. Later, painting would provide her with a similar out. “Painter” was the only label Mitchell liked.

In an exclusive interview with CBC Music in 2013, journalist Jian Gomeshi confronts the painter-musician over allegations that she lives a reclusive lifestyle. Mitchell, sitting up in her seat, talks over Gomeshi’s question with coolness in her voice, “I’ve been ill,” she says. “I’ve been ill… my whole life.” But this only partially explains Mitchell’s outsiderness. For years and years, she’d pushed herself further to the boundaries. When she got pregnant at 21 and subsequently gave her daughter up for adoption, she escaped, for a bit, to the earth’s edges. The same was true of her breakup with Graham Nash — she fled for a minute, then came back to write the album Blue.

Right as Mitchell detaches herself from humanity, she finds a way to connect herself to it. Her own life experiences have made her the great observer and storyteller she is. Far from Yasgur’s farm, she tells the story of Woodstock not simply as someone who wasn’t there, but as someone who can turn myths and photographs into truths, biographies, and compelling first-person stories.

She does the same in “Both Sides Now,” where, at just 21, she manages to seamlessly embody the life of someone who’s been on this earth much longer. And much later, with 1994’s “Magdalene Laundries,” a first-person narrative story conjured from historical accounts of “fallen” women who were sent to the Magdalene Asylums in Ireland at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church for being promiscuous or pregnant out of wedlock: “Prostitutes and destitutes / And temptresses like me / Fallen women / Sentenced into dreamless drudgery.” Mitchell doesn’t have to be somewhere to write a song about a specific place or time. She is, like many great writers, better at capturing a moment from afar, when she is less entrenched.

I think of Mitchell in her home, sitting across from Gomeshi as he makes a valiant effort to pry answers from a woman who famously won’t give them. She extracts cigarette number five from a yellow box of American Spirits. Her hair, which is gathered atop her head like a cinched pastry parcel, is the color of a yellowed mother of pearl. She wears the same shade of green she wore more than 40 years before on Dick Cavett. She is heated as she recalls the “catastrophe” of being turned away from Woodstock. “I was the deprived kid who couldn’t go,” she says — lighter in one hand, unlit cigarette in the other. “If I’d been there in the backroom with all the evil, maniacal stuff that goes on backstage, I would not have had that perspective.”

Her voice slows and her eyes cross into the silver of her cigarette lighter. She is looking at herself, but also looking beyond herself — staring over the Grecian shoreline at photographs of California, building David Crosby’s Macedonian army in her head, making the soldiers march two by two through batches of hippies. Of a half a million strong, not one person who attended Woodstock could do what Mitchell did. But then again, Mitchell couldn’t have done it without them, without their draggled smiles and linked arms, without their songs and celebrations, without the fear that they’d one day forget the smog, the mud, and the stardust. She needed to be the one to tell them — to warn them — to get back to the garden.

Profile Picture of Leah Rosenzweig
Leah Rosenzweig

Leah Rosenzweig is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. Her essays, reviews, and reported pieces have appeared in Slate, Buzzfeed, The Nation, and elsewhere.

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