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Oct 06

MATTHEWS SOUTHERN COMFORT – “Woodstock”

FT + Popular60 comments • 5,081 views

#292, 31st October 1970

In the whole Popular project so far, “Woodstock” represents my biggest turnaround in opinion between hearing and writing about it. On first listen it sounded dreary, sappy and self-satisfied – I had it earmarked for a 2, or even a 1.

I don’t know what exactly changed my mind. Hearing it one hungover morning in late Summer and letting it soothe me? The acquisition of such CDs as The Best Of Bread giving me a taste for wet but beautiful seventies dreampop? Repeated exposure to the Glastonbury Festival? Maybe I just listened a bit harder and felt the fear in the song. “Woodstock” isn’t self-satisfied, or not in the way I thought. It’s full of the dread of a moment passing, energy dissipating, opportunities slipping away. You don’t have to be a hippy to recognise that feeling. It doesn’t come across in the lyrics, particularly, just in the sorrow-laden singing and drifting melodies: the repeated triads in the guitar break being particularly effective at conveying this air of desperate futility.

Learning that Joni Mitchell wrote the song after missing Woodstock explains a lot of this dread. It explains the song’s spiritual vibe, too: legends always grow more in the minds of people who weren’t ‘there’, and this song helped shape and transmit the Woodstock legend, and by extension the legend of the hippy era and movement, turning the Festival (and in some ways the 60s itself) into a sacred, doomed, unrepeatable moment. The song’s sadness becomes self-fulfiling and defeatist – those who came after Woodstock could never recreate it; no route back to the garden ever existed. If you’ve ever given part of yourself to a scene – whether major or minor, vast or tiny, whether you called that lost moment “punk” or “rave” or “The Round Table” or “old ILM” – you might know that defeatism too well.

{democracy:7}

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Comments

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  1. 51
    Waldo on 29 Sep 2009 #

    I was away at school camp at Marchants Hill, Hindhead when this was going up the charts and this is my association with it. Marchants Hill was tucked away in a wooded area of outstanding natural beauty and was a lovely retreat for inner city council high-rise kids, of which I was one. I thought the song was wonderful and magical and spoke of dreamland and safety and places other than Stockwell. Yes, comfort. Believe me, that’s quite sufficient to be able to claim my love for it.

  2. 52
    flahr on 27 Nov 2010 #

    I notice Tom abandoned his attempt to justify liking Jive Bunny in the end ;)

    Very pretty song this, I feel all shivery listening to it and I’ve been trying to sing along to the gently dreamy chorus. Guitar work in the background is fab although the solo is a bit unnecessary. I reckon I should like it less than I do* but I like it a lot. 7/8.

    *it feels like it being a pretty song gives it an unfair advantage, y’know? Like a pretty song doesn’t have to be as good as a not pretty song for me to like it the same amount.

  3. 53
    Lena on 10 May 2012 #

    Back to the garden? Never left it: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/this-land-is-our-land-clarence-carter.html Ta for reading, everybody!

  4. 54
    Lena on 15 May 2012 #

    Good God, y’all: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/flowers-are-better-than-bullets-edwin.html Thanks for reading, everyone!

  5. 55
    Justified Ancient on 23 Sep 2014 #

    The most remarkable version of “Woodstock” (apart from an obscure cover by German 80′s industrial band “Die Erde”, whose slow motion dirge and weary vocals inverted all the colours of the original) for me is the live version by Joni Mitchell herself, recorded 11 years after Woodstock, on her “Shadows and Light” album. Far from nostalgic audience singalong, she approaches the song as though she played someone else’s song for the first time. She cautiously feels her way through each line, with all the distance of 11 years experience, but still tenderly examining all its wide-eyed emotions. Until, as the very last line fades out, she adds a coda: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden …. (long pause) … to some semblance of a garden.” – and whether one takes it to mean “the illusion of Eden was, of course, hopelessly naive, but maybe we can still aspire to a part of it” or “confused children that we were, we never really knew what exactly we wanted” or something else entirely, the effect is shattering.

  6. 56
    Andrew Farrell on 24 Sep 2014 #

    The whole last verse on that version is regretful – We are stardust / Billion year old carbon / We are golden / Caught in the devil’s bargain

  7. 57
    Ed on 25 Sep 2014 #

    “And I dreamed I saw the bombers / Riding shotgun in the sky / Turn to butterflies / Above our nation.”

    It’s a dream.

  8. 58
    Larry on 28 Oct 2014 #

    This record is godawful. As limp as a wet noodle. And far from one of Mitchell’s best songs.

  9. 59
    Tommy Mack on 28 Oct 2014 #

    I dunno, something about the limpid arrangement’s complete lack of oomph suits the blissed out hippy vibe: or at least it does in retrospect: as a time capsule of a short-lived cartoon utopia. Joni’s, iirc, more impassioned reading probably suited it better at the time when there was still something to win. The intro also has a pleasing sort of sheeny perfection to it: reminds me of a less coked-up Eagles but in a nice sort of way.

    I’ve only heard this because it’s the closing track on a three-track (!) compilation CD I bought in a charity shop for the other two tracks: Born To Be Wild and Eve Of Destruction.

    PS, Tom if you’re reading this, do you still like Bread? I’d always had them down as the Travis of the 70s but this was (probably unfairly) based on hearing them briefly, once, while drunk. So happy to have my mind changed if you have some recommendations (beside, David Gates once wrote a song for Captain Beefheart so he can’t be all bad!)

  10. 60
    Chelovek na lune on 28 Oct 2014 #

    This was of course the favourite song of Nigel Pargetter of “The Archers”

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