18
Oct 06

MATTHEWS SOUTHERN COMFORT – “Woodstock”

FT + Popular63 comments • 5,877 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. 31
    Daniel_Rf on 22 Oct 2006 #

    “Given the degree to which women and people of various colors have moved up and through society in the decades since, I’d argue that belief has turned out to be not exactly wrong, albeit not exactly like the believers at the time foresaw.” – this got me thinking, how much *was* identity politics a part of 60’s hippiedom? Like, it’s probably more or less a given that the views towards race and gender were more progressive than the preceding generation’s, but actual involvement in such causes seems more a post-Woodstock, 70’s thing. Racial harmony and equality tends to show up in 60’s hippie pop culture mostly as just another factor in the larger plan for world peace and whatnot (longhairs always present in reconstructions of Vietnam protests in movies, but hardly ever in reconstructions of Civil Rights marches and such), while feminism of course had to have had an…ambiguos relationship with hippies and “free love”, at best.

  2. 32
    Erithian on 26 Oct 2006 #

    Hippy and punk as two sides of the same coin (whoops, I typed “con” there at first!) – pretty much what Sandi Thom was getting at. She knew that punk rockers didn’t wear flowers in their hair, but conflated ’77 and ’69 as eras she yearned to have lived in, where it seemed to her that music was more a cause than a commodity. Our no doubt varying views on the merits of that record will have to wait a while for an airing, but for me it was one of the freshest and most original Number 1s in a long time.

  3. 33
    Marcello Carlin on 26 Oct 2006 #

    In the same way that George W Bush was one of the freshest and most original American Presidents in a long time.

  4. 34
    Erithian on 26 Oct 2006 #

    And the connection is…?

  5. 35
    Marcello Carlin on 26 Oct 2006 #

    The connection is that both phenomena ease my understanding of what a suicide bomber must feel like.

  6. 36
    Alan on 26 Oct 2006 #

    i don’t know about the exact connection mc has in mind, but that sandi thom song was howling hypocrisy combined with the crassest “authenticity or death” sentiment, and it made me want to bully world leaders into a war on iraq

  7. 37
    Marcello Carlin on 26 Oct 2006 #

    Yes, that’s about the size of it.

  8. 38
    Tom on 26 Oct 2006 #

    The shame of Tooting. :(

  9. 39
    Erithian on 26 Oct 2006 #

    No point arguing with that!

  10. 40
    Tom on 26 Oct 2006 #

    It will make for an interesting debate when the time comes, though I think you’re the only person I’ve ever talked (or ‘posted’) to who has a good word to say for it!

  11. 41

    by the time that time comes* we will have passed through loathing and “ironic love” to ALL OF US ADORING IT mark my words

    (ps i still haven’t heard it somehow)

    *=21 years hence acc.the LORD CUSTOS OMICRON 7-year CYCLE OF ROCK HISTORY™

  12. 42
    Marcello Carlin on 26 Oct 2006 #

    There won’t be the Mary Hopkin factor.

  13. 43
    Erithian on 27 Oct 2006 #

    Tom – yes I did like the Sandi Thom record, although I realise the proper time to discuss it is way into the future. Come to think of it, you’re the first person I’ve encountered who had a good thing to say about Stars on 45, but hey, vive la difference!

    MC and Alan – disagree with my musical tastes by all means, but random references to Bush, Iraq and suicide bombers are more than a bit silly.

  14. 44
    Marcello Carlin on 27 Oct 2006 #

    Who said anything about “random”?

  15. 45
    Tom on 27 Oct 2006 #

    Haha luckily I will not have to justify my fondness for S-on-45 on this blog! (Catchall excuse: I was 8!)

    I will have to save my reasons for JIVE BUNNY.

  16. 46

    JIVE HITLER MORE LIKE

  17. 47
    Marcello Carlin on 27 Oct 2006 #

    *falls off chair in office sinker you badstar (misprint)!* ;-)

  18. 48
    Chris Brown on 29 Oct 2006 #

    Keeping my powder dry for the time being, I’ll just point out that the title of the Sandi Thom song was the one aspect of it I had no problem with it. Otherwise “both sides of the same con” is only too apt.

  19. 49
    Antony Smith on 4 Dec 2006 #

    An aside…but rather an important one…
    One of the posts above mentioned Britain’s “biggest other movement linked to pop”…ie the late-sixties underground and punk were all there was.
    One again it seems the biggest pop cultural “movement” of all is airbrushed out of the history of popular culture.
    The dance culture of 1988- was far more significant than either of the other two in the significance it made to British youth’s lives. Hippy and punk were only ever adopted by a tiny minority of the youth as a whole.This was particularly the case with ‘working class’ youth (obviously with “hippy” and despite punk’s attempt to falsify proletariat credentials equally with the latter movement .Also it only really effected the same small sector of the music buying public just a younger generation.IE those who believe in the worthiness of “rock”.
    Acid house/rave and its aftermath brought a whole new group of people into the equation including a far more significant proportion of females.It changed the whole way a generation (approx those born from about 1964 onwards)spent their time and although classless was and is a genuine working class phenomenon (something punk never really was).

  20. 50
    Marcello Carlin on 4 Dec 2006 #

    Did anyone ever do an Acid House cover of “Woodstock”?

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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!

  24. 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!

  25. 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.

  26. 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

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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!)

  30. 60
    Chelovek na lune on 28 Oct 2014 #

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

  31. 61
    Gareth on 16 Nov 2016 #

    Always loved this fine song, easily in my life Top Ten, wistful but beautiful and never tired of 5~6 replays at any time..eases the mind always..next all along the watchtower by Bob and Jimi, both GGGreat.. then another 1000 songs to beam in on… growing a beard here …

  32. 62
    Gareth on 16 Nov 2016 #

    love the site, for all the Free Spirits everywhere…

  33. 63
    lonepilgrim on 9 Jul 2018 #

    Around the time this was a hit (and I was aware of it on the radio) I was reading ‘My side of the mountain’ – what would now be termed a YA novel about an American boy who runs away from the city to live out in the country. It created a sense of America as a land of bounty and adventure which in my mind this version of the song matched in mood. I had no idea what ‘Woodstock’ was at the time. Later I would see tiny images advertising the (triple) album on the inner sleeves of LPs and in comic books but it still didn’t register as significant to me. I finally got to see the movie on New Years Day in 1978 and wasn’t overwhelmed by it.
    I had no idea that this was a Joni song for a while – having been introduced to her music when my dad bought ‘Court and Spark’ I didn’t connect the jazzy pop vibe of that with this. The song does allow for some equivocation about the tension between dream and reality and is all the better for that IMO

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