“Woodstock” — Matthews’ Southern Comfort

Is there a song that expresses love, hope and peace more completely than “Woodstock”? Even on the toughest of days, it’s a song to chill you out and reset your spirit to “calm”…

“Woodstock” was, of course, written about the famous music festival held at Yasgurs’ Farm in upstate New York in 1969. However it was written by someone who wasn’t even there — Joni Mitchell.

Joni had another engagement to fulfil in New York City during that heady summer and couldn’t attend. However she watched events unfold on TV and her then-boyfriend Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (who did attend) told her about it when he got back.

I know writers are often advised to write about what they know. I realise that advice is well-meant, but sometimes you get a better result by writing about things you don’t really know about, as you bring a level of perspective as a writer to the situation, rather than being bundled along with all the experiences of going through an event yourself.

That’s exactly how Joni Mitchell wrote one of the biggest hits of 1970, at least, so it might be advice worth considering in other situations too…

Although she wasn’t at Woodstock, Joni Mitchell got the imagery spot-on from the start…

I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
When I asked him where are you going
This he told me
I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm
Think I’ll join a rock and roll band
I’ll camp out on the land
I’ll try and set my soul free

“I’ll try and set my soul free” is a great line…would that we could all free our souls, but it’s a lot harder to do than you might think.

That said, perhaps attending the Woodstock Festival back in 1969 would have been a good place to try. The best acts of the day lined up to play, and even now the festival is remembered for Jimi Hendrix’s groundbreaking performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” which has been immortalised on film for all-time.

Joni Mitchell never had a big hit with “Woodstock”. Instead it filled in the B-side of her still-popular “Big Yellow Taxi”.

If you’re familiar with Matthews’ Southern Comfort’s version of “Woodstock”, you’ll recognise Joni Mitchell’s version in places, but her treatment is very different. You can pick that up from her live performance here which includes an interesting talk about how she wrote the song in the first place.

The next people to pick up “Woodstock” were Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Their version is here. It’s a rockier treatment of Joni Mitchell’s original — interesting in its own right, but it’s not exactly the radio-friendly hit you might immediately think of.

Then Matthews’ Southern Comfort got a look-in. Iain Matthews took Joni Mitchell’s original and changed the melody in places — frankly the original has notes that nobody apart from Joni Mitchell can sing, so I’m not too surprised it had to change.

In the process, Iain Matthews somehow made “Woodstock” a smoother, gentler, more compassionate song which concentrated on telling the story and capturing the atmosphere of the occasion, rather than trying to replicate Joni Mitchell’s vocal gymnastics.

That version became a huge hit in the autumn of 1970 and early 1971 for Matthews’ Southern Comfort (which appears in some places as Matthews — without the apostrophe — and Matthew’s as well as Matthews’. To make it even more confusing, even the band’s albums…and you’d imagine they knew how to spell their own name…use all three different approaches to punctuating their own name).

And I can see why, after the Matthews’ Southern Comfort treatment, “Woodstock” became such a big hit.

In addition to a beautiful melody which Iain Matthews enhanced perfectly in all the right places, there are lyrics like these to set your mind going…

And I feel just like a cog in something turning
Well maybe it’s the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
And I don’t know who I am

We’re fast closing in on 50 years since those August days at Yasgur’s farm back in the summer of 1969.

The Woodstock Festival was strictly a one-off. The following year, Max Yasgur refused to rent out his fields for a revival. He died a couple of years later and the revival never happened.

In the years since, Woodstock has become less of a place and more a state of mind, reflecting the generation that emphasised peace and love instead of discord and hate.

Every major music festival since has tried — so far unsuccessfully — to replicate the spirit of Woodstock, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.

When you can describe an experience in these terms, I think you’ve found something pretty much unique…

They were half a million strong
Everywhere there were songs 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
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden

The problem with life in the 21st century is that we think we need to create something new that represents perfection. Only then will we be happy.

But that’s the wrong way round.

Truth is we had perfection in the past — or as close to perfection as any human being is likely to reach anyway.

For music fans in the late 2010s, the Woodstock Festival of 1969 might represent that perfection.

When the hippies of 1969 sang about “the garden”, they were referring to the Garden of Eden, the biblical place of perfection and harmony.

You see, we don’t need to find something new. We’ve already had perfection. But we didn’t realise it at the time and let it slip, all too quickly, through our fingers in the ultimately fruitless search for something bigger, better, newer, fresher. Now it’s gone…perhaps for ever.

But if you are trying to recreate a time and a place when peace and love was the focus and the spirit flowed free, just have a listen to Matthews’ Southern Comfort one and only monster hit. That pretty much gives you the template to follow.

From the closing months of 1970, here’s Matthews’ Southern Comfort with “Woodstock”…

PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published. And why not check out my book “No Words, No Song”, where I write about more great songs like this one, available in the Kindle Bookstore (here).

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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