Transcript 89–Woodstock

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and once again, I’m recording from the road. 

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We’re talking Woodstock this week, so let’s do a little Woodstock trivia. Thirty-two acts performed at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, and another twenty-three either turned down the invitation or they somehow missed the request. Now, most people know that Joni Mitchell was supposed to play at the Woodstock Festival and we’re going to talk about that a little more in a couple of minutes, but her manager asked her to cancel because he was afraid that she couldn’t do the show and make her scheduled appearance on the Dick Cavett Show that same weekend. But there was another band that was also slated to play–in fact, you can see their names on the poster as part of the Sunday slate of performers–but they wound up not performing because they were stuck at LaGuardia Airport. What is the name of that band? I’ll have more about that story near the end of the show. 



If you’ve been living in a cave the last few weeks, then you know that 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock concert. Organizers put together a show that was meant to last through a weekend, and it wound up doing that, and a little bit more because of scheduling issues, finishing on Monday morning, when Jimi Hendrix took the stage and did the longest performance of his entire career, about an hour in length. Most people know the basic story: the organizers sold about 180,000 tickets in advance, thinking maybe another 20,000 would show up to buy tickets at the gate, and instead they were flooded by a half a million concertgoers, most of whom got in for free because before the show even started, they’d completely overwhelmed the gates. There were nearly three dozen musical acts slated to perform, and the whole thing was beset by delays from the weather, and the difficulty that some of the artists had just getting to the venue because of the traffic. But for its unexpected size and weird logistical nightmares, it was a remarkably peaceful event. There were only two fatalities at the event: one was an overdose, and the other was a freak accident involving an attendee who was sleeping in a hayfield, and he was accidentally run over by a tractor. Two people were born during the event: one was in a car stuck in the traffic, and another was born in the hospital when the mother was airlifted out of the venue. According to the Associated Press, John Sebastian was caught on film saying that “some cat’s old lady just had a baby” and that the kid was destined to be far out. But for all their efforts of trying to find one, nobody can substantiate that a baby was in fact born at the festival itself. Likewise, even though Arlo Guthrie told the crowd that the New York State Thruway had been closed, that wasn’t true at all. 

So we have all the cultural referents that came from Woodstock, which mostly comes in the form of calling every big music festival that came afterward “the next Woodstock”, the same way every ten years or so we get stories about the next Beatles, and of course Charles Schulz named his little bird character Woodstock after the festival, after he’d gone three years without a name. But the festival also produced two hit records, and that’s what we’re looking at today. 


As I mentioned a couple of minutes ago, Joni Mitchell didn’t make it to the show, but she did capture the feeling of the gathering of all those people. Unfortunately, this is where the story gets a little fuzzy. See, Mitchell says that she was inspired by seeing coverage of the festival on TV, and while that’s possible, there really wasn’t a lot of press coverage during the festival itself. News editors had to be convinced that there was something worth covering, and at least one reporter has said that when he went to cover the event on his own, the trailer that was set up for press coverage was nearly empty. 

The other version of the story involves Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. They performed at the show at three AM on Monday morning, long after their original scheduled time because of the weather and the traffic. The festival was supposed to end at midnight, but everyone got pushed back. Which means, by the way, that by the time Jimi Hendrix came on to close the show, the crowd was less than a tenth of what it was at its peak. Anyway: Graham Nash was dating Joni Mitchell at the time and he told her a little about what it was like, and as it happened CSNY and Mitchell all appeared on the Dick Cavett Show, the show that Mitchell’s agent was afraid she’d miss if she went to Woodstock. There was more discussion of the festival on the show, and so the other side of this story is that Mitchell wrote the song based on their discussions, both televised and not. So Mitchell’s version is that she had the song written by the time CSNY returned to New York City, but David Crosby’s contention is that it came after the TV show. 

Regardless of the song’s genesis, Mitchell has said that she was having some faith-based issues at the time, and she was looking for a modern-day miracle. She viewed Woodstock as a contemporary version of the fishes-and-loaves story from the Bible. In fact, the first line of the song is likely a reference to the book of Matthew, where Jesus says “Blessed are those who try to make peace, for they will be called children of God.” 

So Mitchell first performed the song at the 1969 Big Sur Folk Festival, about a month after Woodstock took place. She also recorded it for her album Ladies of the Canyon, which was released in March of 1970, and it was the B-side of her hit “Big Yellow Taxi,” which was released a month later. 

Now, in the meantime, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were working up their own version of the song, with a little more of an upbeat arrangement and some minor rearrangement of the lyrics. CSNY’s version took the line “We are billion-year-old carbon” from the end of the song and injected it into the first three choruses, and left “we are caught in the devil’s bargain” for the last chorus. But the Sneaky MVP of this song–and you know by now that I’m fond of those–is the way the instruments just stop, then start up again for the chorus. It adds an extra bit of tension that gets released just a few beats into that chorus as the backups come in.


And I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up this version by a band called Matthews Southern Comfort. The band’s front man, Iain Matthews, said that they were performing on a BBC Radio show in June of 1970 and they needed one extra song for their set. They’d just gotten familiar with the song about a week earlier, so they did that song on the air, and the huge response convinced the band’s label, Uni Records, that the song needed to be recorded and added to their upcoming album. Matthews didn’t want to change the album, but agreed to have it released as a single. Now, Matthews changed the arrangement a little–OK, a lot–because he just couldn’t reach Mitchell’s high notes. However, Mitchell has said in interviews that she likes his arrangement too. 

Meanwhile, Uni Records wouldn’t release the single unless Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s version didn’t chart in the UK. Well, that’s exactly what happened, and despite Uni’s failure to promote the record even after it was released, the song rocketed to Number One and stayed there for three weeks. In fact, it was in the Top Thirty, and frequently in the Top Ten, pretty much all over Europe.  

But that’s not the only song that came out of the Woodstock festival. Melanie Safka–most of you know her as just Melanie–was at the festival, and she performed on the first night in the rain. Now, Melanie was hardly known to anybody when she did the Woodstock Festival. In fact, her mother had to drive her to the show and it wasn’t until she got there that she realized that all the traffic they’d run into was because of the show. She was sent out after Ravi Shankar when the Incredible String Band refused to play in the poor weather. She’s said in interviews that as the rain stopped, people in the crowd lit candles to let other people know that “everything was bright,” meaning everything is OK. And it was those candles that inspired her to write her song, and her performance that night made her instantly famous. 


Now, that’s the Edwin Hawkins Singers performing along with her. They were still hot from their hit the previous year, “Oh Happy Day.” 

I should mention, by the way, that the single is only about half as long as the track on the album, which has more repetitions of the chorus and a rather long fade, and it’s preceded by a part-sung, part-spoken piece which appears on the B-side of the single. I’m going to play it for you, but first I want you to listen back to Joni Mitchell’s introduction:

[JONI MITCHELL] (about 20 seconds)

Now, I might be a little crazy, but I think Melanie’s singing at the start kind of echoes Joni Mitchell’s keyboard sound:


“Lay Down (Candles in the Rain) peaked at Number Six on the Billboard Hot 100, but it spent 17 weeks on that chart, which at the time was a long time to be in the Hot 100. The song also made it clear to the top of the chart in the Netherlands, knocking the Beatles’ “Let it Be” out of the Number One slot. And it was a Top Five hit in a couple of other European countries. 


And, now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about the second band that was slated to play at Woodstock but couldn’t because they were stuck at the airport. 


Well, that band was Iron Butterfly. They were booked to perform, and because of all the traffic issues, they found themselves trapped at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. The story goes that the band sent a telegram to the show’s production coordinator, a man named John Morris, and it read: We will arrive at LaGuardia. You will have helicopters pick us up. We will fly straight to the show. We will perform immediately, and then we will be flown out.” Morris’ reply was thus, and I’ll break it down line by line for you: 

“For reasons I can’t go into

Until you are here

Clarifying your situation

Knowing you are having problems

You will have to find

Other transportation

Unless you plan not to come.”

I’ll put this message on the website, so that if you look carefully you’ll see the hidden message telling Iron Butterfly that they were no longer welcome. 


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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is to encounter a Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.  

Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.