‘By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong’ – a famous line from the song Woodstock. Strictly speaking, these few words have a number of inaccuracies. First, it should really have been, 'By the time we got to Bethel’, the place where the festival was actually held. Second, the number that attended will never be accurately known but 400,000 seems the most quoted figure (400,000 , of course, wouldn’t scan. For similar reasons, Tennyson opted for 600 entering the Valley of Death in The Charge of the Light Brigade, instead of the actual 673).Third, the song’s author and original singer, Joni Mitchell, never got to the Woodstock festival. Though invited to perform, her manager had opted for her to appear on the Dick Cavett show on TV instead.

Being pedantic about Woodstock, however, misses the point, as its significance as mythology has long transcended factual detail. The song itself is, of course, more about an event than a place but it is to the geographical site that people still go to claim a bit of history. The version here is the one by Matthews’ Southern Comfort that was the Number One hit in Britain in October 1970, a softer and more melodic and pastoral version than the American hit by Crosby, Stills and Nash (who had been at Woodstock) and drenched in the pedal steel guitar work of Gordon Huntley that gives a slightly ethereal feel at times. Ian Matthews had been in Fairport Convention for a time, singing alongside Sandy Denny and contributing to their classic album What We Did on Our Holiday before forming his own country rock group, It was their only hit, and came unexpectedly for them, the popularity of the song influenced by the release of the feature film Woodstock the same year, a film that mediated-and kept alive- the event for most people. I suspect that the whole ‘Woodstock experience’ was more significant in America than in England, where it was judged more through the music captured on film and record.

This distance in time and space from the event perhaps gives this version an extra dimension, as it appears more of an optimistic observation and less of a lament for a lost cause, and it does something to overcome the two particular dangers with the lyrics of the song. They can seen as embodying that which some of punk dismissed as self-satisfied hippy utopianism.- ’we are stardust, we are golden’ . A surreal example of this clash of cultures was seen at a Deeply Vale Festival in Lancashire in 1978 when Sid Rawles, self-appointed ‘King of the Hippies’, became so enraged by the punk group Wilful Damage’s taunts at wishy-washy hippies that he pulled the singer off the stage, breaking his wrist.

They can also be read as defeatist ,a wistfulness for a lost Garden of Eden , nostalgia for a moment of opportunity that had already passed . Part of this may have come from Joni Mitchell’s regret at missing Woodstock when she penned the lyrics. However, it also comes, I think, comes from a tendency to view history in terms of self-contained decades, which can distort what is being looked back at.: the sixties meant this, the seventies that. Thus, Woodstock came at the end of the decade so must represent the end of what the sixties meant, with Altamont in December 1969 being the final nail in the coffin.

However, it makes more sense to see the period of political and cultural change of which Woodstock was part as running from about 1963 to 1976, with Woodstock not the planned culmination of a decade but an accident that managed to crystallise something significant for a fleeting moment, partly because of demographics. Trying to repeat it with later versions of Woodstock is rather like the attempt to re-create Princess Diana’s funeral procession the year after it took place-it demands the question ,’What’s the point?’. Woodstock, too, could easily have been a disaster. A cautionary example is supplied not just by Altamont but, more prosaically, by the 3-day Krumlin Festival held exactly a year after Woodstock on hills near Halifax in West Yorkshire. The weather was atrocious with torrential rain, many of the bands billed never appeared, a large marquee collapsed in the night on all those huddling inside, one person died of exposure and the promoter was seen wandering off onto the moors like a demented latter-day Heathcliffe.

There is no doubt that the idea of Woodstock retains a huge significance for many people, with the music and re-issues of the film keeping interest alive, though like the Sex Pistols first gig, the numbers now claiming to have been there greatly exceeds the actual numbers possible. The film can still be watched for its artists - the exhilarating drumming of 19-year old Michael Shrieve on Santana’s Soul Sacrifice; Joan Baez looking simultaneously out of time in the context of the film yet oddly now more contemporary than many of her colleagues; the old eyes of Country Joe as a revamped Fish launch into Rock and Soul Music. You can also look at the crowd of young faces and get the feeling you can get from an old photograph and see the people looking out. You know what they don’t: the future.

You can visit a Woodstock Museum at Bethel Woods now, with exhibits, films, concerts and a small coffee shop. One late October day a couple of years ago I visited it with my daughter, driving up from New York through the autumnal colours and a sprinkling of early snow. It was quiet and peaceful, with snow starting to melt in the sun from the roofs of the buildings and the laid-back contemplation of the Matthews’ Southern Comfort recording would have suited the views. Ian Matthews left the group whilst Woodstock was still in the charts but has continued making music for the past 40 years, with this record a long way away. I get the impression that he doesn’t often look back.

Link to song


  1. Great column Geoff! I wasn't familiar with this version, only the Crosby, Stills and Nash one.

  2. I like this version of the song best. Because the lyrics are so great and they easier to understand than the Crosby, Stills and Nash version. And this slower mode seems to fit the vibe of the song better such as when he says "got to get back to the land, try to set my soul free". Plus I think the lyrics "We are stardust, we are golden" seem to fit the situation at that time as Woodstock WAS signaling the end of the hippie generation, unfortunately. And I'm not sure I understand Geoff's point about that era continuing into the 1970s but this might be my ignorance. Anyway this version just gets inside my head more deeply than the Crosby, Stills and Nash version.

  3. I bought the Woodstock 45 single back when it was released. This is the best number that Matthew's Southern Comfort ever released. Incredible uplifting vocals. I thought that this was by far his best song and one of greatest soft rock singles ever produced. I wish that he had done more in this style.

  4. I like Geoff's point about the period of political and cultural change of which Woodstock was part as running from about 1963 to 1976. The Hippie movement we are most familiar with really came into being in San Francisco in 1967. It continued on through the late 60's, moving on into the 1970's. That's what Geoff is talking about, Desiree.

  5. Geoff and everyone, if you like Matthew's Southern Comfort's version, try their lovely cover of Neil Young's "Tell Me Why".

  6. Geoff, loved your discussion of the song and its backdrop. I'm not a fan of the song itself however. Just don't like this kind of soft country interpretation, or the Matthew's Southern Comfort blend of folk and country in general. Although I do think he did a much better job with Neil Young's "Tell Me Why".

  7. Actually, the line "We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon" is literally true. Read any magazine about the sky and the expansion of the universe.

  8. For anyone interested in the Woodstock film Geoff mentioned, an alternate take of the song is featured during the closing credits of the movie. Stephen Stills' vocal is different, as well as the guitar solos.

  9. Geoff are you sure about why Joni Mitchell wasn't at Woodstock? I always thought that she had transportation problems keeping her from Max Yasgur's farm, and that the problem was that James Taylor was supposed to give her a lift up the Thruway from her hotel in New York City. Taylor was in a bad motorcycle accident on Martha's Vineyard, breaking both arms and keeping him out from behind the wheel and away from the guitar for months......

  10. I love the origins of this song, which are apparently that they had to do four songs on a BBC lunchtime show. They had just bought Joni Mitchell's album and so they worked up an arrangement for 'Woodstock' and the response was so good to the BBC performance that they put it out as a single. Crosby, Stills & Nash's record had just come out and so they waited to see what happened to that first.

  11. I was at Woodstock. And I share Hendrix's feeling about the event. Soon after the Woodstock festival, Hendrix wrote the lyrics to “500,000 Halos,” as a tribute to the fans of the event. His handwritten lyrics survived though the song was never recorded:

    500,000 Halos…
    outshined the mud and history.
    We washed and drank in
    Gods tears of Joy,
    And for once… and for everyone…
    the truth was not a mystery—

    Love called to all... Music is Magic.
    As we passed over and beyond the walls of nay.
    Hand in Hand as we lived and
    made real the dreams of peaceful men—

    We came together... Danced with
    the pearls of Rainy weather
    Riding the waves of music and
    Space—Music is Magic...
    Magic is life...
    Love as never Loved Before...
    Harmony to Son and Daughter... man and wife.

    (transcribed from Live at Woodstock, Experience Hendrix, 2005).

  12. Camille, Dick Cavett gives that as the reason in his intro to the clips of the show-http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abPpq6hQ67I

    Mind you, Jefferson Airplane were also on the same Tv show so they must have gone down to Woodstock later

  13. I agree with Geoff that the event crystallised something significant. The counterculture was characterized by protests, hippies, drugs, and nontraditional relationships, but also by a momentary sense of community that was highlighted by a relatively small group of musicians who seemingly had the power to influence political opinion. As their creative styles and performance practices overlapped, and their creative purpose came into conflict with commercial intent, their music reflected the country’s transitions in political priorities and race and gender relations. Ultimately, the music of the era’s counterculture articulated an unfinished revolution: a new way of thinking that future generations of musicians would continue to attempt to harness over and over again.

  14. While I agree with Geoff that it's facile to see each decade as self-contained, I think the end of the war in Vietnam did mark an unofficial end to the counterculture and its music - so something changed in the early 70s. The brooding, foreboding music of the early ‘70s gave way to cheery party music without any apparent political meaning. R&B made the disco turn. And everything — melody, lyrics, singer, and players — was now subsumed by the beat. Instead of making music that made history, musicians simply drifted into accommodation. And in place of the counterculture’s music came the rise and reign of disco, with its message of financial gain.

  15. True, but there was also soul, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gasye, Wattstax etc

  16. I think it's frustrating that no one ever bothers to mention the Monterey Pop Festival of June 1967. Which I helped to organize. And was one of the most pivotal events of the counterculture. Our primary goal was to provide a stage for a wide range of talent and our festival launched several artists and bands into stardom; including Janis Joplin, The Who, and Otis Redding. Established groups such as The Mamas and The Papas gave our festival a level of credibility that attracted other performers like The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, and Jefferson Airplane. The festival embodied the Movement’s goals and ideologies, it was an intersection of soul and psychedelia, of commercial pop and the rock underground, of Civil Rights and expanded consciousness, of southern California and northern California, of the southern states and the rest of the United States. It was a festival of amazing good will, of harmony between the city and its weekend visitors, between the police and the hippies, between the artists and the audience. It was the symbolic representation of the “Summer of Love” and the realization of the countercultural ideology which gave the festival its remit of love and flowers and music. And it served as the model for Woodstock and similar festivals like the Isle of Wight in the UK. I agree with the blogger, Geoff, that the Woodstock mythology has long transcended factual detail, and one factual detail is the importance of Monterey!!

  17. I agree with Geoff - remember, Tiffanye that Motown finally released records with strong anti-war and socio-political messages in the 1970s, including The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” and Edwin Starr’s “War.” Since the company’s inception through most of the 1960s, the music and artists of Motown had remained highly polished and professional. Like most record executives of the period, Berry Gordy, Jr., the founder of Motown Records, was reluctant to allow artists to make social commentary as a part of their music for fear of a negative impact on record sales. But Motown broke its silence in 1970, and then, after much convincing, Gordy agreed to the release of Marvin Gaye’s single “What’s Going On” in 1971. The strong commercial appeal of this song about the inequity of American society convinced Gordy of the popular support for an entire album of similar material, and the same year, Gaye released an album of the same title. From the album came more top ten singles, including “Inner City Blues,” reflecting on poverty-stricken black Americans, and “Mercy, Mercy Me,” a plea for environmental awareness. What’s Going On was embraced by the counterculture movement and ushered in a trend for concept albums. Regarding his success, Gaye explained that he had simply proved to Motown “that it was possible to make a socially conscious statement and still sell records”.....

  18. I wasn't at the original festival. Tried going to the four subsequent “Woodstock festivals” in 1979, 1989, 1994, and 1999, but I don't think any even approached the original vibe of 1969.

  19. Thanks for the column. This song is such a lyrical homage to Woodstock, and the words "and we’ve got to get ourselves back in the garden" do not mean falling into a static dead letter pile of unvital statistics, but an actual and eternal metaphor for freedom and true humanism. An awakened human whose mandala is enriched and nourished by the textures of art, music, spirit, love and passion. "Drugs, Sex, and Rock and Roll" were and are the anthem that needs not be distorted by the historic revisionists that want to eliminate the message of the 60's. For us that have stayed sober to its meaning, we know that the flag we wave stands for the same traditional values that have represented the finest aspects of all higher cultures throughout thousands of years of time including Indian, Pagan, Greek, and the many, many Goddess and other earth friendly indigenous tribes and individuals. Woodstock is our tribe and the Aquarian Festival our own Mecca. A pilgrimage that continues with how we chose to act, react, think, and feel.

    At the time of the concert I was 17 and living in North Carolina. Along with 3 other friends we drove up just in time to be stuck in the mammoth traffic jam surrounding the site, but excited with the energy to walk the several miles to Max Yasgar’s farm among the other growing numbers of brothers and sisters heading for our magnificent family reunion. The first realization of different realities ahead was the crowd telepathy which prevailed on such a grand level. People were showing huge empathy with each other as well as in sharing whatever they could for accommodation. As we crossed the line designating the concert to be free, a fresh breath of responsibility shed off the veil of commodity exchange based relationships and in return there manifested true love and respect for each other and the community that we were a part of.

    As to my adventures at the concert, what experiences I do recall are similar to many other testimonies. Totally impressed by the bass player to Mountain, learning how to spell the "F" word by Country Joe, sleeping through most of the Dead set (even though many of the younger fans now would welcome stoning me alive for it), but waking up to see the Who drill their way through Tommy, Sly Stone’s family exuberance, and Grace Slick make us all feel at home with her greeting of "Good Morning People." I shared the heroic experience of most in being able to stay awake for the 3 days of magic to witness the amazing finale of Jimi playing as the crowds slowly headed onward.

    A couple of months ago I went up to Wavy Gravy at a rock poster exhibition in San Francisco where I thanked him for turning my life around in so many ways. During an especially tortuous moment at the festival when the storms had ravaged our energies and the whispers of Nixon’s helicopters dropping poisoned candy bars as tainted "care packages", the Hog Farm Commune was serving free food at its makeshift kitchen area. It was the first time I experienced granola and a health food attitude that opened up a better way of living for me. Other excursions into the forest behind the concert area were even more examples of political, spiritual, and artistic groups setting up information booths, educational outreaches, workshops, etc.

    Another part of the full experience of Woodstock not covered too well in the movie was the way the Yasgar family took advantage of the plight of the masses caught in the storm. Max’s speech about how great the crowd of young people was, is quite inspirational and sincere. But as soon as the area was washed out by the rains, his wife was setting up a water hose to fill up people’s containers with tap water at 50 cents a bottle. Good old Yankee ingenuity.

    Peace, Love, and Justice

  20. I thought of more I wanted to add. I remember that at Woodstock at one point I felt illuminated to share the idea that we could pass around a huge box and if everyone there donated whatever money they could spare, we could have enough millions of dollars to buy the adjacent land and create our own "Woodstock Nation". I dropped the idea after a few tokes and the reaction of enough people that I approached who told me that it was a silly notion since "the whole world would soon be like Woodstock". Who in their right minds indeed would not want to live a life of peace, love, and happiness?

    What I do know though is that I felt a commitment and sacred trust with the many that had gathered at Woodstock to never compromise the values that we were sharing that day. For me it has been a wonderful journey of being as true to the lifestyle then as today. Okay so my beard is now white and I can’t see the song titles on the cds too clearly, but I sure am glad to be listening still to Jimi Hendrix, Ritchie Havens and the rest of the troubadours of truth. And what is even more delightful is sharing the music with my children as well. Just like a work of art in a museum, a masterpiece remains timeless and is appreciated forever.

    Just as with the "Woodstock" movie that we have seen several times, what a joy last night to watch the "Song Remains The Same" with our daughters and to be air guitaring and head shaking as vigorously as ever. Unfortunately a dark cloud came across too many of the people that at that time were at Woodstock or were influenced by it. Concern for others and the planet became a passing fad. Fear of not being able to pay credit card bills for useless junk rather than live out of the system, home school the children, still sit on the back fence of the farm playing music and singing with friends. Fear of this and fear of that have turned too many of our generation into today’s sheep. I feel that if one still has a breath left, they can look in the mirror then close your eyes and remember what it felt to be alive at Woodstock. Take a stand. Don’t be a hippy-crite but a "born again hippie" my friend. It’s your one and only life so do it right for your sakes and for your children’s. Sit down and tell them the truth about those times. Tell them about how mushrooms can lead to inspiration as well as delicious pasta sauce. How good it feels to give and share rather than drop bombs and steal. Tell them what they can gain by hearing those interesting musical clues in the good songs we know so well. Tell them why it’s fine to let your hair drop freely down your back, wear old clothes and live close to nature and not be trapped by the 9-5 rat race. Oral tradition is an important need to be passed down through the generations. All you need to know was and is right there in Woodstock. I would cherish the opportunity to relive every moment of those days and feel it to be as true to who I am then as to who I am now.

    Awhile back I had the honor to meet Swami Satchidananda, the Indian holy man who demonstrated to the crowd on stage between a set change how to do yogic breathing. I jokingly told him that I had thought him to be a rock musician at the concert. Whereupon this saintly old man picked up a couple of rocks from the ground and kept banging them together while hopping around and singing "it’s true I was and am a rock musician still". And indeed the Spirit does live on.

  21. Hey, is that really Lou Adler? I take the point about the importance of Monterey being the first festival of that sort-and the film was pretty good too, with Janis Joplin singing Ball and Chain if I remember. There wasnt actually a song about it, though, unfortunately!

  22. Yes, it's Lou Adler. A friend forwarded me your blog link. And there IS a song about Monterey - it's called "Monterey" by Eric Burdon & The Animals, from 1967. The band appeared at the festival then wrote a tribute song afterward.

  23. Of course! I remember them in the film singing a version of Paint It Black