Picture sleeve for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Woodstock" single
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had its genesis in three different 1960’s bands. David Crosby (guitar, vocals) had been a member of the legendary folk rock band The Byrds, but had been fired in 1967. In early 1968, Buffalo Springfield was on the verge of breaking up, and Buffalo Springfield guitarist Stephen Stills began jamming with Crosby. Graham Nash, the lead guitarist for The Hollies, had first met David Crosby when The Byrds toured the U.K. in 1966. In February 1969, at a party at Cass Elliot’s house, Nash asked Stills and Crosby to perform a new song by Stills, “You Don’t Have To Cry”, and Stills improvised a second harmony part. The three realized they had a unique vocal chemistry and Nash, frustrated with The Hollies, decided to join forces with Crosby and Stills. After failing an audition with Apple Records, the band signed with Atlantic Records – Ahmet Ertegun had been a fan of Buffalo Springfield and was disappointed by their breakup. They opted to use their surnames to identify the band to ensure that the band couldn’t simply continue without one of of them. There was a slight problem, as Nash was already signed to rival label Epic Records; a deal was engineered by which Nash was “traded” to Atlantic in return for Epic getting the rights to Richie Furay’s band Poco. The trio’s debut album, “Crosby, Stills And Nash”, was released in May 1969 and was an immediate hit, reaching #6 on the Billboard album chart and spawning 2 Top 40 hits (“Marrakesh Express” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”). But now that it came time to tour in support of the album, the trio needed additional personnel to perform the songs live, as Stephen Stills had handled the lion’s share of the instrumental parts on the record. Stevie Winwood was approached, but he was occupied by the newly-formed Blind Faith. Neil Young seemed a natural fit, since he and Stills had been bandmates in Buffalo Springfield, and after several meetings, Young was added to the lineup, after signing a contract that gave him the freedom to pursue a solo career with his backing band, Crazy Horse. CSNY toured from the late summer of 1969 until January 1970, with their second gig being the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. The band’s follow-up LP (and first as Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young) was eagerly anticipated. “Deja Vu” was released in March 1970, and quickly reached #1 on the Billboard album chart, and spawned 3 Top 40 singles: “Our House”, “Teach Your Children”, and “Woodstock”. The last of those – “Woodstock” b/w “Helpless” – is today’s featured single.
“Woodstock” was written by Joni Mitchell, but her version, which appears on “Ladies Of The Canyon” (1970), was overshadowed by the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young rendition. The song starts off with a somewhat meandering guitar riff from Stephen Stills, which eventually gives way to a relatively simple guitar rhythm (there are six chords used in total), before Stills begins singing lead vocals, backed by Crosby and Nash. The lyrics begin by referring to a fellow traveler (“Well I came upon a child of God/He was walking along the road”) and they conclude with them reaching their final destination (“By the time we got to Woodstock/We were half a million strong”). In between we have a chorus that invokes imagery of the garden of Eden (“we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”) while also reinforcing the ties that bind all humans (“we are billion year-old carbon”). There is also vivid imagery of swords turning into plowshares, at least metaphorically (“And I dreamed I saw the bombers jet planes/Riding shotgun in the sky/Turning into butterflies/Above our nation” – possibly a drug-induced hallucination?). This arrangement is notable for its stop-start pattern just before the chorus. This song is not the only one written about the Woodstock Festival (“For Yasgur’s Farm” by Mountain comes to mind), but it is probably the most memorable one.
Red Atlantic label on CSNY's "Woodstock" 45 RPM single
The B-side of the song, “Helpless”, is Neil Young’s creation, with Young getting the only songwriting credit on the song and singing lead vocals on it. [In fact, of the ten songs on the LP, each member got two sole compositions, with the last song, “Everybody I Love You” being co-written by Stills and Young, and “Woodstock” was written by Joni Mitchell.] The song has a slow tempo, with a country feel to it, and is yet another Neil Young song with a very simple chord progression (chords D, A, and G are repeated throughout every line in the song from beginning to end, and as simple as it is, it makes for a very melodic, compelling tune, as was the case with “Cinnamon Girl”, Young is skilled out of getting the most even when restricting himself to a relatively limited musical palette). The song is about Young’s childhood in north Ontario, and is nostalgic without being very specific (“There is a town in north Ontario/With dream comfort memory to spare/And in my mind I still need a place to go/All my changes were there”). The images conveyed in the lyrics are those of nature (“Blue, blue windows behind the stars,/Yellow moon on the rise/Big birds flying across the sky” – vivid imagery, to be sure, but not necessarily exclusive to north Ontario), and they ultimately leave the singer and his companions helpless – and that’s about all there is to it. The song is augmented by Young’s haunting, high tenor vocals, a subdued (yet melodic) piano, and an electric guitar that sounds more like a pedal steel, and of course, Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s harmony voices repeating the word “helpless” over and over. Although it was relegated to the B-side of this single, “Helpless” is a creditable addition to the Young song catalog, and one that has been covered many times, by artists as diverse as Nick Cave and Nazareth.
The single (catalog #: 45-2723) was issued by Atlantic Records in 1970. It has the red and black Atlantic label that was typical of Atlantic single releases in the 1960’s and 1970’s (the big Atlantic logo across the top, and the song/artist/publishing information across the bottom, with the song length on the right side. It did not come with a picture sleeve in the United States, but some foreign releases included a picture sleeve (e.g. Portugal, which is shown in my picture gallery). Although Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young were highly successful, the deliberately tenuous nature of the partnership of strained by this success, and the group imploded after a tour in the summer of 1970. This tour yielded a double live album, “Four Way Street” (1971) that would top the charts, but from September 1970 onwards, the members went their separate ways, with each member releasing a successful solo album over the next eight months. The band finally reunited in the summer of 1974 for a stadium tour, but old tensions resurfaced, and plans for a new CSNY album were scrapped, although Crosby and Nash teamed up and recorded an album. Crosby, Stills and Nash would reappear with a new album in 1977, and would record and tour sporadically over the next decade, in between Crosby’s struggles with his addiction to freebase cocaine. Crosby served an eight-month prison sentence for drug and weapons charges; upon his release from prison, Young agreed to rejoin the trio after Crosby agreed to clean himself up. “American Dream” (1988), the first CSNY release since “Deja Vu”, was released, but Crosby and Stills were barely functioning for the recording of the album. It received poor critical reviews, and Young refused to support it with a CSNY tour. CSN recorded two more solo albums in the 1990’s, “Live It Up” (1990) and “After The Storm” (1994). The latter album barely made the Top 100 on the Billboard album chart, and Atlantic dropped CSN from their roster. Without a record deal, the band started financing their next album, and when Stills invited Young to guest on a few tracks, the project eventually turned into a new CSNY album, “Looking Forward” (1999), released on Young’s label, Reprise Records. The ensuing CSNY2K and CSNY Tour Of America 2002 were major money-makers.