This song was written by Joni Mitchell in 1969 while she was watching the Woodstock Music and Art Festival on the TV, allegedly in tears, and from what her boyfriend of the time, Graham Nash, had told her. Although she had been earmarked to attend, her manager had advised her not to go but appear on The Dick Cavett Show instead, which must have been quite a blow to her.
Her own version of it was just her singing the lead and backing vocals and playing the electric piano. She performed it a month later that year at the Big Sur Folk Festival and released it the following year on her Ladies of the Canyon album. It also appeared as the flipside of her popular chart hit “Big Yellow Taxi”.
It wasn’t long before other artists were singing it and in March of 1970 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young took their version of it to No. 11 on the Billboard Top 100 and released it on their Deja Vu album. In fact David Crosby said in a documentary about Joni Mitchell that she “had captured the feeling and importance of the Woodstock Festival better than anyone who had been there.”
The group Matthews’ Southern Comfort released perhaps the best-known and most successful version later in 1970, when it spent 3 weeks in October at the No. 1 spot in the UK chart.
Having an influence on other groups in the 1970s, Led Zeppelin worked the lyrics into their “Dazed and Confused” and it has been suggested that the piano introduction was also taken note of in their “No Quarter”.
In the movies and documentary films it has been featured on Celebration at Big Sur, Flashing on the Sixties: A Tribal Document, Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival and Woodstock, and on TV it has been used in episodes of Beverley Hills 90210 and Six Feet Under. It is also used on the video game Grand Theft Auto.
Over the years it has often been referred to or used by writers with the author Corey Mesler entitling his novel We Are Billion Year Old Carbon after a lyric and Camilla Paglia writing a chapter about it in her Break, Blow, Burn in 2005.
Matthews’ Southern Comfort recordings
Old Gold OG 9795-A (UK 7″)