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‘Woodstock,’ 3500 Miles Away: Matthews Southern Comfort’s UK No. 1

The Joni Mitchell song that commemorated the famous festival became a huge success, in three different incarnations.

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Woodstock Matthews Southern Comfort

The reverberations from the era-defining Woodstock Music & Art Fair of August 1969 have been felt around the world ever since. A year after the most famous rock festival in history, the Joni Mitchell song that commemorated the event, and was named after it, became a huge success, in three different incarnations.

‘Woodstock’ was first heard on stage when Mitchell, who famously didn’t appear at this quintessential embodiment of “peace and love,” performed it at the Big Sur Folk Festival. She had had the benefit of a first-hand account of the gathering of (at least) 400,000 people on Max Yasgur’s farm, from her boyfriend of the time, Graham Nash, He did, of course, grace the event as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

The song emerged on record on Mitchell’s Ladies Of The Canyon album in March 1970, the same month as CSNY’s much more upbeat, close-harmony rock version, both on their Deja Vu LP and as a single. While Joni’s profile was rising fast in the vanguard of the singer-songwriter movement, her original was only a b-side, of her major hit ‘Big Yellow Taxi.’

That left the way clear for CSNY to score the US pop hit, climbing to No. 11 on the Hot 100 in May. But across the Atlantic, another chapter was about to be written in the ‘Woodstock’ story.

Noted English folk-rock artist Iain Matthews, who had come to prominence during a spell with Fairport Convention in their early days, was now fronting his own group, Matthews Southern Comfort. By this time, they were already two albums into their recording span and, needing a cover version for a four-song BBC radio session, turned to the song that the band knew from the Joni Mitchell version.

Matthews Southern Comfort’s dreamy reading of ‘Woodstock’ was released as a UK single by MCA in July, only when it was evident that the CSNY single was not going to be a British hit. With support from BBC Radio 1, soon it was equally obvious that the MSC version was. It made a cautious chart entry at No. 45 in late September, but gathered momentum over the following month. On 31 October 1970, it started a two-week run at No. 1.

Matthews Southern Comfort’s version of ‘Woodstock’ is on Later That Same Year, which can be bought here.

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