WOMEN OF WOODSTOCK Joan, Janis, Grace, Melanie & Nancy

As a nation’s collective post-Aquarian consciousness
slides into the rain-soaked, muddy nostalgia of Woodstock v.40, we pay tribute to the
exposition’s distaff wing.

 

BY SARAH GRANT

 

Nancy Nevins (of Sweetwater)

Beneath a
tangled mess of auburn hair, Nancy Nevins’ powerful, lilting vocals grounded
the drawn out jams in Sweetwater’s Woodstock
set. The seventeen-year old songstress was one of the first female lead singers
in a psychedelic rock band, which fused classical-oriented flute and cello with
trippy San Fran keyboard loops and conga drums.

 

Timeslot: Sweetwater
was the fifth act to play on the first day, Friday, August 15th. The
performance was delayed because of a traffic jam, causing the band to begin
their set around 6:15 pm. 

 

Iconic moment: The poor
sound quality at the festival was not conducive to the highly nuanced
eight-piece band. Their aesthetically slippery jams reportedly continued for
ten minutes at a time. “My Crystal Spider,” is however, remembered for its
eclectic solos. Their hallmark simplistic lyrics, sung by Nevins, invoked the
spirit of the vindication: “He belongs to those who love himBe aware if you
care,” her brassy voice begged.  

 

Notable tracks: “What’s
Wrong,” “Why Oh Why,” “Motherless Child”

 

What happened? Several
months after Sweetwater’s major entrée into the psychedelic scene, Nevins
suffered permanent damage to her vocal cords after a drunk driving accident,
which halted the band’s mounting exposure. Nevins went on to teach writing and
literature at Glendale Community College and continued to play local gigs. She
is still involved in songwriting and performing and is currently writing
material for an upcoming solo album.

 

 

Melanie Safka

Melanie’s
chalky vocals grew from the smoke rings of Greenwich’s folk scene where she started her
career. Between her big doe eyes and clean acoustic melodies, Melanie was the
ethereal flower child. Her songs were lyrically ambiguous and surreal. Coupled
with her Edith Piaf-like soulful quiver, Melanie’s music resonated with the
socio-political tensions of the late Sixties.

 

Timeslot: Melanie was
the ninth act to perform on the first night at around 11 pm. She played the
slot that was originally intended for the Incredible String Band, who refused
to play in the rain.  

 

Iconic moment: While
Melanie’s set was short and sweet, it epitomized the unswerving milieu of those
three passionate nights. 500,000 hippie-kids stood in the mud and drizzle,
lighting candles and holding them high while Melanie plucked through “Beautiful
People.” The culturally evocative moment later became the inspiration for
Melanie’s song “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).”

 

Notable tracks: “Beautiful
People,” “Birthday of the Sun”

 

What happened? After the
chart-topping success of her hit song “Brand New Key” in the early Seventies,
Melanie grew weary of her public persona as Woodstock Nation’s token “flower
child,” and decided to quit performing. Over the years, she completed a string
of albums for smaller labels. Most recently, Melanie awed critics at London’s Meltdown Festival in 2007, where she surfaced
from the suburbs to perform along with fellow Woodstock vet, Joan Baez, and has been
consistently touring since.

 

 

Joan Baez

Joan Baez
figured out early in life that inspiring change takes more than a clever hook.
She was the only figure of her generation who was as much an orator as a folk
singer; every stage she walked across was a podium for politicization and
expression. For this reason, along with Baez’s lyrical beauty and distinctive
vibrato, her songs are some of the most prophetic narratives in American
history to date.

 

Timeslot: Baez, who was
six months pregnant at the time, took the stage at 1:00 am, the last act of the
first day, and she reportedly wished everyone “good morning.” 

 

Iconic moment: “I was happy
to find out that after David had been in jail for about two and a half weeks he
already had a very, very good hunger strike with 42 Federal prisoners, none of
whom were draft people, so…” Baez cut short the anti-draft anecdote of her husband,
David, with the first verse of her poignant apostrophe, “Joe Hill.” Baez’s
stark soprano rung as clear as her message: “Takes more than guns to kill a
man.” 

 

Notable tracks: “Drug Store
Truck Driving Man,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “We Shall Overcome”

 

What happened? Although Baez
has an impressive thirty-album recording career, 2008 saw a revival of her
political activism, which Baez claims she consciously veered from post-Vietnam.
President Barack Obama’s candidacy marked a significant career arc for Baez,
who began singing protest songs while linked arm-and-arm with Martin Luther
King, Jr. Baez’s singing style has always been aligned with gospel and blues
traditions, and her most recent album Day
After Tomorrow
is proof that those musical roots still run deep.

 

 

Janis Joplin

Lots of rock
singers wore feathers and bellbottoms, but none could turn a song into a stain
like Janis Joplin did. Her asymmetrical voice is drenched in Bessie Smith
blues, but her coarse confidence and multiphonic howling is what makes her a
rock singer. Joplin was also a romantic. In 1969, the gunshots of injustice
fired loud and clear, but the only war wounds Joplin sang about were the ones
in her own heart.

 

Timeslot: Joplin performed Saturday
night to Sunday morning around 2:00 am.

 

Iconic moment: Woodstock was a debutante
ball for Janis Joplin, the newly solo rock singer. Most of the performed
material came from I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic
Blues Again, Mama!,
which had been panned as a banal follow-up to the
iconic Cheap Thrills she’d cut the
previous year with Big Brother & the Holding Company. Yet on Joplin’s electrifying
rendition of “Work Me, Lord” she wrung out every last drop of heartache, like
her soul was a wet rag. “I feel so useless down here,” Joplin keened in her beautifully
deranged style.

 

Notable tracks: “Summertime,”
“Kosmic Blues,” and encores: “Piece of my Heart,” “Ball and Chain”

 

What happened? At
twenty-seven years of age and at the height of her Bay Area reign, Joplin
overdosed on heroin at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Los Angeles, where her body
was found, alone, after twelve hours. Throughout her career, Joplin pushed her
voice beyond the limit. The emotional directness and raunchy allure of her
music and personality – they were one, after all – changed the way music was
perceived and performed. 

 

 

Grace Slick 

Grace Slick
was a bold, Beat agitator. Her acidic wit and striking contralto voice, often
combined with duel or triple vocals, identified Jefferson Airplane’s visionary
sound and provocative lyrics. The Parthenon-like mansion where Airplane lived
and ruled the Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties is
still revered by scarf-donning squatters up and down the street, who pay
respect to Saint Slick.

 

Timeslot: Jefferson
Airplane was originally slotted to headline Saturday night, but did not start
until Sunday morning at 8:00 am, where Slick told the sleepy masses “this is
morning maniac music… it’s a new dawn.” 

 

Iconic moment: “Volunteers”
was a pivotal anti-war song that was introduced during Airplane’s Woodstock performance.
Slick sang backup vocals on the charging “Got a revolution, got to revolution”
chorus and played the chirping, up-tempo piano parts. “Volunteers” also marked
the band’s movement toward country rock, with dueling guitar work and Carter Family-like
harmonies.

 

Notable tracks: “Eskimo Blue
Day,” “The Other Side of This Life,” “White Rabbit”

 

What happened? Slick
famously said, “I don’t like seeing old people on the rock and roll stage.
Myself included!” Unfortunately for fans, she has remained true to that
statement over the years, where she has written a memoir, which inspired a
series of paintings of contemporaries like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. She
recently contributed her strong, siren-like vocals to the hidden track on
Jefferson Starship’s 2008 release, Jefferson’s
Tree of Liberty
.

 

 

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