Woodstock & the Blues

Woodstock & the Blues

Written by Phil Gallo

Woodstock. Peace, love and … the blues?

As much as Woodstock was the sound of the modern rock being heard on FM dials and in album form, it was also a sound heavily reliant on the blues. Acts that shaped Woodstock were creating a new form of expression rooted not in psychedelia, but in black American music from Mississippi, Chicago and Texas that was decades old.

Johnny Winter
Photo by Barry Z. Levine

Rather than duplicate the blues in the styles of the genre’s greats—Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, etc.—the new generation of bands used the blues as a springboard to styles that emphasized individual musicianship and twists on the 12-bar format.

Canned Heat, for example, was enamored of the boogie style of John Lee Hooker yet had extended the sound to create “Going Up to the Country,” the second song in their Woodstock set and a central performance in the film’s crowd scenes.

The Rolling Stones, the Animals and other British Invasion acts of the early 1960s had turned to American blues for inspiration and material. Those acts, though, had moved on in creating new music that was less blues based. And pop music at the time of Woodstock was in one of its most splintered movements.

In December 1968, Rolling Stone tagged blues-based performers in Texas as “redneck hippie” music. The following year, when the leader of that “movement,” Johnny Winter, released his debut album for Columbia Records, he was positioned as a savior of the blues for a new generation.

Santana, which had not released its debut album yet, had been working for nearly three years as the Santana Blues Band, and during the six months prior to their Woodstock appearance they had formalized their Latin rock sound.

Even the most modern work performed at the festival, arguably The Who’s “Tommy,” included a blues cover: Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind.” 

While Jimi Hendrix, who introduced his band as the Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, performed jams that ventured into a funk field, he still had the blues in mind on tunes such as “Red House” and “Hear My Train a Comin’.”

Among the other performers who turned their attention to the blues tunes from an older generation were: 

  • Johnny Winter, whose set of blues included J.B. Lenoir’s “Mama Talk to Your Daughter,” James Gordon’s “Mean Mistreater” and John D. Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road.” 
  • Leslie West and Mountain blazed through T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday.” 
  • Ten Years After, led by guitarist Alvin Lee, performed an astounding medley of blues and early rock in “I’m Going Home,” and then dove into the nastier side of the blues with Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.” 
  • B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” was performed twice—by Winter and the Keef Hartley Band (Hartley, a Brit blues rocker, was the drummer who replaced Ringo Starr in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes).
  • Two Bay Area bands turned toward the bluesier side of R&B. The Grateful Dead delivered Bobby Bland’s “Turn on Your Love Light” and Creedence Clearwater Revival performed Lew Herman’s “Night Time is the Right Time.” 
  • Joe Cocker included two Ray Charles hits that were composed by the team of Jo Armstead, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson: “Let’s Go Get Stoned” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor.” 
  • Blood Sweat & Tears got in on the R&B cover act with Jerry Butler’s “I Stand Accused.” 
  • Janis Joplin and Paul Butterfield were the few who were veering toward horn-centric bands and reducing the emphasis on the guitar. Joplin, who had the newly formed Kozmic Blues Band backing her at Woodstock, opted for some Memphis soul in her set with Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand” and Otis Redding’s “Can’t Turn You Loose.” 

Butterfield and the esteemed guitarists in his band, Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop, had parted ways by late 1968. After moving to Woodstock, N.Y., Butterfield was interested in connecting blues with jazz as it had been with Count Basie. At Woodstock he covered Charles Brown’s “Drifting Blues” and Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign.”

See Woodstock as never before by ordering Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music Director’s Cut 40th Anniversary edition. The set includes never-before-seen performance footage and the newly remastered four-hour director’s cut.


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