Top 10 Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young) Songs — (Thom Lemmons)
Another favorite group of mine: Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Plus nearly anything Neil Young did on his own. But my buddy Thom Lemmons is a CSNY expert. (You can locate Thom’s writing blog in my links.) So I called on him to continue this series with his Top 10 songs from CSN/CSNY:
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Dubbed “the last great band of the 1960s” by Marc Eliot in his bio of the Eagles, To the Limit, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young encapsulated the zeitgest of their era perhaps better and more eloquently than any group of similar stature. The band was formed and nurtured by the fruitful confluence among the folk revival of the 50s and early 60s, the Age of Protest, and the Summer of Love; these four singer/songwriters came onto the scene at an ideal moment to become spokespersons for a generation. Their music and lyrics captured many of the most influential images and much of the formative rhetoric of the evolving Baby Boom generation, and these sounds and pictures maintained their evocative power long past the band’s heyday in the early 70s. Witness the use of “Teach Your Children” in the 1984 presidential campaign of Walter Mondale; Young’s iconic “Ohio,” a song that will forever memorialize and, for many, define the tragic events at Kent State on May 4, 1970; and “Woodstock” (composed by Joni Mitchell and based in part on then-boyfriend Nash’s account of the festival), the anthem of one of the most defining events of the 1960s.
On a more personal level, as I have stated in a previous comment on this blog, the music of CSNY formed probably 80 percent of the soundtrack of my youth. I believe it was their vocal blend that had the greatest power over me; as a kid who grew up in an a cappella worship tradition, four guys singing close harmony over a rock beat was something I just couldn’t ignore, I suppose. I listened to them over and over, memorized the harmonies, tried to learn to play the songs on my guitar (except for the stuff Crosby wrote; his exotic chord structures were far beyond my meager abilities), and even briefly coerced my brother and brother-in-law to help me form a tribute band. I think our biggest gig was the senior prom at the high school in Zalma, Missouri. I still don’t know how those poor kids managed to dance to “Helplessly Hoping.” Meanwhile, on the stage, I was trying to figure out if I was going to hell for providing the musical accompaniment for the “reveling and such like” taking place out on the gym floor. I mean, we told them we didn’t play for dances… But I digress.
Okay, I have to admit at the outset that placing only ten CSN(Y) songs in any kind of favorites list or ranking is an impossible task for me. On any given day, the list could be completely different. The only consistent factor, most likely (and this is, I admit, a function of my age) is that most of the songs will be drawn from the first two albums, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Déjà Vu (on which they were joined for the first time by Stills’s former Buffalo Springfield colleague, Neil Young). So, with that caveat, here we go:
10. “Find the Cost of Freedom” (Stills). This poignant meditation on the cost of war closed the Four Way Street live album and was later revived as a tag for Stills’s “Daylight Again,” the title song for CSN’s 1982 studio compilation (of which more below). In the above-mentioned tribute band, my brother-in-law, a Freed-Hardeman/Abilene Christian¬-trained theologian, gave what passed for an altar call at our engagements, as I soulfully finger-picked the folk-style intro that makes up most of the song. Then we would sing the short chorus, first in unison and then in harmony, just like the boys on the album (well, as close as we could get, anyway). Hey, it was our attempt at relevance and ministry. But I digress again…
9. “Ohio” (Young). Neil Young’s fierce condemnation and call for action in the face of the shootings at the Kent State protests of May 1970 became one of the most well-known anthems of the Vietnam antiwar movement. Recorded and printed with Stills’s “Find the Cost of Freedom” as the B-side, the record quickly ascended the charts, actually competing for air time with the quartet’s current hit, “Teach Your Children.” The stark, D-modal guitar opening sets the tempo and the mood. In the closing fade, Crosby can be heard, nearly shrieking with emotion: “Why? Why did they die?”
8. “You Don’t Have to Cry” (Stills). To paraphrase a famous Democratic campaign slogan, “It’s the harmony, stupid.” I’ve said before that Stills isn’t the world’s greatest melodist, but for some reason, the songs he wrote for the group showcase their amazing vocal blend perhaps better than anyone else’s. Furthermore, this one makes the list simply because it’s the song that started it all; according to Dave Zimmer’s 2000 bio, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Nash was visiting in LA and happened to be in Joni Mitchell’s living room when Stills and Crosby were singing this song. Enchanted by the blend, Nash asked them to sing it through one more time, and he put another harmony line over the top of Crosby and Stills. The magic was obvious, and a supergroup was born.
7. “Just a Song before I Go” (Nash). Supposedly written in response to a challenge (that he couldn’t write a song in the few minutes remaining before he was scheduled to leave for a concert tour), this song, interestingly, became the band’s highest-ranking single, reaching #7 on the charts. It features CSN’s trademark easy, limpid harmonies and a sinuous, bluesy electric guitar chorus by Stills (ranked as #28 in Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” by the way; not too shabby).
6. “Wasted on the Way” (Nash). Peaking at #9 on the charts, this very pleasing tune from CSN’s 1982 album Daylight Again was their first Top Ten entry in a number of years. Without question, Graham Nash was the group’s most gifted composer of melodies. Thus, it’s not surprising that a disproportionate number of the band’s biggest hits were tunes he wrote (and I think I’ve also said before that he’s probably the most well-balanced member, personality-wise. Not sure if these factors are related; probably not. In fact, if you think about it, many of Nash’s songs are relationship-driven: “Lady of the Island,” “Teach Your Children,” “I Used to be a King,” “Simple Man,” and probably a lot of others. I don’t know… Something to think about, maybe…)
5. “Teach Your Children” (Nash). What can I say? I’m pretty sure this song makes this list in some fashion, no matter what mood I’m in. From the resonant opening twang of Jerry Garcia’s steel guitar to the closing chord, this song just rocks along and makes you want to listen—and sing along. After all, pretty much everybody knows the chorus, at least. If you know the words to the second-verse obbligato, so much the better. Maybe the best part is that anyone who can make three chords on the guitar can play this song; it’s just strumming and singing. I’m pretty sure even our tribute band sounded good playing this tune. Oops… there I go again…
4. “Carry On” (Stills). This song has always impacted my imagination, and I don’t think I really understand why, completely. The bottom-string drone of the opening chords, the mystical, trippy-sounding keyboard lead-in to the second section, the ethereal harmonies—of course, the harmonies—I don’t know, exactly, but this song and its message of pushing forward despite disappointment (“A new day, a new way, and new eyes to see the dawn…”) just works for me.
3. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (Stills). Anyone who has ever seen a color photograph of Judy Collins’s face knows Stephen Stills couldn’t have written this piece for anyone else. The only drawback to this tune is that it’s so hard to perform live. Same reason that if you grew up in a rural Church of Christ in the 1960s, you never heard “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” or the “Hallelujah Chorus” unless you were at a youth rally or visiting some really big congregation, like in Nashville, or Memphis, or someplace like that. Yeah, they’re in the hymnal, but who can sing them? Sure enough, you only hear the tail end of the final chorus for “Judy Blue Eyes” on the Woodstock live album—and there’s a reason: this is a studio song. Supposedly, Stills played almost all the instruments for the recording, prompting Crosby and Nash to dub him “Captain Manyhands.” Tough to do that live. For many years it was a family mystery what Stills was actually saying in the closing chorus over Crosby and Nash’s “do-do-do-do-doot. Doot, doot, do-do-do doot.” A couple of years ago my oldest daughter discovered he was singing in Spanish. Something about Cuba. Who knew? I thought he was giving an ecstatic utterance…
2. “Helplessly Hoping” (Stills). It’s pretty hard to resist any song with this much alliteration, especially when you’ve just learned in English class what alliteration is. It’s also a great song to finger-pick on the guitar.
1. “Déjà Vu” (Crosby). “What?” I hear you saying. “You’re kidding, right? This song was never even on the radio…” Yeah, you’re right. Notwithstanding that this was the title song for their second album (their first including Young), its complicated harmonies, dizzyingly fast lyrics, and multi-tempo, suite-like structure guaranteed that this one would be heard almost solely on album-rock stations, if at all. Still, this song is, for me, the best example of the way their vocal harmonies completely changed the face of rock (at least, in my opinion. And hey, this is my guest blog article, after all!) The first time I heard the opening vocal barrage, I couldn’t figure out how such close, complex harmonies could be sung by humans. Add to that Crosby’s crystal-clear vocals and Stills’s bluesy guitar fills; this was clearly never going to be Top Forty material, but it was a song I returned to again and again. Oh, and John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful is playing the harmonica on the track. You gotta love that, right?