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Top 10 Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young) Songs — (Thom Lemmons)

2011 April 13
by Mike

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:

– – – –

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.

And, finally…

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?

36 Responses leave one →
  1. Happy permalink
    April 13, 2011

    Great list especially Deja Vu at the top. Can’t remember how many times we played those songs in our So. Cal. covers band. Amazing as a band they probably only did release one studio album together. One of my favorite CSNY songs is “Through My Sails” off Neil’s “Zuma” album which was recorded during the 1974 recording session that has yet to see the light of day, I think.

  2. April 13, 2011

    No “Best of CSNY” list is complete unless your freak flag flies, Thom. 😎

  3. April 13, 2011

    Deja vu is one of the great songs of all time. Enjoyed the list.

  4. April 13, 2011

    Somehow their music had sort of fallen off my radar. Can’t wait to get back to some csny! Thanks, Thom.

  5. April 13, 2011

    My top ten in no particular order:

    Wooden Ships
    Helplessly Hoping
    49 Bye Byes
    Carry On
    Southern Cross
    Long Time Coming(live version)
    Deja Vu
    Suite:Judy Blue Eyes

    As as far as solo works I’m with Mike. Just about anything of Neil Youngs. Although some of his albums are really weird. Quite the Chameleon.

  6. Erin permalink
    April 13, 2011

    Thom – Not a “Southern Cross” fan, or it just doesn’t make your top 10 list?

  7. Jeff W permalink
    April 13, 2011

    Preach it, Matt.

  8. Freak Flaggin permalink
    April 13, 2011

    Oh, sing it!!

    Almost cut my hair, it happened just the other day.
    It’s getting’ kinda long, I coulda said it wasn’t in my way.
    But I didn’t and I wonder why, I feel like letting my freak flag fly,
    Cause I feel like I owe it to someone.

    Must be because I had the flu’ for Christmas and I’m not feeling up to par.
    It increases my paranoia, like looking at my mirror and seeing a police car.
    But I’m not giving in an inch to fear cause I missed myself this year.
    I feel like I owe it to someone.

    When I finally get myself together, I’m going to get down in that sunny southern weather.
    And I find a place inside to laugh, separate the wheat from the chaff.
    I feel like I owe it to someone.

  9. Terry Cagle permalink
    April 13, 2011

    Good list Thom. Great band that had 4 songwriters who had something to say and harmonies like they were blood brothers. Stills comment on “4 Way Street” that “Jesus was the first non-violent revolutionary” has always stuck w/ me.

  10. Viggo Ulrich permalink
    April 13, 2011

    Where did you discover that Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead) ever played with CSNY? I don’t remember that at all. Was there another Jerry Garcia in the music scene. Thanks for the great memories, although Teach Your Children was my personal #1!!

  11. annie permalink
    April 13, 2011

    Rapturing over this list. “Carry On” does it for me every time I hear it, & when I heard them sing it in person, I got chills all over. Didn’t want that concert to ever be over…..

  12. April 14, 2011

    GT: Almost included “Wooden Ships,” but opted not to because Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane) co-wrote. Love the song, though.

    Matt E: I wanted to include “Almost Cut My Hair,” but it increased my paranoia too much.

    Viggo: Check out, or, for that matter, just Google “Jerry Garcia Teach Your Children.”

    Erin: Love “Southern Cross,” and about a jillion others that weren’t on this particular list. Next time I write this article, the list will likely be different…

  13. April 16, 2011

    The best! #1 gets my top vote, too.

  14. MWT permalink
    April 19, 2011

    Jerry was tight with David Crosby – both were leading lights in the Bay area music scene.

  15. John permalink
    April 24, 2011

    Merrakesh Express?

  16. April 30, 2011

    Nice post, though including Neil is dangerous… he deserves a “best 10” of his own for each of his incarnations, the Buffalo Springfield, CSNY and his solo career. I like your choices, though I’d scratch a couple Nash tunes and include Crosby’s “Delta” and “Carry Me” (technically a C&N song).

  17. Gary S. permalink
    July 17, 2011

    Wow…how cool reading your post. I also am a lifelong Church of Christ member and love acapella harmonies. I played many of the CS&N tunes in bands through the years. (Same mental conflict.) However, over time and with, I believe, a deeper understanding of “PSALMS, hymns, and spiritual songs,” I no longer have ANY problem with instruments and praising God (Although I would never offend anyone by pushing it in church.) I work with Celebrate Recovery and have regular baptisms eminate from it. I also can sing all the parts to Suite Judy Blueeyes. (all at once…kidding…in my dreams.) My other era favorite was Three Dog Night. Played many of those too. Thanks.

  18. DAVE permalink
    December 19, 2011

    Wooden ships is still a Crosby, Stills & Nash song, It would be in my top 5 songs of any band alltime! Also 49 bye bye’s should be in there

  19. David Puddy permalink
    August 15, 2012

    Love lists, so here is mne……thought i was the only one who loved “deja vu”….guess i was wrong, and i thought i knew everything – lol.
    1. wooden ships; 2. long time gone;
    3. suite: judy blue eyes; 4. woodstock;
    5. deja vu; 6. carry on;
    7. southern cross; 8. 4+20;
    9. find the cost of freedom; 10. you don’t have to cry.

    If I could add “spin off”’ cuts instead of just true CSN(&Y) stuff, then I would have to drop the last two from my list and instead include “for what it’s worth” by Buffalo Springfield and “love the one you’re with” by Stills. – and not in the 9 and 10 slots either……I choose not to single out any of Neil Young’s solo works because Neil Young is one of my top three classic rock artists of all time (behind Pink Floyd and Led Zepp) and he deserves a list all his own.

  20. nancy permalink
    August 31, 2012

    what is guinnevere about?

  21. April 24, 2013

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  22. Johnny Wilson permalink
    May 15, 2013

    We’re pretty much along the same line man. Here is my official top 10 list of one of my top 10 artists (along with Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd, Led Zepp, Neil Young, Opeth, Joe Walsh/James Gang, Rory Gallagher, The Who and either Dylan or Van Morrison, I can’t decide).
    10.You don’t have to cry
    09.Find the cost of freedom
    07.Southern cross
    06.Carry on
    04.Deja vu
    03.Long time gone
    02.Suite: Judy blue eyes
    01.Wooden Ships

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  24. Joe permalink
    June 4, 2013

    Happened upon your page with your list of favorites by CSN&Y. FYI, Suite Judy Blue Eyes on the Woodstock album and movie is played in full. It’s on the 4 Way Street Album that the last thirty seconds are played (I don’t know why -space I guess). The 4 Way Street live album was taken from concerts recorded at the Fillmore East in early June of 1970. There is a website called it’s an amazing database with thousands of concert recordings. Most are poor quality audience source recordings, but there are also many soundboard recordings. The Fillmore concerts referred to above are on this website under CrosbyStillsNashandYoung1970. They are fantastic recordings and are easily downloaded or you can listen to streaming audio with a media player on you computer. I download and listen on my smartphone w/ headphones. Also recordings are alphabetically sorted and sometimes first names list first so David Crosby is under D. Below is a link to the page, if you don’t feel comfortable clicking on the link just google sugarmegs. One recording also on this site which I think is really great is Joni Mitchell second fret sets. Enjoy

  25. John Black permalink
    October 25, 2013

    This is a great list and all the other lists posted are just great I love Neil Young and definitely understand why everyone else respects him as an artist so much by I have always thought Stephen Stills was the best of the group his guitar work is so versatile and all but unbeatable everyone of his songs are just so sharp and his lyrics so well thought out. This band is the easily one of the greatest of all time simply because each individual artist is so unique, powerful, talented, and just amazing the harmonies are perfect and almost impossible to even comprehend how a group can sing like that but beyond there vocal harmonies they have their own guitar harmonies with Stephen Stills an Neil young playing so well together its in my personal opinion even better than their vocal harmony they are both regarded as some of the best guitarists of all time an even Crosby and Nash both are talented at the guitar and add there part in with the impeccable playing of Still and Young its just so wonderful to listen to how smart they are with the music the guitar parts accent their vocals and vice versa. Moving past the fact that they are each incredible solo artists that have come together to be a unbeatable group their songs are some of the greatest things brought into this world Carry On which I always have thought of as “their” song in some way is exactly as a critic put it a “vocal choir gallop” and I’ll add with some amazing guitar but moving on everybody I love you is a song that most of your lists overlooked which is a amazing piece of music with the harmonies and guitar and a great couple Stephen Stills bellows that are as good as his bellows on hung upside down on buffalo springfield again aldo country girl is personally one of my favorite Neil Young songs a great symphony of music personally I think its even better than broken arrow on again… buffalo springfield again also Dark Star, See the Changes, and In My Dreams are just amazing songs that were overlooked the guitar part and harmony at the end of In My Dreams is killer there are so many songs that need to be mentioned even songs on some of the bootlegs I have like How Have You Been and the studio outtake of Lee Shore are amazing my list wouldn’t be much different than the lists posted above however as a all but number 1 fan I feel it to be my duty to put some honorable mentions down see what you all have to say about them. Other than the ones I have listed here are ten more that have no specific order but are simply beautiful
    1.Pre-Road Downs
    2. Run From Tears
    3. Fair Game
    4. Cathedral
    5.Almost Cut My Hair
    6. Love the One You’re With (4 Way Street)
    7. Girl From the North Country (Bob Dylan cover on CSN 2012)
    8. Blackbird (Beatles cover on 1969 studio archives)
    9. Take At All (CSN version one of my favorites of all time!!!)
    10. Black Queen (4 Way Street)
    I had to put this last one just because it shows Stephen Stills paragon of un-plucked beauty and blues

  26. October 25, 2013

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  27. Mark permalink
    October 27, 2013

    CSNY played last night Oct 26 2013 at the Bridge School Benefit Concert in Mountain View Calif. They knocked it out of the park. Steve Stills voice was hugely improved compared to a few years ago. Neil was spot on with his vocals, keyboard and harmonica. His voice control and timbre has improved greatly since he had that cerebral vascular incident a few years ago. David Crosby somehow still has a functioning liver and superb voice. Nash always delivers and was in top form. He even did a duet of a Hollies tune with Elvis Costello. CSNY didn’t swing at slow pitches. They tackled musically difficult songs and showed their continued mastery. I was amazed and very pleased. It was streamed so there should be a good recording somewhere.


  28. Jeff Rothstein permalink
    December 14, 2013

    Okay, so tough to choose. Here are my 10 (ranked): Marrakesh Express, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, Carry On, Woodstock, You Don’t Have to Cry, Our House, Dark Star, Carried Away, Ohio and Teach Your Children, Honorable Mention to Immigration Man (Nash/Crosby) and Chicago (Nash only). All amazing! Helplessly Hoping would be Number 11.

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  34. Rick Schermerhorn permalink
    March 4, 2017

    graham nash said that mamma cass took him to crosby’s house and introduced them.. he had the feeling that she had matched up their voices in her head and pushed him towards crosby.

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