Before Woodstock made them legends. Before the drugs took control. Before the rivalries, the breakups and the reunions. Before the memoirs, the biographies, the documentaries, and yet another breakup. Heck, before Neil Young joined the party. Before all that, there was simply Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Fifty years ago, in May 1969, the supergroup comprised of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash released their self-titled debut album. It catapulted the three singers, all of whom had enjoyed success in other bands, into superstardom. As band biographer Peter Doggett put it, “They cut a debut album that caught the mood of the times.” In retrospect, the record could have been called Greatest Hits: Volume 1. The album contains numerous classics, including “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “Helplessly Hoping,” “Marrakesh Express,” “Wooden Ships” and “Long Time Gone.”
Surprisingly, given this record and CSN’s place in rock history, the songs haven’t been covered that much. Secondhandsongs.com lists only 77 known covers of all the tracks on the album. By comparison, there are 208 covers of the tracks from Déjà Vu (that includes 86 versions of “Woodstock,” which was written by Joni Mitchell). Stills’ solo track “Love the One You’re With” has inspired 69 covers. These numbers do not provide a complete picture, as the site usually does not include music on YouTube or SoundCloud. But they give you an idea of just how few artists have decided to tackle these songs.
Still, we found some great covers by such luminaries as Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Richie Havens, and Trey Anastasio. There are also countless home recordings by guys and gals with acoustic guitars and one of best harmonizing bar bands you’ve never heard of. Let’s “set a course and go”…
Foxes and Fossils – Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (Crosby, Stills & Nash cover)
Foxes and Fossils is a multi-generational, co-ed Georgia-based cover band. While normally we tend to shy away from bar bands, we’ll make an exception in this case. The group uploaded this version of CSN’s classic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” to YouTube in 2010. Since then, it has earned more than 1.3 million page views. The group reworks the song with a near-perfect blend of male and female vocals. It’s one of the few examples I’ve found of a band that could go toe-to-toe with CSN on the harmony front. They didn’t stop there – they’ve also released covers of such tracks as “Helplessly Hoping,” “Monday, Monday” and “Landslide.”
Stan Getz – Marrakesh Express (Crosby, Stills & Nash cover)
With Sir George Martin producing, jazz trumpeter Stan Getz recorded an instrumental of “Marrakesh Express” as the title track to his 1970 album of pop covers. Backed by a blazing orchestra, Getz reworked the track as a flavorful piece of orchestral lounge-jazz. Shortly after Martin’s death in 2016, Newsweek listed the song as one of his top produced songs “not by the Beatles.”
Miles Davis – Guinnevere
Also in 1970, trumpeter Miles Davis took Crosby’s folk tune about Arthurian heroine “Guinnevere” to another cosmic dimension. Davis reinvented the track using sitar, tabla, and a heavy dose of electric keyboards. Blended in with this complex sound pastiche is Davis’ trumpet, which announces the song’s melody as if it were a royal fanfare. The song first appeared as an “edited” 18-minute version in 1979, while the full 28-minute version came out on the 1998 box set The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions. Shortly after recording it, Davis played the track for Crosby, who was unimpressed with the results. However, in 2017 Crosby tweeted his approval; he may have misspelled the song’s name in the process, but there was no mistaking his effusive (albeit delayed) appreciation.
Kipyn Martin – You Don’t Have to Cry (Crosby, Stills & Nash cover)
In his book Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, author Peter Doggett said that the first song CSN ever sang on together was probably “You Don’t Have To Cry.” As with any origin story, there are some disagreements in the historical record. Doggett said Stills wrote the song while his then-paramour Judy Collins was on the road. “It painted him as the veteran who had seen through the madness of touring (‘it quite nearly killed me’); her as the foolish and errant lover who had chosen to put career before caring.” While there are numerous solo acoustic covers of the track on YouTube, singer/songwriter Kipyn Martin’s live cover from 2014 stands out. She upends Stills’ narrative by singing from a woman’s perspective. Martin is well-versed in the music of the era. She tours with fellow singer/songwriter Allison Shapira as part of a tribute act called Joan & Joni, performing the music of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. Listening to Martin’s voice, one can almost imagine her singing the tune in Laurel Canyon circa 1969.
Other Voices – Pre-Road Downs (Crosby, Stills & Nash cover)
After exploring their folkie sensibilities for the first few songs, CSN plugs in for this rockin’ closer to side one. Written by Nash, the song tells of life on the road with some serious A-A-A rhyming: “Don’t run the time approaches/Hotels and midnight coaches/Be sure to hide the roaches.” There are very few covers of this song: Secondhandsongs.com lists just one. The standout among the scant YouTube clips is this version by the Other Voices. As with Foxes and Fossils, the group enlists the help of a female vocalist for the high harmonies. Recorded live at the Heartwood Soundstage in Gainesville, Florida, this cover is faithful to the original, but unlike so many imitators it still holds up well after multiple listens.
Jefferson Airplane – Wooden Ships (Crosby, Stills & Nash cover)
The writers at Cover Me have been engaged in a debate in recent months about whether it’s possible for artists to cover their own songs. One example that came up in our discussions was Jefferson Airplane’s version of “Wooden Ships.” The song was co-written by Crosby, Stills, and Airplane’s Paul Kantner. He asked them to keep his name off the credits due to a legal conflict with his manager. Result: my father-in-law’s vinyl copy of Crosby, Stills & Nash lists only Crosby and Stills as the writers. In the pre-Internet days, listeners would have had a hard time knowing Kantner was even involved. Jefferson Airplane released it on their November 1969 album Volunteers. The group plays the song as a moody, psychedelic blues-jam. Grace Slick’s voice pierces through the harmonies, giving the track its own unique sound. Whether you think the song is a cover or not, it is certainly equal to CSN’s recording and we would be remiss in leaving it off this list.
Ida Vermehren – Lady of the Island (Crosby, Stills & Nash cover)
Secondhandsongs.com lists no covers of this quiet Nash-penned love song. A number of artists have uploaded covers to YouTube, and there’s even a lesson on how to play it on guitar. With her home-acoustic recording, Danish singer Ida Vermehren sings the track with a glowing aura of sensual bliss. In her unique way, she reinvents “Lady of the Island” as a tale of feminine desire.
Richie Havens – Helplessly Hoping (Crosby, Stills & Nash cover)
The Woodstock Festival was just as big a career-defining moment for Richie Havens as for CSN. In a scene immortalized in the documentary, Havens improvised a new song called “Freedom” and fused it with a cover of an old spiritual “Motherless Child.” In the early ‘70s, Havens recorded a live version of “Helplessly Hoping” (the most-covered track on CS&N) that was eventually released on Live at the Cellar Door in 1990. The tune opens with an extensive acoustic intro; then, with his deep raspy voice, Havens infuses the song with a bit of whimsical sadness. The chorus, “we are one person, we are two alone …” comes across like a sweet release.
Ruthie Foster – Long Time Gone (Crosby, Stills & Nash cover)
“Long Time Gone” is one of Crosby’s signature tracks. As with most of the songs on the album, it’s only been covered a handful of times, which makes it all the more surprising that Ruthie Foster did it twice. Foster is an Austin-based singer/songwriter known for fusing blues and folk music. In 2012, Foster recorded an organ-driven, funky blues cover for her album Let It Burn. Then in 2013, she performed a live acoustic version with Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna fame. Released on YouTube, Foster displays the sheer power of her voice, while Kaukonen demonstrates his chops on the fretboard.
Trey Anastasio – 49 Bye-Byes (Crosby, Stills & Nash cover)
The closing track to CSN’s debut plays like a lost song from Stills’ previous band Buffalo Springfield. It’s a five-minute psychedelic pop tune that feels open and jammy when you compare it to the rest of the material on the record. Such a track makes for an ideal cover by Phish frontman Trey Anastasio, who has performed it live with his solo band. When Anastasio debuted the song in 2015, he told the audience how he met CSNY backstage during one of the group’s shows. At one point, Nash congratulated him on his success. “Then he reached out and grabbed my shirt and pulled my face to his and said ‘Don’t Fuck It Up!’” With such an intro, expectations were naturally high, and Anastasio does not disappoint. He plays a straightforward rendition of the song, without the extended Phish-like solos. He gets plenty of help from his backup singers, turning it into a spirited singalong. A solid update of an overlooked deep-album cut.