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Guinnevere - Crosby, Stills and Nash

In July 1968, ex-Byrd David Crosby, ex-Buffalo Springfield Steve Stills and ex-Hollie Graham Nash by chance sang together while at a party at a friend's house in Laurel Canyon, LA. Stills and Crosby were practising a new Stills song, "You Don't Have to Cry" when, Nash, after listening to them run through it twice, joined in. It was a magical moment. All three immediately realised that their harmonies were very special, and from that moment on they were a "group".

At the time Laurel Canyon was the fashionable place to live amongst the West Coast music community, and the group's first and eponymous album, "Crosby, Stills and Nash", did much to promote the emerging US cult of the singer / songwriter. By using their names, and not labelling themselves with a collective noun, they were emphasising the fact that the album comprised of songs written exclusively by them. 4 are by Stills, 3 by Nash, and only 2 by Crosby plus a song co-written by Crosby, Stills and Paul Kantner, of Jefferson Airplane fame, the post apocalyptical "Wooden Ships".

The album is a classic, fusing folk elements with rock, blues and harmonies in a way that had never been done before. Though Stills played nearly all of the instruments on the record, and he and Nash wrote the strongest songs, Crosby's input was nonetheless immense and crucial. As previously mentioned (see last posts), his soaring tenor knitted the harmonies together, but he also contributed some of the more interesting musical elements to the album: the jazzy influences and the rockier tracks. You always felt that Crosby was the one who was most prepared to take risks, not only with his own material, but by pushing his bandmates too. With Crosby, it was always what he brought to the table that made him so vital to the various musical collaborations of his life. He was a catalyst as much as a songwriter.

As interviews clearly show, he was a lovely guy, erudite but spontaneous, at times annoying but always charming, a loudmouth, but an eloquent one, usually worth listening to.

Among the love songs on the album are odes to Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins and other current and ex-girlfriends of the trio. "Guinnevere" is about at least three of these, and one is never sure whether Crosby sees himself as King Arthur or, more probably, Sir Launcelot. Most likely a bit of both.

When I first bought the album, way back in late '69, above all of the other tunes on the record, "Guinnevere", to me and my friends, was the "skiptrack", ie the song where, when it started, you went to the record player, lifted the needle and moved it on to the next number. Too slow, not rocky, no chorus to speak of.

Now, after over fifty years, it's one of the songs on the record that has best stood the passage of time: the hypnotic guitar pattern, the oblique chords, the almost tangled time changes create a unique, jazzy ambiance, as though we are walking through a spring wood, almost floating in a slow motion dream over the green carpet.

It has been said that a big influence on this song was Miles Davis. An oft-told Crosby yarn was that he later bumped into Davis in New York, and the great jazz trumpeter took him home to hear his (Davis') version of Crosby's song. Crosby, being Crosby, told Davis he didn't like it, and that he'd left out the original "Guinnevere" melody and Davis threw him out. It is one of those endearing traits typical of David Crosby that he told this story against himself, to show the stupidity of his younger self, how he was unable to appreciate the brilliance of the Davis rendering and how he "blew" his only meeting with his hero.

Ironically, many years earlier in 1964, Davis had been crucial to the beginning of Crosby's career. Roger McGuinn had sent a demo tape of the Byrds (including Crosby) to Columbia Records, who had at that time little experience in recording rock music, and didn't know what to make of it. They played the tape to Davis, currently with the label, and asked his opinion. "Sign 'em" was his legendary response, they did, and the Byrds were on their way.

"Guinnevere" features great harmonies with Graham Nash and probably the best words of any Crosby song: mysterious, mystical (emphasis on the mists) and a little ghostly too: "why can't she see me?". But who is the ghost?

"Guinevere had green eyes like yours, milady, like yours. She'd walk down through the garden in the morning after it rained.

Peacocks wandered aimlessly underneath an orange tree. Why can't she see me?

Guinevere drew pentagrams like yours, milady, like yours, late at night when she thought that no one was watching at all on the wall.

She shall be free.

As she turns her gaze down the slope

to the harbour where I lay anchored for the day.

Guinevere had golden hair like yours, milady, like yours, streaming out when we'd ride through the warm wind down by the bay yesterday.

Seagulls circle endlessly,

I sing in silent harmony: we shall be free."


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