Saturday, June 16, 2012

Annotated Woodstock

While Joni Mitchell received wide acclaim as a folk performer, her style wasn’t as amenable to the Top 40 charts as those who took her songs and reworked them for commercial radio (think Crosby, Stills & Nash). I think you could say the same for Bob Dylan. Carol King was a prolific song writer for others but had the attractive/commercial sound to make it to the top as a recording and performance artist as well. Here are my “liner notes” on Joni Mitchell’s anthem to the original Woodstock music festival.

By Joni Mitchell

I came upon a child of God (1)
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going
And this he told me
I'm going down to Yasgur's farm
I'm going to join in a rock 'n' roll band
I'm going to camp out on the land
An' get my soul free

(1)  Likely Mitchell was just using the term “child of God” to describe the innocence of youth, as yet uncorrupted by society.  But she could have meant a more specific reference. The Children of God (COG) group was started in 1968 in Huntington Beach, CA, a year before the Woodstock Festival. Many early COG converts were drawn from the hippie era and Jesus Movement of the time. The group later changed its name to the Family of Love, The Family and recently The Family International. The Children of God created controversy with its ideas of apocalypticism and revolution against the outside world that they call "the System," along with its central tenet that true disciples must drop out and "forsake all." Forsaking all literally entails abandoning all responsibilities and cutting ties with any and all—job, school, family, friends, and selling all that they have, handing over the entire proceeds to the group. According to some accounts, women would use sex — sometimes for pay — to show God's love, win converts and support the organization. The media dubbed the women "happy hookers for Jesus." The Family says the practice was discontinued in 1987.

(2)  Max Yasgur was the Bethel, NY farmer whose land was used (willingly) for the Woodstock Festival, August 15-18, 1969.  Max was a balding 49 year old with glasses who took a lot of grief from his neighbors for enabling the festival to be held in their community.

(3)  The 1960s and the hippie movement was all about “freedom” and “finding yourself.” There were no higher purposes to one’s young life.

We are stardust (4)
We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

(4)  Secularist and astronomer Carl Sagan referred to humans as “star stuff,” meaning we are just the dust of the cosmos resulting from the Big Bang, nothing more or less. Sagan claimed in his TV series, Cosmos, . . .”an extraterrestrial visitor examining the differences among human societies would find those differences trivial compared to the similarities. We are one species. We are star stuff harvesting star light. Our lives, our past and our future are tied to the sun, the moon and the stars”

(5)  Mitchell surely must have meant this as a reference to the Biblical Garden of Eden, although for literary sake with certainly no Christian theological intention.
Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog

And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it's the time of man
I don't know who I am
But life is for learning

(6)  Environmentalism was fully intertwined with the 1960s. Even though the first Earth Day would not be celebrated until 1970, the environmental movement and concerns for air and water pollution were coming to the forefront by 1967 and 1968. Sanford Biologist and author Paul Ehrlich warned about over population and other pending doomsday scenarios in his very wide-read 1968 Population Bomb.

(7)  Common theme of the 1960’s youth: searching to be an individual and not a society cog (like the older generation).

(8)  Supposition: only by “experiencing life” can we learn. Books, history, current society were all secondary or antithetical to this experiencing life.
We are stardust
We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong

And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation

(9)  Probably an accurate estimate of attendees. Mitchell herself passed up the chance to go to Woodstock when her manager convinced her to do the Dick Cavett talk show instead. Mitchell wrote this anthem to the festival sitting in a New York City hotel room.

(10)  The Viet Nam war saw an extensive use of high altitude jet bombers, such as the swept wing B-52. This was also the height of the Cold War with continuous threats of waves of Russian bombers delivering nuclear bombs to our shores.

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon

We are golden
Caught in the devil's bargain
And we've got to get ourselves
back to the garden

(11)  Since matter can be neither created nor destroyed, technically we’re at least as old as our Earth – some 4.54 billion years old. Either way, Joni doesn’t look her age.

(12)  n.) Devil's bargain: An extremely bad deal, with a terrible price to pay, which someone considers accepting because they can see no other way out of a truly horrible situation. Faust, in the legend, traded his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge. To “strike a Faustian bargain” is to be willing to sacrifice anything to satisfy a limitless desire for knowledge or power.

1 comment:

Gringo said...

I didn't go to Woodstock, because I was doing the hippie dropout eco-activist thing in Berserkeley that suumer. I saw people hitchiking on Berserkeley's University Avenue with "Woodstock" signs. In those days you could hitch coast to coast in 72 hours, if you hit the rides right. I did.

I know of two peers from my NE hometown who went to Woodstock. One later became a local cop. The other was depressed by all the mud et al, and ended up drawing sketches of feet, as I recall. She ended up an artist who has exhibited in NYC galleries, but having an affluent husband has somewhat reduced her incentives to produce paintings, I am told.

I was at Altamont. I was too far from the stage to see the killing.