It’s the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock, three days of love and music.
In 2019, it is perhaps good to take a moment to remember Woodstock. This is not, I have to admit, because Woodstock and its time are a shining beacon, a state of grace from which we have fallen. The six year old me might have been running around in Maidstone’s Mote Park in August 1969, at a point in my mother’s life that she recalled as “always sunny.” It wasn’t of course. In my own little world there were, no doubt, chilly days. And as for the world at large, take your pick of wars in Asia, or music festivals which failed to go nearly as well as Woodstock. Woodstock itself did not really indicate a new social promise. Keeping half a million people together in a field in increasingly unsanitary conditions could not have gone on longer than three days. Inevitably, all those people would then have to go back to their normal lives, to avoid dysentery if nothing else.
So Woodstock did not provide an escape from the world. It is more an idea of freedom than its reality. Fittingly, someone who wasn’t even at the festival wrote the definitive song about it. Joni Mitchell was in New York City in August 1969, fulfilling a prior engagement. Her song Woodstock came out of a longing that came from not being there.
In Woodstock, the singer meets someone on the road heading to Yasgur’s Farm. This festival goer comes out with some dreamy lines about about how people are made of stardust, and describes a desire to get back to the land and set their soul free. This sells it to our singer narrator. In asking to tag along we get these ambivalent lines:
Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog
In something turning
So has she gone to Woodstock to feel like a cog in something turning, suggesting a positive sense of being part of something bigger than herself? Or has she gone to Woodstock to escape feeling like a cog turning in the big machine of her city life? It’s not clear.
Maybe she’s a cog no matter where she is, both in that negative city sense, and in the positive feeling of being part of something bigger than herself. Joni Mitchell didn’t actually get to Yasgur’s Farm, but the song suggests that you can feel like a turning cog anywhere – in a field in front of Jimi Hendrix, in New York, in Mote Park. The song suggests that if you look at it right, the world can be one never ending Woodstock Festival, where the sanitation needn’t be an imminent threat to public health.