New York Series: Joni Mitchell ‘Woodstock’

We are stardust We are golden

Woodstock. If you’re not from the Hudson Valley, chances are when you hear that name, you have a similar thought as everyone else: a monumental music festival that took place over three days with a bunch of hippies on some farm in upstate New York that changed the world as we know it. Everyone has a story about their dad’s friend who stayed around for Hendrix’s famous Monday morning set, or their uncle who abandoned their car on Route 17B and walked six miles through Bethel to make it to the free-love oasis. Ironically, the most popular song written about the festival, “Woodstock,” was also written via hearsay and stories from friends by folk singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, who spent the weekend watching the festival unfold on television as just another fan in a New York apartment.

Despite being scheduled to appear at Woodstock, Mitchell cancelled her performance last minute on the advice of her agent, David Geffen, out of fear that she would not make it back to New York in time for her television appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. Watching the television coverage and hearing stories from her then boyfriend, Graham Nash, had such a profound impact on Mitchell that she wrote the ‘60s anthem within a few weeks of the festival and debuted it live at the Celebration of Big Sur festival the following September. Since then, it has been covered by countless artists, including her ex-boyfriend in his folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young

“Woodstock” tells the story of a narrator who encounters a boy on his way to the festival at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel (not Woodstock as originally intended) who explains to her that he is going not only for the music, but also to live off the land and cleanse his soul. She joins him on his journey because she too feels the need for a spiritual awakening and wants to get away from the rigid life she is living. By the time they arrive at the festival, it is in full swing, and even better than what they had hoped. They find a fantastic celebration, and the idea of hope in a time when the world was so unstable.

What inspired Mitchell the most about the event was the fact that people could be so good to each other and coexist without any issues, even if just for a few days. In a 1995 interview, Mitchell said:

“The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock. I was one of the fans. I was put in the position of being a kid who couldn’t make it. So I was glued to the media. And, at the time, I was going through a kind of born again Christian trip – not that I went to any church, I’d given up Christianity at an early age in Sunday school. But suddenly, as performers, we were in the position of having so many people look to us for leadership, and for some unknown reason, I took it seriously and decided I needed a guide and leaned on God. …So I was a little ‘God mad’ at the time, for lack of a better term, and I had been saying to myself, ‘Where are the modern miracles? Where are the modern miracles?’ Woodstock, for some reason, impressed me as being a modern miracle, like a modern day fishes-and-loaves story. For a herd of people that large to cooperate so well, it was pretty remarkable and there was tremendous optimism. So I wrote the song ‘Woodstock’ out of these feelings…”

The giving nature and comradery of Woodstock began before the festivities even started, however, when the original site of the festival in Woodstock, NY fell through. Just weeks before it was planned to take place, dairy farmer Max Yasgur offered up his farm in Bethel, NY as site of the festival, anticipating around 40,000 attendants. When it was all said and done, more than 400,000 people attended the festival, making Yasgur a counterculture hero to all those in attendance and countless others.

 

The 1969 Woodstock festival put the town Bethel on the map, although many locals were not too excited about the new exposure at the time. Many of his neighbors were against the festival from the get-go and pushed to boycott Yasgur’s milk for years afterwards. However, nearly 50 years later, the site of the festival has only become more famous. Today the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a cultural non-profit that hosts concerts and events, exists on the site of Yasgur’s farm and has become a major stop for nationally touring artists. It was added to the National Registry of Historic Places by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2017 who called the festival “a pivotal moment in both New York and American history.”  There have even been talks about a Woodstock 50th anniversary festival being held at the site in the summer of 2019, but only time will tell if if it can summon the same magic that made the 1969 Woodstock festival so historic.

 

‘Woodstock’ Lyrics:

I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on 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
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

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 you know life is for learning

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

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