What the story of a song can teach us while we’re sitting on the sidelines
The song “Woodstock” popped into my head the other day. Joni Mitchell wrote and recorded it, but I’m partial to the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young version. The lyrics tell the story of a journey to the famed three-day music festival that took place in Bethel, N.Y. in the summer of 1969.
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 ’n’ get my soul free
Mitchell was supposed to appear at Woodstock on its final day. By the time she arrived in New York from Chicago, where she had been performing with CSNY the night before, reports had surfaced of endless traffic jams on the roads into Bethel and festival-goers who’d abandoned their cars to walk. One state trooper trying to ease the congestion told The Daily News, “The situation is hopeless and getting worse.”
That was enough to convince Mitchell’s manager, David Geffen, that she should bail. She was scheduled to make her debut on The Dick Cavett Show the following day, and Geffen did not want to risk getting stuck. He took Mitchell back to the Pierre Hotel and they watched the coverage on television.
Mitchell wrote “Woodstock” using stories she heard from her then-boyfriend Graham Nash along with what she’d seen on TV. According to David Crosby, she “captured the feeling and importance of the Woodstock festival better than anyone who had actually been there.”
“[Woodstock] was the place every kid wanted to be,” Mitchell said on the CBC program The National, “I was the deprived kid who couldn’t go, so I wrote it from the point of view of a kid… It was written with empathy.” She later added, “I don’t think the song would have been born had I been backstage.”
CSNY, also managed by Geffen, was backstage at Woodstock. They made the trip by helicopter and got back to New York in time for Crosby and Stills to join Mitchell on Cavett’s show. Mitchell allowed CSNY to record “Woodstock” and release it on their record Déjà Vu in March 1970. Mitchell released her own version on the album Ladies of the Canyon the following month.
Let’s back up. Pretend for a moment you are Joni Mitchell in 1969. A young singer-songwriter who’s been invited to perform at Woodstock along with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and scores of others before a crowd of 500,000 people at what would become the most well-known music festival in history. Your manager, who also represents your boyfriend’s band, doesn’t want you to go because he’s worried you won’t make it back in time for Dick Cavett. But your boyfriend’s band does go and does make it back in time for Dick Cavett, and you get to sit there and listen to them tell everyone in America how “amazing” and “incredible” it was. Instead of becoming enveloped in jealousy and bitterness, you not only write the song about the festival, but allow your boyfriend’s band to put it on their album. That is some serious high-road-taking right there.
I can imagine another outcome, one in which having a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity yanked away breeds a lot of resentment. I know I’d feel cheated, left out, and probably angry. This magical, mystical, generation-defining event had occurred without me. I could’ve been there, but I wasn’t.
It’s not nearly the same, but the closest analogy from my past is when I gave up my chance to see Michael Jordan play live. The date was March 28, 1995. The Bulls were playing the Knicks that night, and it was no ordinary matchup. It was Jordan’s “comeback game”, the first time in nearly two years he was returning to Madison Square Garden following his detour into minor league baseball. My dad had two tickets, and asked if I wanted to go. Of course, I wanted to go. But I didn’t because it was my future husband’s birthday and his mom was having a party for him.
In what came to be known as the “Double-Nickel Game”, Jordan scorched the Knicks, putting up 55 points, including 20 in the first quarter. In his New York Times column titled “It Doesn’t Get Better Than This”, Dave Anderson called MJ’s performance “the most magnetic regular-season theater in New York sports history.” This past March, on the game’s 25th anniversary, Mike Vaccaro of the New York Post wrote an appreciation. “It really was a game for the ages… that filled the Garden with something beyond a roar, something that felt like sheer wonder. If you were lucky enough to be there that night, you can feel it still.”
If we look back over our lives, we can all probably think of some event we regret having not attended. A game we declined to go to or a concert we skipped, a trip we opted out of or a party we passed on. In the midst of this pandemic, we’re missing out on everything. Not by choice, of course. We want to do and go and watch and cheer, but we can’t. For now, we can only dream.
Mitchell could only dream as well — not just of what Woodstock could have been for her, but what it could continue to be for everyone. Her song was both an imagining of the past and a call to action for the future.
As Clara Scott wrote in The Michigan Daily, Woodstock “goes beyond its iconic music… and was a unique moment to come together in a time of political and social turmoil… an effort to rebuild the country’s soul… to pursue a different future.”
We are in a similar moment. But will we come together? Will we rebuild the country’s soul? Will we chart a different course?
As we remain stuck in our homes, as Mitchell was in that hotel suite watching history unfold on TV, we must consider those questions. This is the time. This is the crossroads. Which way do we want to go? Who do we want to be? Joni chose to be magnanimous. She took her feelings of deprivation and isolation and created something beautiful. She gave us a gift.
In a piece for the music magazine Vinyl Me, Please, Leah Rosenzweig wrote about the irony — the song that best captured Woodstock was written by someone who wasn’t there. “But it was also a perfect recipe for Mitchell to do what she did best: draw humans together while remaining completely on the sidelines.”
We’re on the sidelines now. Sidelined from everything and anything. But we can still allow Joni’s words to bring us together.
Long before we were left and right, red and blue, us and them, we were something else. Something far more elemental. Peel the outer layers away, and we still are — like it or not. In her song, Joni reminds us we’ve strayed from that notion, the fact of cosmic unity, our fundamental oneness, and urges us to find our way home.
We are stardust
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden