During the course of a typical week, I eat, sleep, go to work, clean my house, and listen to Joni Mitchell. I listen to a lot of other artists, too, but Mitchell’s body of work has become practically sacramental for me: a vessel containing the sometimes undefinable contents of my conscious and unconscious mind. Every joy and every heartbreak I have felt, every moment of mysticism and consequent moment of doubt—all of them appear somewhere in the deeply intelligent, musically complex, sometimes other-worldly songs of Joni Mitchell.
It isn’t unusual for a little tear to form when I hear ”River” or “The Circle Game” but recently, while listening to “Woodstock,” I had an experience that took me by total surprise and left me reeling. Not far into the song, I wept. I wept right through to the last haunting note, and then spent the next half-hour trying to understand what had happened to me.
Woodstock happened when I was about to enter my junior year in college. By that time, I had finally hit my stride as a 60’s free-wheeling young woman, but I was living in a deeply conservative community in which no one would have thought to say “Hey, let’s all go to Woodstock.” And even if someone had, I wouldn’t have gone. To this day, I have yet to be liberated from my hatred of sweaty crowds and Port-o-Lets. It just isn’t my kind of scene.
I wasn’t alone. Joni Mitchell didn’t attend Woodstock, either. She had made a commitment to appear on “The Dick Cavett Show” and was afraid that if she went to the festival, she wouldn’t be able to make it back in time for the television show. In a 2000 Salon feature, Frank Houston quotes Mitchell as saying “The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock…”
I’ll say. Widely considered the pitch-perfect anthem for the now-egendary event, Mitchell’s recording of ”Woodstock”—unlike the Crosby, Stills & Nash hit—is a hymn. The lengthy electric piano introduction sets a somber tone for lyrics that are at once topical and reflective of classical literature. They are also the stuff of quest and pilgrimage: a child of God leading a wandering stranger to a place where they can celebrate, learn their true identities, and attain freedom.
This was a naïve notion, even in the 60’s, for the rebellion against post-war American repression, though necessary, was hardly liberating for anyone other than young white males with plenty of marijuana. But the essence of the movement was important, and it did eventually lead to social and political change.
And that is what made me weep. Joni Mitchell understood that the times were dark, and that nothing short of being a ”cog in something turning” would bring about a desperately needed redemption. I have needed to have a good cry since that day four years ago, when we turned the country over to giant corporations, and sacrificed our rational thought and our civil liberties in what comes closer to being the devil’s bargain than anything I can recall.
I wept for myself, and though I wouldn’t call myself the patriotic type, I wept for what used to be my deeply flawed but nevertheless amazing country. There are no butterflies drifting over us; they fly skittishly above us only in our dreams. The bombers are there, though, with their deadly cargo of manufactured fear and unlearned lessons.
The final strains of “Woodstock” foretell my own agony: Mitchell wails like a woman whose heart has been shattered, and then the song is over.
Bio: Diane E. Dees, a regular contributor to Moondance Columns, writes short stories, essays, political commentary and poetry in Louisiana. She and her husband are the webmasters of princesscafe.com, the world's only virtual rock and roll restaurant, and Diane's blog is dedspace.blogspot.com. Diane has recent and forthcoming work in The Raven Chronicles, WordWrights, Quality Women's Fiction and The Louisiana Review.