The Myth of “Woodstock”
Recently a MEME went around the web, supposedly depicting the gathering in North Dakota, of the protestors blocking the Dakota Pipeline. It turned out to be a Getty image of the 1969 Woodstock concert. Woodstock is the idealized form of what people hope is happening in all new gatherings, from Burning Man to the Dakota protest. In essence Woodstock has become every positive collective moment in our culture. It holds a place of magic, an archetypal unity that we strive to return to. The fourth edition of The Norton Introduction to Literature describes the poem, “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell, as communicating “that human beings can, through love and working together, recreate a perfect age of innocence and peace” (567). Joni Mitchell’s song specifically feeds our collective image of this archetypal moment. In just a few short stanzas, Mitchell was able to create an epic-like narrative that not only describes the 1960s generation’s feelings around the event of Woodstock, but also transforms the mundane event of a rock concert into a myth, a myth that has become an American archetype.
Joseph Campbell describes myth as having four primary functions: to understand existence mystically, to mirror that understanding in the symbolic form of a cosmology, to describe and enforce socialization through ritual and behavior, and to inspire creative vision and a psychological understanding of the numinous (4). Mitchell’s poem touches on all four of these functions.
The mystical elements presented in the poem are founded in the Judeo-Christian concepts of purity, counterbalanced against evil. In the chorus Mitchell defines humans as “stardust” (9) and “golden” (10), to connect us with the universal materials of goodness. Stardust evokes both a sense of our scientific connection with the rest of the universe, in that we are made up of “billion year old carbon”, but it also implies an ethereal beauty, a link to the skies, to heaven and the gods. Gold is the material of solar goodness, linked to purity, immortality and knowledge. Yet, we are “caught in the devil’s bargain”. The devil is known as the great divider and tempter towards evil. The juxtaposition of these symbols of good and evil evokes an image of Woodstock as a purification ritual meant to wash away all that is bad in our world.
The poem “Woodstock” in its recorded song form became an anthem of the 1960s, helping to drive the transformation of the event Woodstock into a cosmology of mythic symbol. Mitchell briefly outlines the event: the location “Yasgur’s farm” (5), the intention to “get my soul free”, the reasons both to “lose the smog” (14) and because “I feel to be a cog” (15), and the scale “half a million strong” (25). A few lines create a commonly held picture of Woodstock. These elements, stripped down to near abstraction, become symbolic representations of a larger worldview that are the ideals of the ‘Woodstock Nation’. In The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage Todd Gitlin writes, “Woodstock, in August, had been the long-deferred Festival of Life. So said not only Time and Newsweek but world-weary friends who had navigated the traffic-blocked thruway and felt the new society aborning, half a million strong, stoned and happy on that muddy farm . . . that possible and impending good society the vision of which would keep politicos honest” (406). The images presented in Mitchell’s poem utilize a cosmological structure that, through the consensus of popular culture, becomes the agreed description of the event. These images have been recycled for every modern depiction of Woodstock that wishes to utilize the myth as a symbolic representation of an ideal.
Mitchell’s “Woodstock” is riddled with value assumptions that are informed by the sociology of the counter culture. In his book The Making of a Counterculture, Theodore Roszak describes the societal values of the counterculture in which, “the primary purpose of human existence is not to devise ways of piling up ever greater heaps of knowledge, but to discover ways to live from day to day that integrate the whole of our nature by way of yielding nobility of conduct, honest fellowship, and joy” (233). These values are echoed in Mitchell’s poem through counter culture norms of communitas, naturalism, and anti-war sentiment.
In The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure, Victor Turner describes communitas as it is expressed in the youth culture. “The hippie emphasis on spontaneity, immediacy, and ‘existence’ throws into relief one of the senses in which communitas contrasts with structure. Communitas is of the now; structure is rooted in the past and extends into the future through language, law, and custom” (113). This communitas which is expressed throughout Mitchell’s poem shows up most literally in the lines “we were half a million strong and everywhere there was song and celebration” (25). Roszak echoes Turner’s observation of the communitas based values held by the counter culture, “who don cowbells and primitive talismans and who take to the public parks or wilderness to improvise outlandish communal ceremonies” in Roszak’s opinion they seek “to ground democracy safely beyond the culture of expertise” (265). Roszak defines expertise as the root flaw of the technocracy, which he believes the counter culture is in unanimous conflict against. He claims these strange youngsters “give us back the image of the Paleolithic band, where the community during its rituals stood in the presence of the sacred in a rude equality that predated class, state, status” (265).
A naturalism and ludite simplicity is proclaimed in Mitchell’s lines “he was walking along the road” (2) and “camp out on the land” (7), suggestive of the emphasis on a return to nature that later fed the exodus to rural and communal living in the early 1970s. David Farber, in his book The Age Of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s, describes how many of the counterculture decided to “move on from the glory days of the counterculture to other experiments in community building” (187). By 1971 the Whole Earth Catalog which “provided a wealth of information on how to set up a rural commune or homestead” was “a national best-seller, entrancing hundreds of thousands of people who fantasized what it would be like if . . .” (Farber 188). Farber’s “if” could be easily completed with: we “get ourselves back to the garden” (11).
1960s counter culture was completely influenced by the Vietnam War experience. Mitchell’s line “the bombers riding shotgun in the sky” (27) expresses the ominous feelings of war that was constantly overhead, in the minds of military aged young people confronting a universal draft. Douglas Brode in his book From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created the Counterculture describes the connection between the rock concert and the war. “Woodstock’s three days of peace, love, and music, appears far removed from anything so dark as death. In fact, every element of the youth culture existed as a reaction to the ultimate event in all our lives. For essential to the 1960s social revolution was the Vietnam War: Hippiedom coalesced as a result of collective horror at daily body counts in a faraway land” (176). Mitchell’s allusion to the bombers echoes this claim. Woodstock becomes the place where warplanes turn to “butterflies above our nation” (29). Butterflies are symbolic of the soul, and rebirth and are often associated with children’s souls. “Above our nation” calls up images of flag waving, and ‘nations under god’, creating a powerful political statement in which the youthful souls of Woodstock become the new political power.
Mitchell’s poem is a powerful expression of the numinosity invested in the event of Woodstock. This event has been canonized in the minds of current American culture as the quintessential transformational moment of the 1960s. It is used to mark time, as a turning point–rightly or wrongly–between the innocence of the youth culture and the extreme militancy, drug abuse, and fragmentation that followed in the early 1970s. Barbara Myerhoff in her article “Organization and Ecstasy: Deliberate and Accidental Communitas among Huichol Indians and American Youth” writes, “Woodstock became a kind of lost paradise, haunting and elusive to its devotees, both for those who had actually been there and for those who knew it vicariously and mythically” (37). The image of bombers turning into “butterflies” communicates the rising up of the child-like souls of the new “Woodstock Nation” with their most important ideal “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” (11) clasped tightly to their breasts. The “garden” is “a longing to be cradled in a conflict-free unitary reality, which takes on symbolic form in the image of Paradise” (Jacoby 9). In Longing For Paradise: Psychological Perspectives on an Archetype, Mario Jacoby discusses two possible reasons for a longing to return to Paradise, either a regressive wish for the uroboric merging of mother and infant, or an advanced stage of Jungian individuation in which “an intensive encounter with the inner world and its center, the self,” generates “an experience of the most intense numinosity” (207). In either case the belief that Woodstock was a moment of mythical Edenic return is articulated in Mitchell’s poem.
While the poem “Woodstock” could be seen simply as a romantic retelling of an event, it is interesting to note that Joni Mitchell did not go to Woodstock. The poem was written while she sat in her apartment watching the news reports about the concert, having been talked out of going. Mitchell used Woodstock to express a feeling, a symbolic representation of an ideal. In her short poem she expresses a mystical confrontation between good and evil, creates a cosmological account of the event, defines the social values of the community involved, and infuses her work with the numinosity that surrounds the myth of Woodstock. The mythic nature of the poem comes from this symbolic understanding of the inspiration Woodstock engendered. Thus does narrative become myth, and myth archetypal image.
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 5
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
And try an’ get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden 10
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 15
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 20
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 25
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 30
We are stardust
[Billion year old carbon]* not in Norton
We are golden
[Caught in the devil’s bargain]* not in Norton
And we’ve got to get ourselves
back to the garden
Bain, Carl E., Jerome Beaty, and J. Paul Hunter, eds. The Norton Introduction to Literature. 4th ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1986. 566-568.
Brode, Douglas. From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created the Counterculture. Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 2004.
Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology. New York, NY: Penguin Compass,
Farber, David. The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s. New York, NY: Hill and Wang,
Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1993.
Jacoby, Mario. Longing For Paradise: Psychological Perspectives on an Archetype. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, 2006.
Myerhoff, Barbara G. “Organization and Ecstasy: Deliberate and Accidental Communitas among Huichol Indians and American Youth.” Symbol and Politics in Communal Ideology: Cases and Questions. Eds. Sally Falk Moore and Barbara G. Myerhoff. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1975. 33-67.
Roszak, Theodore. The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1995.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York, NY: Aldine De Gruyter, 1995.