Acknowledging the critical state of her health this week, the radio presenter played Joni Mitchell’s rendition of her song “Woodstock.” (Being used to the Matthews Southern Comfort version, Joni Mitchell’s recording had more of a rawness and edge). The song seemed to speak of a different age, a different sphere of reality.
Being only eight years old when the Woodstock Festival of Music and Art took place in New York state in August 1969 and having few memories of music of that time, liking for such music is hardly a matter of nostalgia, but there was a sense of prescience in the lyrics of the songs, a sense of being at a turning point in history; a feeling that these were times that would be remembered. Joni Mitchell’s lyrics for “Woodstock” include:
Well, maybe it’s the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
Maybe it was “the time of man”. Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon just a month previously; the movements for civil rights and equality for women were asserting human equality; a social revolution was manifest in the emergence of the “permissive society”. The times were memorable, historical even.
The changes in those years were first order changes, they were about the ways in which human beings treated each other, about the ways in which they ordered their affairs. Perhaps lasting change brought lasting music.
In the forty years since, there has been nothing of comparable substance. Singers may have stood and called for changes, but they have neither been part nor agents of revolutionary change; the fragmentation of culture brought by technological change means voices that might once have addressed an entire culture now talk to small niche audiences.
There is a touch of melancholy listening to “Woodstock” now; the new world ushered in by the social revolution of the 1960s did not bring an age of happiness; individual freedom allowed space for individual greed. Maybe the roots of the casino capitalism that brought the economic collapse of the past three years lay in the casting off of all restraints and responsibilities forty years ago. It is difficult to imagine the staid, conservative societies of the 1950s allowing the excesses that were to emerge fifty years later.
The world is a better place than it was; it’s just that it could have been a whole lot better than it turned out. The music, however, remains as good as ever.