Songs and Tunes I Recall (3)
March 27, 2017
Now there was plenty of mysticism in the later 1960s and early 70s; associated with popular music and musicians; and there were few performers of the first rank who did not dabble at the least in a little quasi-religious, slightly vague sentiments, on vinyl and in person or performance. Commonly the media at least, and possibly sometimes it was the case indeed, suggested such reveries and meditations were drug induced, by what have come nowadays to be known as ‘recreational’ drugs.
Famously there were ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘Eight Miles High’ and ‘Itchycoo Park’ and so on. Much of the mystical elements were imported from the Far East and were given a huge exposure by The Beatles; who brought back to The West with them not only the great Ravi Shankar, a musician of genius; but also the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a wiseman who spent many years in The West attempting to win proselytes.
In London’s Oxford Street for several decades and beginninginth elate 1960s a conga dance of Hari Krishna monks could be seen dancing, chanting their way back and forth daily all day; and they became world renowned as a tourist attraction which visitors from all over came to see and photograph. Just off Oxford Street; it may still be there today even; was a Hari Krishna restaurant which offered veggie deicacies of The East at very reasonable prices.
The drugs, the mysticism gave the young people a bad name amongst their elders; and intruth there was some sense of ‘life being a playground’ about the outlooks of many of those who did adopted the lifestyle of itinterant, and often penurious, free spirits; too often Joni Mitchell’s words were in fact the case:
“You are a refugee _ _From a wealthy family”
Patty Hearsts were commonplace.
George Orwell in his writings duringthe 1930s and 40s took time to analyse the procession of changes in outlook in social groups down the generations. He had no time for persons with an overdelicate conscience and a finnicky habit with their food; who even in his day made up much of the intellectual left of politics. He derided them under the epithet of ‘sandal-wearning fruit-juice drinkers’. I guess many such metamorphosed into the Beatnik jazz enthuisasts of the 1950s, that generation in the USA represented by the beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
These wore their consciences as Badges of Honour on their sleeves, downbeat, angry, aggressive and dropouts. A baton to be taken up by Dr Timothy Leary in the following decade, a decade in which mind-changing drugs and the study of psychology sometimes merged after the style of Aldous Huxley, author of the futuristic satire ‘Brave New World’, who had ‘investigated’ on himself the effects and experiences of hallucinogens on himself in the 1920s and 1930s.
At this time of Timothy Leary there was another eminent name in psychology R D Laing, who was somehow connected with this fringe of society, who took up his works with some enthusiasm. Laing’s special subject in psychology had been schizophrenia; a complaint not unrelated to the prolonged usage of ‘recreational’ drugs. Laing offered latitude in his liberal outlook on schizophrenia and its occurences; approach his subject sympathetically as he did also his patients.
So there was this social science connection with proscribed drugs use, an dit was coupled with a fairly amorphous and often half-baked mysticism usually derived and adulterated from the Far East; there were not many songs, songwriters, bands, or record labels who saw in the native home grown Hebraic and Biblical religions much scope for making entertainment.
As their greatest Issue renownedly said of Himself:
“A prophet is never honoured in his own country’
Yet this is only true of 20th> century and later times here in The West; that Jesus has lost ground to hedonism and nihilism in fact if not in profession. What I mean to say is that this is how we live right now; how we show ourselves to the world in our actions; as being hedonists, nihilists; no matter what we might profress on our passports and our Christmas cards.
Before 1900 there were plenty of persons here in UK and in USA and Europe who gladly made song to ‘timbrels and hautboys’ for The Lord’s sake; and none more gloriously than did William Blake author of the words Joseph Parry’s set to music in what is a sort of British National Hymn ‘Jerusalem’, a song which is heard even yet with great passion by millions of British. Here are some of its marvellous words:
“Bring me my Bow of burning gold: Bring me my arrows of desire: Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold! Bring me my Chariot of fire! I will not cease from Mental Fight, Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand: Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land”. Pretty hallucinogenic stuff!
Before Blake had been another visionary, one of whose works also was the one book to be found alongside The Bible in almost every humble cot in the land during the later 17th and 18th centuries in England. This man was a humble tinker by trade (remember Tim Hardin?) who spent years in Bedford jail for his faith’s sake having been forbidden to preach and broken that official order.
He was John Bunyan and the book ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’. Visionary indeed. This his most famous work beings enigmatically;
“_As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.” _
A reader is taken successively through the travails and tribulations of Pilgrim on his ‘journey from this world to the next’ and we meet such places and characters as Vanity Fair, and Giant Despair; The Slough of Despond and The Delectable Mountains; in a surreal and mesmerising allegorical journey of adventure and revelation.
Bunyan came up with two or three songs in this his great work of his which are yet today known and enjoyed by millions; perhaps the defining one being titled by him ‘Master Valiant-for-Truth’s Song’; better known as the hymn ‘To be a Pilgrim’. I am going to quote its words in full here because I think it such a fantastic thing to have been composed:
“Who would true valour see, Let him come hither; One here will constant be, Come wind, come weather. There’s no discouragement Shall make him once relent His first avowed intent To be a pilgrim.
Whoso beset him round With dismal stories Do but themselves confound; His strength the more is. No lion can him fright, He’ll with a giant fight, He will have a right To be a pilgrim.
Hobgoblin nor foul fiend Can daunt his spirit, He knows he at the end Shall life inherit. Then fancies fly away, He’ll fear not what men say, He’ll labour night and day To be a pilgrim.”
And so there is indeed a great tradition of mystical song writing in Britain before the 20th century; one which is shrunken nowadays to contain itself in what remains of an Anglican Communion here. There have been great voices in our own home grown religious fervours and passions; voices for and of the native Hebraic and Christian traditions.
And so - to the subject of our essay; a songwriter and musician of the USA who bucked the trend and wrote an astounding mystical song in the 1960s based on our native Bible religious message; who made a perennial anthem of enormous popularity so as in effect to have been ‘a prophet having honour even in her own country’.
The song is titled ‘Woodstock’ and the creator lyricist and performer of it that Joni Mitchell I mentioned earlier. Here are it’s 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 l 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
As with all these lyrics I am admiring here to get the very best from them you need to hear then accompanied with their melodies and their musical arrangements; music has been written for them each as if inspired by the words their tunes bear.
The tune to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ is entrancing; it begins so as to hook you in with a curious questioning and long mystical intro; plenty of spaces between notes; time to wonder and seek to find whereabouts the rendition is going. There is also a certain fluency about the words as they fit the tune so that they are poured out by Joni Mitchell as a constant and almost mesmeric stream of expression; so as to give an almost extempore feel to its development.
As one knows who knows Joni Mitchell’s style at this time; she reaches for the highs and lows of her register with a technique akin to blues in that she feels to us like she is wrenching the words out of herself in a sympathetic passion for them and their tune. She goes up, and gutterally calls like a bird long and fluctuating notes; then down almost beyond her range it feels and gutterally again she expresses release of passion there.
The lyrics are stupendous and suit the song like a symbiote.
They are apportioned into chunks of speech; the first ending at a low on ‘told me’. The ‘child of God’ is anonymous; only we know as ‘he’ who was ’walking along the road’ - what road who knows? Only that it leads to another strange and anonymous personage whose place is ‘Yasgur’s farm’. The connections between ‘rock n roll’ and ‘live out on the land’ and ‘get my soul free’ are all thread, one thought; and each of the three items rock n roll, living out on the land and getting his soul free are emotional synonyms. This is the deal; the package; one of them cannot be without the other two being also.
Here might be the ‘alternative society’s’ rejection of The Man, of Capital, of Materialist Hedonism; all those ready to hand sterotypes of 1960s youth movements; yet the song carries such a need in its progress that this ‘child of God’ becomes for a listener just like that Pilgrim of Bunyan’s of whom we are told:
“I looked and saw him open the book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, "What shall I do?"
There’s a deep impassioned need expressed in the opening lines sung of ‘Woodstock’ - a strophe – and its anti-strophe – it’s answer follows on next in the song fluidly:
“We are stardust We are golden And we've got to get ourselves Back to the garden”
Now this is pretty marvellous – for think on it – it is not metaphor or even simile – no figure whatsoever to say ‘we are stardust’. At one time before the earth was formed in space there was a time when its matter from which it was to be formed and from which each of us was to be made from ‘the dust of the earth’; when our raw materials were present in stars as part of their forms and substance. Thus there is a literal sense in which indeed we are stardust. The magical and mesmeric overtones of us being, figuratively, ‘stardust’ are reinforced by such thoughts.
Now: ‘we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden’. Obviously the garden is The Garden (of Eden) - maybe meant as a figure of speech, maybe not? The answer to the longing. The whole Biblical story is invoked here of a lost perfection and a longing for its redemption. That we are (literally) ‘stardust’ appears to be the credentials we hold for desiring such a return to harmony?
It is ‘we’ who have to ‘get ourselves back’ to the garden. It is not some aery-faery demand like a workers’ rally shout for ‘what do we want – more pay!’ but a call to action that we have it within ourselves and it is our task as a race, a creature, to be done by us to get ourselves into a good state from the bad state in which we were and still are. We have ‘got to’; an unqualified demand from whom?; from what? Circumstances – The Cold War; the Civil Rights Movement; the War in Vietnam? - or from Joni herself? Or from just that ever-present nagging feeling in us all that longs for a satisfaction only “the peace of God that passeth all understanding” is able to bring upon us?
Just a hanging in the air ‘got to’, like a child’s ‘must have’; a ‘child of God’s’ ‘must have’.
The second verse lyric is even more powerful than the first; unusual in songs for popular songs in particular tend to rest their cases right up front and fill in afterwards with ‘backfill’ lyrics. It is here that Joni Mitchell’s internal rhyme schemes hit us hardest. ‘Smog’ ‘cog’; ‘man’, ‘am’ ; ‘turning’, ‘learning’, as if stresses of meaning in themselves emphasising the earnest of the meaning of the lyric.
That phrase ‘or maybe it’s the time of man?’ is a sor tof throwaway question which conjures deeply and evokes in us a suggestion of ours (having been) a time of destiny? A half-hope. A wish. Almost a distant and remote wish that it might just might be so? Followed through with ‘I don’t know who I am’ - is this Joni speaking or is it her created persona who is accompanying ‘the child of man’; along his road to ‘Yasgur’s farm’ and the rock n roll band etc? It’s another yearning expressed and it echoes to that first verse plaint of the ‘child’ who is ‘gonna get my soul free’. There’s a certain corny chestnut-ness about stories based on persons ‘wanting to find out who they are’ - the fodder of DNA based genealogical research your family companies; which shows how the concept of self discovery has been appropriated and made a commonplace, a money making cash cow by consumerist Capital.
But what is that examined life which is the only life worth living if not a search for ‘who I am’? Of course the language is inadequate and sounds nonsensical to hardened minds; the butt of many quips and jokes, the guy who wants to find out who s/he is. Here is the poet TS Eliot’s take on such abasements:
“….yet there the nightingale Filled all the desert with inviolable voice And still she cries, and still the world pursues, "Jug Jug" to dirty ears.”
“Who am I’ in that sense of asking oneself the purpose and meaning of one’s life remains and will remain a pertinent and valid perennial and burning question for each of us and for us all. ‘I don’t know who I am’ thus in ‘Woodstock’ echoes all our senses of being adrift, and unsure, and without existential bearing or compass in a world we know not what it is or whence it came or whither going.
The answer is forthcoming in what is the only answer available to us all; ‘Life is for learning’. It’s an affirmation of faith; that life is so, for learning; for unless one has something of hope for beyond the present life then learning becomes futile and waste; there has to be something to learn about life which answers the assertion ‘life is for learning’. Once again upon the word ‘learning’ being sung in a low brooding note there follows a small pause before the refrain arises a second time around. This pause is vital to a reading, a listening to , a contemplation of the song; because it asks us; it gives us space to dwell upon ‘life is for learning’ to think and to absorb take in and assimilate the affirmation’s import.
The third and final verse of lyric is again stupendous. It pictures a ‘half a million strong’ persons all being each ‘a child of God’ ‘walking along the road’ etc and bearing all, yearning for all, that has been expressed beforehand in the song. Half a million heading to ‘Yasgur’s farm’ to ‘Woodstock’ to ‘set their souls free’. A sense of the convergence of many separate ways into one united trodden path is imminent; that each individual had in her/his loneliness of self felt that their plight was theirs alone and to be borne alone; until this convergence begins and the resonance of A Movement has begun.
Thus the pensive almost weary desire and remote hope s of the first verses transforms into a sublime joy in the final verse as those travelling ‘to find out who they might be’ at ‘Yasgur’s farm’ are made aware of one another and so become at the same time aware of their numbers, their shares aspirations and their strength in numbers for the good they pursue.
Try here a shortish chant/poem written to be sung by Robert Burns, the Scot’s National Bard who lived in the eighteenth century. Notice how its final verse is a rousing and heartening one in the vein of this final verse of Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Woodstock’; see how a coming-together of men and women in harmonic unity is the end and goal of the poem just as it is of ‘Woodstock’. It is called ‘For a That, an;’ a’ That’ - (bear with the dialect – it’s not that difficult)
Is there for honest poverty That hings his head, an' a' that? The coward slave, we pass him by -- We dare be poor for a' that! For a' that, an' a' that, Our toils obscure, an' a' that, The rank is but the guinea's stamp, The man's the gowd for a' that.
What though on hamely fare we dine, Wear hoddin grey, an' a' that? Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine -- A man's a man for a' that. For a' that, an' a' that, Their tinsel show, an' a' that, The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor, Is king o' men for a' that.
Ye see yon birkie ca'd 'a lord,' Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that? Tho' hundreds worship at his word, He's but a cuif for a' that. For a' that, an' a' that, His ribband, star, an' a' that, The man o' independent mind, He looks an' laughs at a' that.
A prince can mak a belted knight, A marquis, duke, an' a' that! But an honest man's aboon his might -- Guid faith, he mauna fa' that! For a' that, an' a' that, Their dignities, an' a' that, The pith o' sense an' pride o' worth Are higher rank than a' that.
Then let us pray that come it may (As come it will for a' that) That Sense and Worth o'er a' the earth Shall bear the gree an' a' that! For a' that, an' a' that, It's comin yet for a' that, That man to man the world o'er Shall brithers be for a' that.
The lyrical brilliance of the B52s which were in fact present 24/7 in the skies over the North American continent for decades during the time of The Cold War, ever-ready to drop nuclear bombs on the US’s enemies, mainly USSR (Russia), Joni Mitchell sees them ‘riding shotgun in the sky/ turning into butterflies/ above our nation’. Another transformation, a metamorphosis just as caterpillars turn into butterflies – the ugly and gross into beauty and lightness. The word ‘sky’ is sung with as wrench in her voice, as if painful or a scream; and the ‘butterflies’ the sky’s counterpart in the lyric, in rhyme and in its position in the tune, is sung with a rising joy as if wonderful and a relief.
The ever present worry in everyday life during The Cold War for every individual affected by it, which was all of us, cannot be neglected. Each and all of us knew that one slip, one panicky finger on the button, one hot gut response, one mistaken alert, whatever; was our death knell, and that all would go, our families and our lives all wiped away in a thermonuclear dust.
A very nice and creative ornamentation to the final refrain into which is added the phrases; we are: ‘billion year old carbon’ and who are: ‘caught in the devil’s bargain’ - the word ‘carbon’ positioned so as to play off and to rhyme with ‘bargain’. This ‘billion year-old carbon’ is indeed us; that stardust sung about earlier, of which we are physically composed as organisms. ‘Caught in the devil’s bargain’ again either literal or figurative no matter and yet still true whatever. Ours is a condition, a state of being into which we have been born and which it appears to many, perhaps most of us, it is impossible for us as individuals or as a society to change and to break free from; this ‘devil’s bargain’ in which fear and distrust and precaution and wariness are the faces we show first and foremost as nations as classes as groups and sometimes as individuals to one another.
A cleft stick; who shall be the one to break us free of such a bad deal? In this regard St Paul says:
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
This brings this article to a close. Appositely I hope. But I want to end by referring you to the quotation in the header image; and which I found in a book today. Joni Mitchell throughout her great song ‘Woodstock’ had been in her lyric and in her music attempting very successfully to conjoin and to avoid the commonplace divorce of body and spirit, material and immaterial, soul and heart and mind, which is to be found in many many art forms and in attempts at explanations of our being. She has sublimely held together the physical and the ethereal, as in her central image of us humans being ‘stardust’ - literally and figuratively.
Now I ask you please to study this short paragraph or two from a man named Austin Farrer; who sums up pretty well what I have in other essays tried to say about the material and the non material and their relations, their utter dependency in and on and with and through one another. His words are a final affirmation, confirmation, of the ‘Woodstock’ spirit; and they will I hope open out to/for you some of the astounding wonder of our being; of our being beings of ‘billion year-old carbon’.