THOUGHTS ON WOODSTOCK
I didn’t go, though one of my brothers did. There was no sense at the time of it having been an epochal event. I did go to the Highgate Grateful Dead concert, with my 15-year-old son; afterward, we did father and son reports on it for the Valley Voice in Middlebury, with Damon, aka The Cub Reporter, reviewing the music and me talking about the event generally. Wouldn’t trade that one.
The Monterey Pop Festival, which preceded Woodstock, had better music. Search out the video (it’s on YouTube), if only for Otis Redding and Ravi Shankar.
When you hear announcements of media retrospectives preceded by someone singing “I’m going up country, baby do you want to go,” remember that in the original, one of the more insensitive of the old blues songs, the next words are “May take me a high brown, may take one or two more.” “High brown,” like “high yaller,” was code for a woman who had higher status among the black men at the time because she was only fractionally black and showed it in her skin color. Arguably, the lyrics were more of a political statement than anything about women, because it was as close as a black man could come at the time to singing, “I’m just as good as a white man, and I have a white woman who knows it.”
There’s another blues song, “France Blues,” that edges even closer. It starts as a lament for the death of the singer’s beloved, then veers off, as blues lyrics often did, into other territory. Why the odd title? Because one verse says, “When I die, gonna go by Paris, France…Just want to give those girls a chance.” One of this country’s great milestones in civil rights, though you will never find this in high school history texts, came in World War One, when black soldiers on leave in Paris discovered that the white prostitutes not only didn’t reject them, but sometimes even sought them out. Was Woodstock as important historically as this?
A mystery: I’ve heard supposed recordings of Country Joe and the Fish at Woodstock in which the “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” is proceeded by the “Fish Cheer.” Country Joe steps up to the microphone and yells “Give me an F!” and a hundred thousand minds instantly realize all that comes next, having been to all those high school games where the cheerleaders megaphoned “Give me a T! E! A! M! What’s that spell?” “Team!” “What’s that spell?” “Team!” “What’s that spell?” “Team!” “Go, team, go!” The recent versions continue with I-S-H, and it’s the Fish Cheer.
But the first vinyl recordings told a different story. So does this video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jk68D91hTXw
Country Joe’s next words are, “Give me a U!” and there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind about the rest. “What’s that spell?” You don’t have to have been through the Sixties to imagine, but if you were part of those times, you know. And you realize that, with the media rules we have now, there is not the same freedom of speech. That’s what comes first, children, freedom of speech. Look it up: The Free Speech Movement, led by Mario Savio at the University of California at Berkeley, signaled the transition from civil rights to The Movement, which was only fractionally the anti-war movement.
While I was in college, the great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes came to the literary society, and afterward their magazine carried an interview. He said, in effect, “You have no idea what it is like to be responsible for telling the real history of your people, in your fiction, because the official versions are lies.” Ironically, he said that during an era which has since been distorted and demonized so as to blot and blur and block its insights and experiments and prototypes and deny them to future generations.
When the first vinyl recording came out, I listened to get some idea of what I had missed. I reached the point where Sly and the Family Stone transition into a bass line worthy of Bach’s C Minor Passacaglia, and Sly starts singing “I want to take you higher!” and the crowd shouts back “Higher!” It wasn’t about drugs—well, yes, it was, but it was also about a lot more, of which the drugs were only symbols, and sometimes a gateway. I started crying, thinking to myself, “We gave up this in favor of spending the political capital from World War Two on someone else’s civil war.”
Gone but not entirely, like something waiting to go viral again. I think of the TV ad for the Olympic Games whose soundtrack was Jimi Hendrix starting the National Anthem on his guitar, establishing his mastery in six notes while saying, “Something great is about to happen.” And saying, in a way that only music could, “In spite of our differences, we are all Americans together.”