“We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the Garden.”
— Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”
Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” has been covered by many artists at different times, but to me there is no more moving rendition than the one sung by Joni herself on the remastered version of her “Ladies of the Canyon” album.
It’s just Joni and an electric piano, and it’s played slow, with the gentle insertion of backup singers. Listen to it with headphones on and in the dark. Joni’s notes are sheer beauty, and you will never hear the song the same way again.
Professor Shai Cherry credits the beautiful lyrics of the song to “Rabbi Joni Mitchell.” It’s tongue-in-cheek, naturally, but he invokes Joni in a discussion about teshuvah. She captures in a few words, he notes, the essence of the modern interpretation of teshuvah as framed by Rav Kook (Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kuk). We are an essential part of the universe, we are made in the image of Hashem, and our lives are built around bringing ourselves closer to Hashem.
Yes, we need to get back to the garden. Which garden is Joni singing about? And which one should we be seeking? Those thoughts stopped my brain literally in midair (flying between Los Angeles and Tokyo).
One other thing did occur to me as I listened to the song again on a quiet Beijing morning.
Mitchell’s tone in the song, the downbeat tempo, the simple delivery (instead of a wall of sound) conveyed a sense of mourning. I could not help but hear something deeper in her delivery. Was Joni singing a lament to the failure of the 1960s to bring us back to the garden? Was Woodstock simply the climax of a sort of secular spiritualism that shattered just months later? And is the song somehow an acknowledgement that the true path back to the garden lay on more ancient stones?
To suggest that this is what Joni meant to say 40 years ago is stretching it. But those of us who watched the promises of the 1960s die, who continue to try and understand why, and who did discover that path of ancient stones, cannot help but hear, behind the Wurlitzer and the Canadian contralto, the echoes of a generation that lost its way for all the right reasons.