For Woodstock, It’s Yesterday Once More

Columns My Back Pages Reviews

Since time began we’ve marveled at the notion that we could create a machine and go back in time. Growing up watching Samantha Stevens of Bewitched, slipping back into history was as simple as twitching your nose.

This week it felt like Carlos Santana  had perfected the art of transporting us between yesterday and today. It seemed like he was literally in two eras, past and present, within seconds. 

During a muggy summer northern Virginia night  video screens began flashing multi-colored peace signs. We began seeing a collage of familiar images from another August when the New York Thruway was backed up for miles 50 years ago. 

As the undercurrent of seductive jazzy riffs played, it felt like we were being hypnotized. And then pictures appeared of a 22-year old mustachioed guitarist in the throes of musical passion, fueled by the hallucinogenics that probably mitigated any stage fright for an unknown band playing to the largest festival audience ever assembled.

Suddenly the guitarist who had played the transcendent “Soul Sacrifice” in front of 400,000 people appeared in the present, at the front of the stage, his fingers flying to the same chords and riffs he’d played at Yasgur’s Farm in Woodstock. The only difference was the fifty years in between and the certainty there were no hallucinogenics being had this night.

Michael Shrieve wasn’t at the drum kit this time. His entrancement is forever immortalized in the film Woodstock. his place and this new generation of Santana is wife Cindy Blackmon Santana. Carlos called on her late in the set  to just let go but she had been doing it all night in this 21st century incarnation of Santana. They were playing in support of his new album Africa Talks against the video images of joyous enthralling and mysterious tribal dance rituals. Santana’s Latin rhythms and soulful covers were so joyful he could have been leading a big band in Havana or Miami all the while he held his own with any jam band out there.

Once a teenager playing in strip joints in Tijuana frequented by prostitutes, he later emigrated to San Francisco and became part of the Northern California music scene before being discovered at Woodstock.

I couldn’t help but wonder what Santana was thinking of our current times. In a set that was apolitical, the symbolism of Santana’s multi-ethnic nine piece band was striking. 

In a time when we hear the constant rhetoric from our president of the Mexican invasion, words that a killer invoked to justify a mass shooting this month, this native Mexican made a striking statement of unity over two hours. It was a multicultural experience that best personified the melting pot that made America great in the first place.

The slogan and imagery of  “Make Love, Not War” that appeared on the video screens may seem dated. But the message of Santana bringing love and hope against the still photo and voice of the late concert promoter Bill Graham, still resonates. He chose “Love, Peace and Happiness” by the Chamber Brothers and “Get Together” by the Youngbloods as his final encores recalling what he said of the festival’s legacy to NPR: “Woodstock signifies that we can exist with unity and harmony with grace and elegance and yeah, being funky too.”

Late in the set Santana gently criticized us. Having been all over the world, he’d seen the excitement and joy of other cultures. America is sleepy he implied as he arched his head against his right hand. “I want you to get crazy.” And at least for one song we tried our best.

Speaking of which, one of his Woodstock counterparts might have wondered if she was crazy when she stepped on the stage at 3:30 in the morning.

This month’s release of Baez’ entire set Live at Woodstock is another time capsule that connects the past to the present with reflective lessons.“Thanks for hanging around. We thought we might have a sunrise concert but I don’t think we’re going to make it,” the then six-months pregnant Joan Baez said. Baez was without her husband David who was in jail for evading the draft. All she had was an acoustic guitar and a lot of moxie.

“Sit down, please” she said brusquely as she sang “Happy Day.” Baez described how her husband tried surrendering  to authorities. When they contacted the authorities to describe where they lived, they were rebuffed. “We’ll find it,” they said. Then they got lost and had to call back for help.

Baez’s husband stood against a war in which economically disadvantaged minorities were sent to fight in the jungles while elites like the then young Donald Trump could legally avoid serving. History seems to repeat itself and this year our government raided a chicken plant to arrest 600 of its workers in Mississippi while the owners who hired them went untouched. 

A common thread connecting past to present is “Swing Low Sweet Chariot, a song that Baez has sung throughout her career. in his book “Fifteen Spirituals That’s will Change Your  Life” (Paraclete Press), author Henry Carrigan writes of a song that was sung by slaves who envisioned a chariot and band of angels coming to the rescue and taking them to a different home. He reflects that through the ages, it has universal meaning for a vision of a new life that transcends our daily struggles.

“When we sing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ he writes, “we are petitioning avid to carry us into this new community, to this new home, and far beyond the social, political, religious, and personal ups and downs of the world in which we live. For these reasons, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ is a spiritual that can change your life.”

At Woodstock,  Baez delivered a stirring a cappella performance in which she hit every high note.

“Amen,” she said coming out of a transcendent moment. 

When Baez played her Fare Thee Well tour this year, she sang the traditional spiritual just  as she always has. When she came out of the song, she talked of the angels coming to carry us all, before adding “and even Donald.” 

Then she had second thoughts and deadpanned, 

“Well maybe.”

At Woodstock she directed the crowd line by line to join her in singing “We Shall Overcome.” If they all did it loud enough, there was a chance her husband would hear them.  

Reflecting over the years, Baez has said she doesn’t remember exactly what she said at Woodstock. But now on Live At Woodstock,  we can hear it like it was yesterday.

Baez seemed sanguine about the experience when she spoke to Rob Tannenbaum of the New York Times. He asked her about what fans want to know most about Woodstock. 

“They remember their lives and what was going on for them: “My mother wouldn’t let me go,” or “I was stuck in traffic on the highway,” she reflected. “This three-day hoo-ha is an important thing. But it was not a revolution. It was revolutionary, in that the cops put their guns away and smoked pot.Though a few people were singing about the war, like Country Joe, it was a joy festival. Nobody was really thinking about the serious issues. I was graceless enough not to just accept it. A revolution, I would think, involves taking risks and going to jail and all that stuff that happened in the civil rights movement and the draft resistance.”

Baez may finally be done with the road. Santana, a few years younger, doesn’t seem like he’s quitting anytime soon and is headed back where to Woodstock all began. He won’t be at Yasgur’s Farm but at the Bethel Performing Arts Center. 

There will be a few hundred thousand people less on the lawn in Bethel this anniversary weekend. But Santana will bring with him history and his sense of humor. In Virginia, looking out to the people in the lawn seats, Santana quipped:  “There’s great weed up there.”


Leave a Reply!