Sunday, May 3, 2009

Songs I Can’t Sing Anymore – Part 1

I grew up listening to rock and roll from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. I have always maintained that there is no era of music that I prefer to listen to more, and I listened to a lot of it in college and during the years before my wife and I had children. I amassed over two-hundred albums on vinyl over the years, before compact discs took over. I have spent a great deal of time over the last couple of years transferring this music to my iPod. As I’ve recently begun listening to this music again, I have been struck by the lyrics of many of the songs – seen anew from a refreshed Christian perspective. I believe that I listened only to the music back in my younger days, but today I actually pay attention to the lyrics. This is the first in a series of articles discussing the possible hidden (or overt) meaning in many songs I used to sing out loud -- without actually listening to what the words were saying.


The 1960’s were dominated by bands with an underlying New Age philosophy. Peace, free love, and rock and roll were all blended together in words that welcomed the dawning of the “the age of Aquarius”. One of my very favorite bands from this time frame is Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young). I enjoy their music, if a bit rough and unpolished, and am mostly attracted to their incredible harmonies. I still try to mirror some of the high notes sung by Graham Nash in my own backup singing. Some of their vocal blending still gives me chills.

Recently, I was playing the So Far album from 1974, and came across the song Woodstock. Written by Joni Mitchell in 1969, it details elements of the famed Woodstock concert in a farmer’s field in Bethel, New York. While I used to mouth the words to the opening lines, it struck me for the very first time what the lyrics were actually saying. Give a listen:

Well, I came upon a child of God

He was walking along the road

And I asked him, Tell me, where are you going?

This he told me

Said, I'm going down to Yasgur's Farm,

Gonna join in a rock and roll band.

Got to get back to the land and set my soul free.

We are stardust, we are golden,

We are billion year old carbon,

And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Huh? Did I really used to sing “We are billion year old carbon” without blinking an eye? Sadly, the answer is “Yes”. Did I think about what I was singing at the time? Sadly, the answer is “No”.

These lyrics display a clear New Age influence. The 1969 idea of setting your soul free and getting back to the land sounds a lot like bumper stickers that we see on cars forty years later (“The Earth Is Your Mother”). These are not new New Age ideas. The desire for a return to something more than we are may be an inherent feeling in all of us. What it is, and how it got there is the topic for debate.

Carl Sagan is famous for his Cosmos television series, where he stated the words, “We are all star stuff”. This also is not a new concept, as Joni Mitchell penned similar words many years before Sagan reintroduced the idea. I have always found Sagan’s words somewhat ridiculous. Is it a scientific statement? What hard evidence does he have? Does anyone really believe that “star-stuff” or stardust can somehow “evolve” into a sentient race of people? It is not a factual conclusion, but rather a philosophical musing, rooted in nothing more than flawed humanist thinking. I don’t want to think of myself, or my lovely wife, or my precious children as “billion-year-old carbon”. The idea takes away from the wonder and miracle of life, which is far better explained by God’s hand.

I am beginning to see many examples such as these lyrics which attempt to combine the humanist way of thinking with religious expressions. Given that the author assumes we are simply a collection of carbon molecules, what place do the phrases “child of God” and “back to the garden” have in their argument? They don’t – they are merely an attempt to add to the mysticism of their lyrics in order to appear “artsy” or “enlightened”. This song -- one I used to sing out loud -- now takes on an anti-God aspect that I never saw before. It’s ruined for me.

One final point – has anyone taken note that the “billion-year-old carbon” line was replaced with a different line in the last chorus – a line that is much more true? Write me back with a comment if you discover what it is.


Next in the series...