Journeying the Sixties: A Counterculture Tarot     index     <prev     next>


"Im going on down to yasgurs farm
Im going to join in a rock n roll band
Im going to camp out on the land
Im going to try and get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And weve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden"

--Joni Mitchell from her song "Woodstock" 1969

Joni Mitchell did not attend Woodstock. She was stuck in a hotel room waiting for a television interview while other musicians made history at Max Yasgur's New York farm. Later she said that not being able to go provided her with a transforming view of the event. "Woodstock, for some reason, impressed me as being a modern miracle, like a modern-day fishes and loaves story. For a herd of people that large to cooperate so well, it was pretty remarkable and there was a tremendous optimism. So I wrote the song Woodstock out of these feelings, and the first three times I performed it in public, I burst into tears, because it brought back the intensity of the experience and was so moving."

Woodstock, offered on a promotional poster as "An Aquarian Exposition - Three Days of Peace and Music - August 15, 16, 17," drew more than a half-million people to a sprawling field in White Lake, N.Y. It may have been the largest, but still only one of many Counterculture trips back to the garden. From Ken Kesey's first 1965 Acid Tests to the Rainbow Gatherings that still draw thousands each year to America's national forests, hippies have amassed in streets, fields, and groves to dance in broad, brilliant daylight, to listen to rock n roll, to buy or trade crafted creations, to ingest sacramental psychedelics, and to celebrate joy in sybaritic abandon. Their Beatnik predecessors, who crowded around coffee house tables to drink espressos and cheap wine and listen through clouds of cigarette smoke to cool jazz or free verse, seem agoraphobic in comparison. For a time in the Sixties an annual circuit of local and regional concerts, fairs, and festivals encircled the globe. Some, like the Notting Hill Faire in London and the Oregon Country Fair near Eugene, still survive. As early as 1963 hippies traveled in trucks and buses to the West Coast sites of the Renaissance Pleasure Faires staged each spring and fall by Phyllis and Ron Patterson. There they spent weeks costumed as Elizabethans while selling handmade crafts or acting in the Faire's living history performances. From 1965 to 1995 the San Francisco band The Grateful Dead toured concerts and festivals continuously, followed everywhere by caravans of loyal fans. The experience of being back in a garden of exalting gaiety, of enacting fantasies or re-enacting enchantments, of wearing colorful costumes and body paint, or wearing nothing at all, usually offered the prospect of a very happy time.

The tradition of hippie festivals served happiness in two of its key aspects. One was the invocation of short-term joy that arrived through immediate gratifications that included dancing and singing and other ecstatic experiences enhanced by music, drugs, and sex. Some faires and gatherings, attended by craftspeople and traders, also offered the time-honored human thrill of shopping. But another, more general aspect of happiness grew from the celebration of generational loyalties and a common commitment to peace and love. Bonds of trust among "freaks" affirmed the idea that good feelings at a personal level could have a larger influence on others. Attendees commonly shared a momentary belief that their combined "good vibes" were a vortex of energy that radiated out into the world. They thereby mimicked ancient pagan celebrations (and their focus on rebirth and union) while celebrating happiness in its long-term sense of well being and of the good prospects signified in the original Tarot card. What drew the amazement of outsiders to Woodstock was not so much the huge crowd, but the striking fact that so many people could gather peacefully in one place for several days and be remarkably happy.