The 40th anniversary of the legendary music festival is now upon us. No doubt, many men and women who are wiser than me will have alot to say about it and I’m looking forward to reading what they write. I believe it’s safe to say that Woodstock was a symbolic event in many ways, representing the high water mark of the youth revolution that was going on in America at the time. I wasn’t there personally, I was only 16 at the time, but I did meet someone a couple of years later who claimed to have been there. I was pretty awestruck by that. If you were alive and aware of what was going on, it would have been pretty much impossible to not know that something really big happend in New York that summer.
I have often heard it said that if you remember the ’60’s you weren’t really there. It’s impossible to understand the phenomenon of Woodstock without understanding its context. I remember that well. A few years earlier, the United States had nearly gone to war with The Soviet Union over missiles in Cuba. We had conducted air raid drills at the elementary school I attended. A few years after that, I had sat in my 5th grade classroom and heard the announcement that President Kennedy was dead, assasinated 30 miles down the road from where I sat. In rapid succession, or so it seemed, were the assasinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, punctuated by riots in Watts and at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. On top of it all, the US was involved in a protracted war in Southeast Asia that would eventually take the lives of over 58,000 Americans. During those years, every teenaged boy in America knew exactly when he would be old enough for the draft. Many young people my age and older had a profound sense that things weren’t working so well in this country. I was one of them.
A segment of the youth population was already rebelling. The hippie movement, as it was known, was about rejecting everything that was perceived to be wrong with America. The hippies have been characterized in retrospect as a bunch of stoned out bums who wore their hair long, didn’t bathe, and had sex with everyone. They were viewed with suspicion, at the least, by most middle aged, middle class adults. The people I knew were quite different. They were mostly more intelligent than average and willing to think outside the box. I was challenged to question everything I thought I knew, and it was a positive experience.
Along came Woodstock, which turned out to be the largest gathering of hippies and music lovers ever assembled. Yes, it was a disaster in some respects. The organizers were totally unprepared for the huge turnout. I still remember the news stories about surrounding towns being overrun by festival goers. I would have given anything to be there, not just for the music, which was outstanding, but also for the cultural experience of being in such a completely unplanned and outside the box event.
That’s what I remember about Woodstock. Not that Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Santana, and nearly every other famous band of the time played there, but that for three days some of the youth of America did it their way. Imperfect, without a doubt, but totally new and different. For a while there was hope that maybe America could take a new direction that wasn’t about war or materialism or the same old same old. Sadly, most of us eventually “grew up” and got back in line. Those who didn’t were looked upon as hopelessly stuck in the past. Forty years later, having taken my tour through the middle class American status quo, I sit and wonder if we didn’t miss our chance to change things profoundly for the better. I guess that makes me an old hippie, and I can live with that.