Woodstock 50 Years On

I knew nothing about the “Aquarian Exposition” but by the time I landed in New York City at LaGuardia, I had already heard from several people my age about (as one person said) “A quiet little arts and music festival in the Catskills”. My closest friend hitched into town and we bummed a ride from some young strangers across the street from my uncle’s apartment where I was staying. A curious 17 old kid from the Chicago suburbs, I was plunged into three incredible days of amazing music, but as importantly, incredible cooperation and care among people, even when the food ran out, the rainstorms hit, and quick and cooperative work was needed to avoid possible electrocution. The PBS special on Woodstock, part of their “American Experience” (highly recommended), does a wonderful job showing all the challenges of the weekend and how creative and caring leadership helped the event go so smoothly.

As I watched the PBS special, I was struck by the sheer logistics of the event. How to feed the crowds that had swelled far beyond expectations? How to keep order in this sudden city? How to deal with medical care? Lost children? Bad trips? Women giving birth? Strangely there were only two known deaths. Maybe people were having too much fun to die. And fun there was. The music was the centerpiece–an incredible range of groups, many making their rock concert debuts. Woodstock can be romanticized–or trivialized. On the one hand, Woodstock is seen as a kind of heaven-on-earth utopia. Everything is free and loving–there is no shadow or “bad energy”. On the other hand, Woodstock can be trivialized as nothing but a huge, self-indulgent party which had no lasting roots in social action. There may be some partial truth in both stereotypes, but they don’t capture the fuller picture.

Thinking about that gathering 50 years ago, a few key themes come to me:

We were all in this together

This is an obvious truth, but one we often forget when we are absorbed in our own private worlds. When you are living right next to each other in sleeping bags, you get to know each other, you help each other find the food and toilets. You share conversation, drink and other ministrations. As you look out on the furling blanket of humanity that is spreading over the green farmland, you know you are part of this larger organism. We don’t think this way naturally. We only see our part of the story. We fail to see the bigger picture. Now we our challenged with the climate crisis. We can’t “get ourselves back to the garden” nor should we try too. We have to tend and protect the garden–not by heading back–but looking into the future and moving to action.

There is more than enough for all of us

This may sound like a corny cliche–it can be–but there are enough resources on the earth that, if we use them collectively and cooperatively, can bring nourishment and better quality of life to most of the earth’s inhabitants. We get captivated by the illusion of scarcity. We buy the false picture of “zero sum”–if I win you lose and vice versus. The truth of abundance was very tangible at Woodstock in the “feeding of the multitude” when townspeople made sandwiches to pass into the teeming crowds. A local farmer woman said, “Well, it’s like the Bible said, “I was hungry and you fed me”. The commune calling themselves The Hog Farm also did a remarkable job feeding people–and for free.

But there is always also a shadow

We could enjoy a blissful weekend because we were living in a protected bubble. The reality of hunger had nipped briefly at our heels. There was the rainstorm, but that had mostly brought us together in flexibility and frivolity. Monday morning when things were winding up, I stood at the rim of the hill, transfixed by Jimi Hendrix’s searing rendition of the National Anthem, while the chemical toilets had reached their capacity. All the food trucks were empty; things were slipping and sliding in a vast, viscous ocean of mud. Surely our patience would begin to fray if we stayed much longer. The unpleasant realities would assert themselves. A year later a free concert at the Altamont Speedway turned into violent chaos. The Hell’s Angels had stupidly been contracted to provide “security”. The Garden of Eden had become a hellish nightmare.

What made the difference between Woodstock and Altamont?

Good leadership links the individual and the group

The music at Woodstock went on almost non-stop. They tried to make the turn around between acts as quick and smooth as possible. But there were the inevitable spaces between performances and that is where the leadership kept in constant communication with us. Announcements were made to help people find each other; we got ongoing news from the outside world as to how the press was responding; we were guided through the storm; and happiest of all, proposals of marriage and the announcement of children born echoed from the loud speakers. Without the continual voice of leadership, we could become simply a crowd and not a community.

So, 50 years on, the legacy of Woodstock is still strong in the culture, regardless of the generation. It represents the best of the tumultuous sixties–a time of great change which forms the fault line of today’s culture wars. It was a time of opening up, of liberation. Many of us had been involved in the Civil Rights movement and the Viet Nam War protests. Women’s liberation and gay liberation were to change the culture profoundly. Freedom of self-expression in dress was launched in a big way. I see the “kids” who work at Whole Foods and Starbucks and they look a lot like we did back then–except few of us had tattoos, at least yet.

Plans for a 50th anniversary concert fell through because of financial and logistical difficulties. I had considered going but, frankly was relieved when it was no longer a decision I had to make. You can’t go back to the garden. You can’t stay in Eden. At the end of the festival I didn’t have a ride but that was no problem. I simple climbed on a flat-bed truck with a group of people I didn’t know. But we didn’t feel like strangers. We were filled with a kind of religious zeal. We had seen a vision of a kingdom of goodwill, generosity and delight. It’s not nostalgia for me. It is an important reminder of what we can be at our best. Like thousands, I left my mud-soaked sleeping bag imbedded in the slippery hillside. Kind and tireless crews picked up much of the flotsam and jetsam, but an archeological dig could still unearth many remnants of our huge yet brief civilization. After everything had been cleared away and we all went home, the challenge was to take the spirit of that weekend back into the everyday. We can’t go back to the Garden, but, as Joni reminds us, we are “stardust, we are golden” and we will need all the peace and love—and music–we can get to face the future that awaits us.