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: He 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.”
Alright, MAYBE it was actually Joni Mitchell and not me who had that encounter with a wayward hippie in 1969, who summed up those three days in Bethel, New York, in such an eloquent manner and later became the song “Woodstock” (a hit for both Mitchell and Crosby, Stills and Nash). However dated those lyrics seem, I’d like think that 50 years later, there is still a little of that Woodstock spirit that has managed to survive in more ways than just a song.
In August of 1969, sandwiched between the assassinations of MLK and RFK in 1968, and end of the Vietnam War, the Aquarian Nation was born in the bucolic hills and fields of upstate New York at the Woodstock Arts and Music Festival. Young people celebrated the dream of an unbridled, utopian society, complete with its own soundtrack being recorded on the spot.
Between the mud, the rain, lack of toilets or food, 400,000 kids still got a chance to write their own script, and present their naive, but sweet collection of dueling ideologies, dogmas and social engineering to a captive audience at about 115 decibels.
Most of Nixon’s silent majority were utterly horrified to see their former babysitters and paper boys transform into flower children engaging in Caligula-like fantasy as the media acted like the sky was falling.
Much of Woodstock has become myth, including actual location, which was NOT in Woodstock, but almost 70 miles away in Bethel. However, Woodstock still may have been the high-water mark for those early Boomers, who felt life was better than death, peace was better than war, justice was better than injustice, and that there were measurable alternatives to the status quo.
But every movement has an ending and most identify Woodstock as that punctuation point. The ‘70s were nothing like the ‘60s and the ‘80s were nothing like the ‘70s. The Baby Boomer generation grew up, went to work, had families, and now have grandkids who spend all day “Snap Chatting” on the same internet that Boomers thought would bring the world together and create peace through the sharing of information.
The Woodstock generation did do a lot before it transformed into Yuppies a decade or so later. They reminded us that civil rights did not have to be a concept, and that fighting bigotry and hatred was the first step in creating a “more perfect union.”
Most of the hippie trappings and culture have not survived and now seem more like props. A tie-dyed shirt and a VW microbus are now cliches for ad executives who don’t want to work very hard to reduce an entire decade into a 30-second ad spot.
It was not a perfect time or a perfect movement; there was plenty of self-indulgence and navel gazing that came out of the late 60s. Many of the counterculture leaders turned out to be frauds and charlatans, who saw the movement as a way to obtain personal power. There was rampant drug use and many of those enjoying “three days of peace and music” were also the ones in the street demanding the violent overthrow of government and university administrations.
However, after the final strains of Hendrix echoed across the near empty hillside on the final morning, all the garbage was picked up, cows returned to graze and several generations of sociologists were done combing over those same fields looking for answers to what it all really meant, the simplest answer might be the best — it was a lot of kids listening to music and partying in the rain.
As for the peace and love, I’m sure we could use a little of that right now too.