The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was neither the first nor the last of a number of similar gatherings in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. In many ways, though, it holds a place of special significance in any discussion of the vast cultural changes so characteristic of that era. Other concerts … Monterey … Isle of Wight … Altamont … Powder Ridge … contributed to the music and protest scene of that time, but only Woodstock has its own special and enduring brand: Woodstock Nation!
Since the initial publication of “Dear Hippie,” I have been invited to speak about Woodstock before a number of groups. Across those sessions I met only a few folks who claim to have been in Bethel, but a vast number of others who, though not physically present, have vivid recollections of what they heard or read about those remarkable three days in August of 1969. What I found especially impressive was that, young and old alike, people were acutely aware of Woodstock, and had a sense of what it seemed to mean during that vibrant period.
While the conversation about Woodstock has allowed me to resurrect a number of fond memories, it has also shown me how deeply that singular event and that distinct period of time have touched so many people. Clearly, if there is such a thing as a “Woodstock Nation,” its influence is felt well beyond the corporate boundaries of Bethel, New York, and is not limited solely to those with boots (or sandals) on the ground at the festival itself. And though elusive, there is something about the texture of those three days that continues to resonate. Having had the good fortune to be there, I suspect that it springs from the unexpected enormity of the event, and the fact that some half million people, effectively cut off from the rest of the world, persevered through an intuitive spirit of cooperation and good will. And, yes, there was some music as well.
Some fifty years after the fact, the question remains: why does this event, originally billed as a mere music and art fair, remain so indelibly imprinted on our consciousness? Theories abound, but Richie Havens, the first performer to take the stage at Woodstock, put it this way: “Though it’s frequently portrayed as this crazy, unbridled festival of rain-soaked, stoned hippies dancing in the mud, Woodstock was obviously much more than that or we wouldn’t still be talking about it in 2009. People of all ages and colors came together in the fields of Max Yasgur’s farm.”
Nostalgia has a way of smoothing off the rough edges, so I am not surprised that those incredibly long hours, sodden fields, gridlocked roads and throngs of people seem less overwhelming today than they did in 1969. Instead, my mind is drawn to more pleasant memories … smiling faces … acts of kindness … expressions of appreciation … and the sense that we were involved in something bigger than all of us. It was a very special time and place and, as the saying goes, if we didn’t do foolish things while young, we wouldn’t have anything to smile about when we are older.
For a lot of us, those days three days at Woodstock … well, they make us smile.