Well, that last half century certainly went by quickly.
The relentless hoopla about the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock seemed to reach a crescendo over the past couple of months, with Michael Lang’s ill-fated venture falling by the wayside, and a number of communities around the world mounting their own mini-celebrations of that iconic happening.
As “veterans” of the original event, we could not resist the pull to take one more journey back to that bucolic place known as Bethel, New York. And though we originally planned to be there on the exact dates of the 50th, we decided to visit earlier in hopes of avoiding crowds and traffic.
This proved to be an excellent choice for, when we made our way to Woodstock in early August, we were among the few people on hand that day. Consequently, we could tour the lovely Museum at Bethel Woods at our leisure, and roam the grounds in absolute tranquility.
Leading up to our visit, I participated in several enjoyable and interactive talks about my book “Dear Hippie … We Met at Woodstock.” Across these sessions, I met a number of folks who were at the 1969 festival … one even brought a photo of herself as proof. Another had a (framed) copy of the original Woodstock program, and a third proved to be a helicopter pilot who used his chopper to assist with security efforts.
It was, of course, good to meet folks who were there in 1969, but most in attendance at my talks had never been to Woodstock. Many were too young; others missed it because “… mom wouldn’t let me go”; and a number had simply read about the festival or watched it on television. All, though, expressed amazement that an event of that magnitude could have taken place without ending in catastrophe.
Having worked at the Woodstock festival as a police officer, I share their sense of amazement. And, considering the remarkable confluence of events leading up to that gathering, it is hard to believe that it occurred at all. Yes, the few police on hand did their jobs well but, in my view, the credit for keeping things calm must go to the assembled masses who, while enduring three rain-soaked days without adequate food, water and shelter, did not allow the event to descend into chaos.
Many things have changed in the half century since the original gathering, but there remains a special aura surrounding that obscure bend in the road in upstate New York. It is here that a dairy farmer named Max Yasgur lent 600 acres of his dairy farm for the 1969 concert venue, and the rest is history. That plot of land is now registered as both a state and a national historic site.
At the end of our visit, we stopped at the monument overlooking the serene and well-tended meadow where, fifty years ago, some half a million people gathered for a weekend of peace, love and music. Standing there, I noticed far off in the distance … in the meadow… near the location of the original stage … a man standing alone … playing a guitar.
I have no idea who that solitary musician was or where he came from. And though I had driven 1,600 miles to reach Bethel, I have a feeling that he and I each felt drawn to that very special place by something that neither of us could fully articulate. When all is said and done, Maya Angelou may have best captured the essence of Woodstock in these words:
The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place
where we can go as we are and not be questioned.