Searching For The Garden
For thousands of years humanity has been seeking methods to restore a sense of peace among peoples.
Despite my non-belief, I think religion is still the source of our greatest imagined narrative. Despite the reality of suffering on a terrible scale people still strive for universal peace.
I think to understand why Woodstock is important today we must look at the culture that preceded the hippie youth movement.
Let’s begin with a rough review of the 1950’s and 1960’s as they relate to the rise of a New Left and Hippie rebellion in America.
The American Experiment
The seeds of a new nation were planted on soil enriched by slaves. A democratic system evolved to include, to assimilate, and to uplift.
The democratic model of Ancient Greece led the founders to forge a centralized government. There was immense suffering and bloodshed to make this happen. Many were excluded from the possibilities of America.
North America’s native population was decimated. Minority peoples were outsiders. Women could not vote; seek higher education.
A fractured society led to our civil war. Following the Lincoln Era, the newly freed slaves were murdered on a regular basis. Cultural resentment continued in America through WWII.
Americans of every race, creed, and class fought alongside their allies to defeat anti-democratic forces. Unfortunately, the strains of hateful ideology that threatened the world continued to infect our democracy.
The aftermath would bring an era of conservative value making. Discrimination was visible in segregation. Queers of any type were invisible. Any deviation from the straight and narrow was mocked and punished.
If you were white there were many rewards. Good jobs, new homes, and college educations were granted to this newly minted modern middle-class.
Father Knows Best
The 1950’s reinforced a culture where straight white males were the dominant cultural force.
Children were to be seen and not heard. Adults were the authority. Obey rules. Listen to your parents, go to school, and always work hard.
This separate and unequal society had a post-war baby boom that produced 70 million teenagers.
The new technology of TV provided people with a new way of viewing the world .
Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley reflected a new musical expression.
A strata of white middle-class kids rejected the materialistic path they were educated to value. The silver screen rebel arrived in the form of Marlon Brando & James Dean.
White kids started to hang with black kids outside of the Jim Crow Codes. Black leather jackets, rock n roll music, and drugs punched a hole in the wall of conservative white male hierarchy.
Then the 1960’s dawned with America at a cultural divide. The Korean War was followed by Vietnam.
Our politicians put the Cold War with Russia above our domestic problems. Communism was cast as the great threat.
Then a new generation helped elect our youngest President. The Civil Rights movement pressured elected officials to take apart systemic racism.
Amidst all of this cultural change came a youth quake seen and heard around the world.
The Beatles arrival in America in 1964 changed everything. Teenagers wanted to gather in large numbers. The message was heard in stereophonic sound: All You Need Is Love.
Tune In. Turn On. Drop Out.
In contrast to the previous decade in which the teenage rebel was portrayed as aimless, the Vietnam War gave the kids a cause.
The great disillusionment arrived with young people organizing against registering for war. Vietnam was televised every night.
American teenagers did not want to obey. The war was immoral. Racism was immoral. Promoting hate was immoral.
The Woodstock Festival became the visible embodiment of what the kids had fought for all decade long. This generation had a style, moral code, and vision that rejected the path of inequality, racism, and war their elders had enacted.
Harvard Prof Timothy Leary told kids to tune in, turn on and drop out. Forget the crap you were told; a new way is needed.
Kids dressed in jeans, colorful vests, and sandals. They took drugs to open their minds and dropped out of straight society to protest the government.
Boys grew their hair long, went shirtless and/or barefoot. Girls went bra less and joined with boys to form new communities beyond the white picket fence.
Many burned draft cards. They marched in solidarity with blacks. The authorities were quite shaken by the rebellion. Then at decade’s end came the big event.
Billed as 3 days of Peace, Music…and Love. On farm land in upstate New York where the Bethel Woods concert pavilion now stands, the festival took place.
The organizers of the Woodstock Festival were four young men: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld, and Mike Lang. The oldest of the four was only 27 years old at the time of the Woodstock Festival.
The concert was envisioned to be a fundraiser for a proposed recording studio in Woodstock where many musicians lived at the time. Mr. Roberts was heir to the Polydent fortune. He bankrolled Woodstock.
The original proposed site in Watkill, NY was rejected. The town’s people passed a law against mass concerts. The hippies were not desirable to their town.
The hippie movement was influenced by Eastern religion, rock music, and experimentation with drugs. The youth of this era rose up in mass to protest the Vietnam War.
Those American values formed in the 1950’s resulted in Michael Lang scrambling to find a new place for his festival. The township of the first proposal did not want hippies overtaking their community. Several towns declined to host.
He discovered a tract of land on the farm of Max Yasgur that had the right sort of shape for his concert vision.
The logistics got messy.
Tickets were $7 for one day and $18 for 3 days ($26 today) per day.
Fences surrounding the concert were not completed in time.
The promoters expected around 30,000 people. Over 400,000 came on the day closing down the NY state Thruway.
Instead of charging people the festival turned into a free “be in” the size and scale nobody could have predicted. Attendees created a community including makeshift playgrounds and camping areas.
On Day 2 of the festival thunderstorms shut down the music for hours. Chip Monck, the master of ceremonies for the fest, told people to come down from the towers. The monsoon like rains that came forced people to improvise sheltering in place.
Some of the concert goers stripped down, placing their clothes under tarps, and made the best of a tough situation. The temperature dropped quite a bit after the storms. Keeping clothes dry was essential to prevent hypothermia.
Goldmine magazine’s coverage of Woodstock provided an excerpt from Chapter 8 of the book “Back To Yasgur’s Farm” by Mike Greenblatt (Krause Books). Local police made a statement about the festival. Sullivan County Sheriff Louis Ratner said “I never met a nicer bunch of kids in my life.”
Ritchie Havens performed his song, “Freedom”, to open the show. On Monday morning, with only about 30,000 people left, Jimi Hendrix took the stage with his new band, Gypsy Sun & Rainbows. His rendition of our National Anthem is now rock culture’s preferred version.
In between there were The Who, Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Country Joe MacDonald, and Sha Na Na.
The concert on a hill became an expression of hope for millions of people around the US and the world. Unfortunately the backlash against freedom (free love) followed.
When I was a kid people used to say if you remember Woodstock then you were not there. The wink and nod was due to the use of drugs.
However, in 1969 only 4% of Americans were smoking marijuana. Today more than 50% of people support legalization of the drug.
Woodstock’s organizers had debt of $1 million and faced many lawsuits following the festival.
The documentary film released by Warner Brothers was a hit. The box office receipts helped pay their debts down.
1969 was an exceptional year. Stonewall, The Moon Landing, Civil Rights Law, and nearly half a million teenagers/young adults gathered on a farm upstate to express their joys, sorrows, and hopes for a peaceful tomorrow.
50 Year Anniversary
Here in New York City a photographic exhibition will celebrate this milestone at The Morrison Hotel gallery.
The Oscar-winning Documentary film is being screened in theaters across the USA on August 15th at 7 p.m. Check Fathom Events for details: https://www.fathomevents.com/events/woodstock-1970-50th-anniversary-directors-cut
To commemorate the performances at the festival there are some notable records being issued. The original triple LP Woodstock soundtrack album has been re-issued on vinyl.
Rhino, a subsidiary of Warner, will release Woodstock 50: Back To The Garden in separate vinyl and CD box sets.
Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jefferson Airplane’s Woodstock sets have been released on vinyl.
History should not repeat. The proposed Anniversary Festival was cancelled. I think people need to live in the present. Dwelling too much in the past is not only depressing but bears no fruit.
What I do know about the 1969 festival and the culture that fostered it is you cannot copy the past.
We can remember why this event became important to us; there is no repeating it. The emergence of the hippie movement for peace was a flash point in America’s story.
In Mike Greenblatt’s book “Woodstock” he notes a press conference following the festival in which Max Yasgur stated:
“The kids were wonderful, honest, sincere, good kids who said, ‘here we are. This is what we are. This is the way we dress. These are our morals.’ There wasn’t one incident the whole time. The kids were polite, shared everything with everyone, and they forced me to open my eyes.
In my opinion, we must remember that Woodstock remains in the social fabric because it was a successful event.
Nobody was patted down to enter the grounds. The promise of music, peace, and love was fulfilled.
In the ensuing 50 years we have grown militant, selfish, and distracted.
Uncertainty is the word we hear a lot today to describe how people are feeling about society.
The five decades since the Aquarian cultural awakening of free love has seen horrors we could not have imagined.
Cultural shifts have moved our society far away from those of the counterculture. We lost the surplus; Gained record debt.
The ruling political class has been more representative of a shrinking geographical minority than of the actual new demographic reality of 21st century America.
Without a military draft the country has become disconnected in the face of unending wars in Syria and Afghanistan.
Advanced technology allows our government to strike targets a world away. The population suffers under crumbling infrastructure; the military gets billions.
Smart phones enable never ending surveillance. We have become more paranoid as a people. Heads are bent down to the perpetual glow of a portable screen.
I know it all sounds dire. Today we face a lot of adversity. We must overcome…again.
Several movements have started to respond to this litany of potential disaster. The issues today include: Gun Reform, Women’s Equality, Prison Reform, LGBTQ Rights, and Election Reforms.
We serve each other. The people are more powerful than any group or political party. We can assemble and make something positive happen.
Always keep in mind that something special blossomed over 3 days in those grassroots on a farm in upstate New York.
This blog is dedicated to all of the people who made Woodstock happen in 1969.