And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation
— “Woodstock,” Joni Mitchell, 1969
Friday, Aug. 15, 1969: Folksinger Richie Havens, appearing monkish in his loose-fitting saffron-colored clothing, strides to the front of a just-erected stage on a large farm near Bethel, New York. He starts strumming his guitar and looks up. There, extending as far and wide as the eye can see, is a throng of people. I am one of them, sitting on my sleeping bag about 120 feet from the stage.
Havens delivered an engaging set, concluding powerfully with an improvisational piece that prayerfully chanted one word — "freedom." The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was underway.
Billed in advance with posters promising “3 Days of Peace and Music,” the festival became the most talked-about musical event of the modern era. An estimated 400,000 people, predominantly older teens and 20-somethings, had assembled. We were later proclaimed by Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman — in courtroom testimony no less — to be legal residents of “Woodstock Nation.”
I could report, 15 years ago, to my then-teenage kids: “I was at Woodstock. I didn’t smoke pot, or drop acid.”
After presenting these facts, I added playfully: “So I’m the only one who remembers what actually happened there.”
I was indeed there on Yasgur’s Farm for the opening day of Woodstock. Barely 18, a city kid and an introverted hippie-wannabe, I was struck immediately by the peacefulness of the rural setting, and the beauty of the sound in the hill-surrounded bowl.
I took in auditory treats, among them the painful longing of Tim Hardin’s “How Can We Hang On to a Dream?,” sitarist Ravi Shankar’s mystical ragas, and Arlo Guthrie’s high-energy “Coming Into Los Angeles.”
Concluding day one was Joan Baez; 50 years later, I can still bring her performance vividly to mind. Taking the stage in darkness, six months pregnant, her husband David Harris serving a three-year prison sentence for principled draft resistance, she delivered an astounding performance. We languished, bathing in a warm bath of tonal purity — our collective sins cleansed by her unshakeable idealism. Her a cappella “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” didn’t lift us to heaven; it took us back to the innocence of the garden.
The next morning, having slept out overnight in a persistent downpour, tentless (long story), I decided reluctantly to hitchhike back to my parents’ home in Philadelphia. I viewed other parts of the festival the following April when the documentary “Woodstock” had its Philadelphia premiere on the first Earth Day.
Was the three-day festival nothing but a wild party with the usual ingredients — sex, drugs and rock-and-roll? Did it become legendary only because of the presence of 16 video cameras, recording for the world, in intimate detail, an immense bacchanalia complete with skinny-dipping, mud-romping and F-bomb chanting? Or did something transpire that was enduring, making this an event of significance and lasting import?
No one can deny the cultural transformation that occurred in the 1960s. That decade ushered into American popular music British rock, folk rock, blues rock, acid rock, Motown and a host of musical and audio-technical innovations. Gone were the smooth vanilla crooners of the '50s, and along with them, “race music” — a category built by a wall that separated a dynamic music, its performers, and its audience from the white mainstream culture.
The Vietnam War raged throughout the '60s. Woodstock was our generation’s defiant declaration of independence. We proclaimed ourselves ready to build a new world, peaceful and unrestrained by the rules of the past.
We had two contradictory goals. On one hand, some of us conceitedly believed we were creating "The New Age," tapping into a universal love that would enable us to create communities of peace. At the same time, many heeded the call of Dr. Timothy Leary to “tune in, turn on, drop out" — not a strategy for building community.
Times of turmoil can produce groundbreaking art. Some of the Woodstock 1969 performances are intensely powerful and relevant today. Quite a few are available online; the three-hour Woodstock DVD can easily be purchased or viewed on Netflix.
Woodstock’s day two highlight, judging from the documentary, had to be Santana. Fueled by Afro-Caribbean-inspired percussion and fronted by the Mexican-born Carlos Santana, the band delivered a thundering performance unlike anything mainstream audiences had ever heard.
Watch Santana's performance of "Soul Sacrifice." This is a wordless song, saying so much. From the opening beats, the percussion should have you drumming on your desk, until Carlos’ soaring guitar runs lift you to the ceiling.
The iconic high-wattage electric guitar work of Jimi Hendrix closed the festival. Hendrix’s innovativeness caused jaw-drop in fans and professional guitarists alike. From Rolling Stone magazine: "Hendrix pioneered the use of the instrument as an electronic sound source... (producing) a controlled, fluid vocabulary every bit as personal as the blues with which he began.”
Hendrix delivered Woodstock’s musical keynote Monday morning. It was a distortion-heavy version of the national anthem, with a few bars of “Taps” thrown in, then segueing directly into “Purple Haze” and its tagline “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” Hendrix, from early childhood an earnest stargazer with an expansive imagination, had thereby proclaimed: The old America is dead; a new generation is heading onward and upward.
Woodstock did not usher in an era of peace and love. The Vietnam War raged on, ultimately taking the lives of more than 50,000 Americans, and more than a million Vietnamese. Drugs took the lives of a significant number in our generation. For two headlining Woodstock performers, death came the year following the fest. Jimi Hendrix died in September 1970 under unclear circumstances, with a lethal combination of sleeping pills and wine in his system. Less than three weeks later, fellow Woodstock performer Janis Joplin died from a heroin overdose, her drug and alcohol use a vain effort to numb the pain from intense bullying during adolescence.
By January 1972, less than three years post-Woodstock, we were singing a mega-hit to grieve the end of the late-'50s-through-classic-rock era. Don McLean’s “American Pie”, its saga bookended by the losses of Buddy Holly and Janis Joplin, gave us the song that declared the death of the '60s.
No one has written more eloquently about the journey America undertook from the 1950s through the late 1960s than veteran NBC News journalist Tom Brokaw. A self-described “straight arrow kid from the Fifties," Brokaw had already paid extended loving tribute to "The Greatest Generation," an honorific he coined.
“Boom!," his detailed collection of 1960s voices, is complex, and highlights extraordinarily well the decade’s contradictions: its anti-war and justice focus and the excesses of the drug culture. Tellingly, Brokaw begins the book with this John Lennon statement about the '60s: “It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.”
Woodstock did not bring the dawning of “The New Age." It was the closing statement and exclamation point of a decade. A backlash against the ferment followed, and the culture moved in very different directions. Yet two powerful impacts endure.
First, Woodstock greatly expanded the musical landscape by paying tribute to the power of individual creativity. The cultural restraints of the 1950s were understandably very tight, that decade having followed the unendingly traumatic 15-year era dominated by the Great Depression and World War II. The '50s pushed hard for a return to "normalcy," and imposed a straitjacket of conformity. The '60a, from the Beatles and Dylan through Baez, Santana, and Hendrix at Woodstock, pulled off the cultural restraints and enriched mainstream music, then and to this day.
Second, the environmental call from Woodstock Nation is unmistakable. Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock pilgrims deliver the mission statement: “We have come to lose the smog … We are million-year old carbon. Caught in the devil’s bargain. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Yes, the heart of that message is under strong attack today, but it has survived, and inspired considerable environmental awareness and action over the last five decades.
Eight months after Woodstock, on April 22, 1970, Earth Day was born. In many ways, it was a Woodstock stepchild. Across the country, there were events demanding that we attend to our damaged environment. The one I attended in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park was half-environmental rally, half-Woodstock. By the end of that year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency had been created. Many smog-filled urban highways and contaminated rivers of the early 1970s were dramatically transformed as a result.
The dominant political powers now tell us that we can dig up carbon relentlessly, and endlessly emit its byproducts into the atmosphere. The global threat is enormous.
Woodstock’s message in a bottle, calling on us to lose the smog, to free ourselves from "the devil’s bargain," and to get ourselves back into the garden, is being heeded by many. Perhaps there is some hope for the future of our planet.
Ron Malzer is a retired psychologist and freelance writer who lives in La Crosse. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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