|James M. Shelley, Woodstock 1969|
It didn’t matter.
Revolution was in the air. We’d taken it to the streets. We’d occupied buildings. Now nearly half a million young people headed for the hills—and the fences came down. The spirit of the times prevailed. The white dove that had been perched on the neck of a guitar on the iconic Woodstock Music and Art Fair poster took flight, descended on the crowd, and made history.
It didn’t make money though. After the event that captured the heart of my generation, the promoters—and presumably the 450,000 folks who’d gone down to Max Yasgur’s farm to set their souls free—ended up taking a bath.
The movie that was released the following spring etched Woodstock into the collective consciousness of a generation. What had been a mixed bag for those on the ground—and in the mud—became larger-than-life on the big screen. The spirit of the times that had transformed a disaster area into a peaceful community (where the head of security was a clown with a kazoo), now touched tens of millions of us. And, of course, a few folks made a bundle.
I didn’t make it to Woodstock 1969. It didn’t matter. The genie was out of the bottle. The word was on the streets. The following summer, I drove west in a Volkswagen Beetle and watched the heart and soul of my generation play out on screen, through a cloud of cannabis smoke, in a crowded theater in San Francisco.
With peace signs flashing, the leftist folk music of the early sixties danced onto the stage with the electrified blues and acid rock that had erupted on the left coast’s hotbed of be-ins and a Summer of Love. Through a kaleidoscopic swirl of images and sounds, we long-haired hippies constructed a massive stage and drove tractors. We danced and did yoga amidst teepees and gaily painted school buses. We skinny dipped, then rolled up our sleeves to answer the call to, as Wavy Gravy famously put it, “serve breakfast in bed for 400,000.”
It was a revival meeting. The spirit of the times danced with the timeless. In cinematic communion, we were living the dream.
In that dream, martyred union organizer Joe Hill appeared on Joan Baez’s breath and encouraged us to organize. In that dream, bomber death planes turned into butterflies. With irreverent reverence, Country Joe McDonald took the pulpit and yelled, “Give me an F,” and we did just that—with a roar! When Joe Cocker proclaimed “I get by with a little help from my friends,” we knew it was gospel. We rocked. We rolled. We laughed. We cried. Then, as dawn emerged, Jimi Hendrix captured the fury and anguish of the war that raged halfway round the world. His “Star-Spangled Banner” became our national anthem. J oni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” became our “Rock of Ages.”
We’d been to the mountaintop. We were about to change the world. Or so we thought.
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Flash forward, twenty-five years. The times they were a-changing—and not in the direction that Bob Dylan had prophesied. By 1994, the pendulum had swung hard to the right. Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich and the Republicans were about to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since the Eisenhower Administration, and then take aim at the New Deal.
The town of Woodstock was abuzz with international press covering Woodstock ’94, the twenty-fifth anniversary concert in neighboring Saugerties, New York, as I circled in for a landing that summer. (Most didn’t realize that neither town is anywhere near Yasgur’s farm, a full hour and a half to the south.) When I was invited to drag my guitar, banjo, and harmonicas to perform at the free Rainbow Family-infused, twenty-fifth-anniversary reunion at the original site on Yasgur’s farm, I jumped at the chance. It was my pilgrimage to Mecca.
Spurning Woodstock Ventures’ event, people started arriving at Yasgur’s farm on Monday to begin an occupation that lasted for ten days. Thousands of people had already arrived and campfires were glowing on the hillside by the time I got there on the evening of Thursday, August 11. A small stage had been built, and there was music in the air.
Melanie Safka, whose performance at Woodstock in 1969 catapulted her to a successful music career, was on stage proclaiming “Woodstock is a state of mind. You certainly can’t own it.” Everyone there understood. I could see it in people’s faces. The dove had again descended. We were on sacred ground.
And, of course, it rained. There was mud. And, once again, the show went on.
The crowd, including some who had now fled the chaos of Woodstock ’94, swelled to more than 45,000 by the time Arlo Guthrie walked onto the main stage that had been erected by Saturday night, to preach to the choir. “We’ve made this a sacred spot. I don’t mean just a physical spot. I mean a spot, a place in your hearts that will remain sacred forever.”
With two stages now in play, the event featured nearly round-the-clock music. Mountain. Canned Heat. Sha Na Na. Burning Spear. Soul Asylum. Familiar names, old and new, joined local bands and folk singers as the music oscillated from stage to stage. Richie Havens appeared at midnight on Sunday to reprise his legendary rendition of “Freedom.” After an inspired set, he welcomed Country Joe to close the evening on the main stage. Once again, the crowd exuberantly gave him an “F,” and sang along.
It was déjà vu all over again.
And now, another twenty-five years have zoomed by. Like its predecessor fifty years ago, the anniversary concert planned for August 16-18, 2019, known as Woodstock 50, is facing serious obstacles. The site chosen for the event has canceled its agreement, and funders seem to be slipping away. If it happens at all, it will likely be greatly scaled back. A competing event, planned at the original Woodstock site, now owned by the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, has been scaled back.
But it doesn’t matter. Those who claim the “unseen hand of God” moves through the capitalist marketplace will do what they do. Yet, like the Diggers, a seventeenth-century radical Christian sect in England that occupied the land, lived communally, and rejected the authority of landlords, church, and state in the cauldron of an emerging capitalism, a whole bunch of us (with or without the assistance of LSD) believe we saw the hand of God back in those days—and it was flashing a peace sign.
At the risk of seeming ridiculous, I believe it still is.
The dream of breaking free from the oppression of systems built on exploitation to create a peaceful world, a world built on kindness, compassion, cooperation, and community, is timeless. It lives in our heart of hearts, emerging from something wiser and grander than we can comprehend. It’s the same dream that inspired Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and countless others. In that dream, love saves the day.
It just may take a little longer than we had thought.
Originally published in The Progressive, August/September 2019.
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