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Friday, August 14, 2009

Woodstock: What Was It Really?

I was older than those who flocked to Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, NY, not far outside the village of Woodstock 40 years ago this weekend. Being just ahead of the baby boomers, I have been observing their behavior all my life, and here was the seminal event for them, a gathering of thousands in a peaceful, chaotic, scary, sexy, drug-enhanced weekend of the music and musicians that resonated to their very souls. I saw ads for the upcoming concert in the New York Times, and thought it seemed like an amazing event.

In those days I loved the protest rock music of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, and the many like them. Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and Joe Cocker were beyond me. I have been a square since before it was cool not to be and I've never quite shaken it. As to music, although there were many performers I would have love to have heard, the venue of a huge outdoor concert didn't appeal to me. (If you don't know what "square" means, that's pretty much it in a nutshell.) I was old enough to think about my creature comforts.

But thousands weren't. They were the boomers--the engaged, the sincere, the aching kids distraught at the prospect of the quicksand of Viet Nam and the injustices they saw all around them in the world of grownups--and they outnumbered my own silent generation by a long shot. Many of them went to Woodstock '69 as innocents just wanting to hear the music and be with their friends and significant others; many returned transformed into to young men and women who would take us all on. We on the outside read news reports and heard on the broadcast media and were impressed and relieved that, despite the lack of facilities or bedrooms, in spite of the rain, mobs, and mud, and even though there was some use of controlled substances, a mood of controlled peace and love prevailed.

That generation wore their hair longer than we did. All the girls bore the same hairstyle--long, parted in the middle and straight as a poker. Now their boyfriends did too, although some of them had curl in their hair and they would not iron it as the girls did. After Woodstock, this "look" was with us for a decade. It was a Woodstock look, a "hippie" look, a defiant look that clashed with any that was different. In a way, it was at least as conformist as the look it seemed to protest.

Woodstock was the crystallization of many things for this country. Because it was about music, primarily, and because much of the music was political, a generation was politicized as none had been before. Many who were not hippies before Woodstock became so after it. All of us had to take notice; the world was upside down and parents were forced to listen to their children. Those who hadn't been to Woodstock behaved as if they had. The upheavals and protests on college campuses took on a different tone, and life in these United States would not be the same.

Was it good? On balance, probably so. What really happened was that the rest of us had to accept the dominance of this generation of post-war babies, like it or not. Now that we've had enough time, I would say I like it. But I'm glad I'm still square.

12 comments:

Leslie said...

There's a whole bunch of Catskills to cross to get from Woodstock to Bethel. It's an interesting drive, too, with tiny towns chock full of vacationing diamond and gold merchants and their families. When we made the pilgimage for the 15 year reunion in 1984 we were amazed by the folks playing tennis, rowing boats, riding bikes and walking in long wool coats and funny looking hats. We could only imagine their amazement in watching the endless stream of VW buses and long haired kids in August of 69. I'm glad I was being a good girl attending freshman orientation at the W but have always thought, "if only" . . .

Hoboken Kid said...

WOODSTOCK remembered...the 1960s, a decade I would soon like to forget. Vietnam, Kent State...THE PROTESTERS. The only good thing was the MUSIC and smoking POT. Woodstock was a mass of confused college kids looking to make love not war but it is they now making war...and have been since 2001....WHEN WILL WE EVER LEARN?

Mary Lois said...

For heaven's sake, Bob. It was just a couple of concerts 40 years ago. We can't blame those kids for all that followed.

steve said...

I heard an interview on NPR this past weekend with a fellow that was on the crew at Woodstock. Evidentally, the gentlemen had been to India before, describing the site as "smelling like Calcutta."

Mary Lois said...

That curry sure has a fragrance that permeates everything, doesn't it?

steve said...

The interview I referenced earlier was with a fellow named Greg Walter, who wrote a book about the event. On his Amazon.com authors blog, he writes "The last time I was there the place smelled like Calcutta."

http://www.amazon.com/gp/blog/post/PLNK3EQ4BMOL0IYYC

Regarding the curry smell, I've never been to India, but I understand it is a truly constant and pervasive aroma. However....I think maybe Mr. Walter was referencing a different kind of stench. You can listen to the 8/15 interview on Bob Edwards website.

Leslie said...

I love the smell of curry! My parents once lived in the Indian district of Murray Hill and the sweet smell of curry masked all the nasty city smells everytime we stepped outside the building!

Bob does have a point, ML - most of my generation copped out and turned even more hawklike and conservative than the parents and politicians we were rebelling against. I've been told that we become more conservative as we age. I think I'm the exception to that rule, as are you.

Hoboken Kid said...

I know it was 40 years ago ..and it was only a concert...but I remember it well. I also remember JIMI HENDRIX. No, he did not cop out to Canada, or run and hide. He served proudly in the army with the 101st Airborne Division. His love of music brought him to Woodstock. He was the only one that played THE NATIONAL ANTHEM...his way of course...but he played it. Not all that attended Woodstock were cop outs. Jimi Hendrix was a fine artist and a great person.

Nan said...

You know, in terms of the women's hair - this was the time when it was finally, finally okay to not curl one's hair, or iron it. I had spent my years doing one or the other and suddenly, happily I began to wash it and leave it. Isn't it just amazing to think that this little tiny action was revolutionary? And I've never looked back. I've never done anything to my hair ever since except have it cut. No styling, no curling, no coloring, no straightening. And I've never plucked my eyebrows. I still feel like a radical when I look around at all the young girls who do such things.
I didn't go to Woodstock. Even at 21 years old, I didn't like camping. I liked my own bed.
I wonder what society and the news will make of the 40th anniversary of Altamont. How everything changed in a few short months.
The whole 'hippie' thing encompassed so much more than the way it is now portrayed in the media. Along with the hair thing I just told you; I became a life-long vegetarian, I live a simple country life, music is ever-present in my life, I am not 'stylish' or materialistic. I was a Kucinich supporter. And I drive a new Beetle. :<)

Mary Lois said...

Nan, I confess: I always thought you and your blog represented the best of the hippies!

Bless your heart!

Sonoita Lady said...

From one square to another:I lived in the Catskills for 2 years, left just before Woodstock, but for me the event was a blip on the evening news. I had one child, another on the way and I was a minister's wife. There was never a question about wishing I were there. I didn't like or understand the music. I grew to like Baez and her ilk, but it took a while. I lag behind cool several beats and always have. But it took a long time to understand that Woodstock had cultural implications. it was the beginning of trying to shock the establishment and it has given birth to new and more aggressive attempts to tell the older generations that they are screwing up the planet, and other such themes. It all seems very tame now since it is much harder to shock us in 2011. Kind of sad!

Mary Lois said...

I guess that's why we are a little nostalgic for the 60s now. It all seems so innocent after what's happened since!