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Tuesday, September 4. 2018
I was only 7 at the time. I remember it as 'an event'. At the time, I remember some vague political commentary surrounding it, I was too young to really care. The only thing I was aware of was visiting my cousins in the nearby town where they lived, and thinking the dirty hippies were scary.
Several years ago, I moved closer to the empty nest phase of life, having dropped my second son off at Syracuse (followed in dad's footsteps) for his freshman year. I had fun regaling him with my past life experiences. It was a period of time when past lives were looming. Mrs. Bulldog and I had been married 22 years, and only 2 had been sans children. That's a big gap, and if you've had kids you know what I'm talking about.
A former co-worker, who had been unemployed at that time, landed a job that started in September. He asked if I wanted to take a trip up to Bethel and see the Woodstock museum. I asked my wife if she had any interest, she didn't, so I signed on with him and one other former co-worker to take in some cultural history. Another bit of a past life.
The Bethel Wood Center for the Arts has done a first-class job of preparing the space, the information, and the delivery. The museum is well designed with top notch features, lots of research, and great cultural links. The staff is well-informed (though I think at times a bit too idealistic and ideological) and happy to help.
Many readers may have better memories of what the US was like at the time, and what it had gone through. As I mentioned, I was only seven years old and couldn't really get a feel for what Woodstock represented at that time. Thankfully, I love history and had a good idea of what had gone on during the 1950s and 1960s. Understanding those decades is critical as the lifestyles of the 1950's, and the events of the 1960's form a backdrop. The US was in a position of hegemony and stability in the developed world. Life was good, the economy was healthy, but there were threats from nuclear conflict, communism, and a space race was taking place with ideological opponents. We'd only just landed a man on the moon to claim a major victory, but we were struggling against a presumably much weaker enemy in Vietnam (at least that's what we were being told). As much as the US was a dominating force, a stable and powerful nation, cracks in our veneer of invincibility were appearing. What were the expectations the crowd which would attend? Peace, love, music, art. Pretty simply, escape from reality of the times. Being only seven years old at the time, I had minimal ability understanding this. My primary link was two-fold. Cousins who actually lived in the real town of Woodstock (where the event was originally supposed to take place), and the music which eventually formed the foundation of my musical library.
Over the years, I'd watched documentaries about Vietnam, listened to stories of relatives who were actually there, met people who were both at Woodstock or "at Woodstock" (since more people attended than actually were there). I had no idea that as much as I'd seen leading up to a visit to Bethel Woods, there was so much more. The museum provides short movies, radio clips, books, albums and a host of pre-1969 paraphernalia, leading to a 30 minute documentary and 3 rooms of gear from Woodstock itself.
The museum is work. Enjoyable work, parts make you smile, laugh, or even wistful, but it is work nonetheless. Going outside, being on the field, walking the grounds, that's where the action happened. There is a karmic feeling. I mentioned to one friend it was not unlike the scene in Patton when he is revisiting a battlefield, knowing what happened and reliving it. It's also a realization that it was an event which is unlikely to ever be matched.
Woodstock was, in many ways, a turning point. For some like Duke Devlin, a young man from Amarillo Texas in 1969, who came up for the festival and never left, it was a defining moment. Duke is now a 'site interpreter', sitting by the field when we arrived, with his car and its "Yasgur69" New York license plate. Duke is personable, funny, and knows quite a bit about the event having been in attendance and making it the defining moment of his life. He is the unofficial spokesperson of the Bethel Arts Center, both because he says he is, and because he's a central character in the documentary at the museum. He enjoyed himself so much and it meant so much to him he made a life in Bethel, NY.
From my own perspective (and that of many others), it was the point at which Baby Boomers crossed over from young and carefree existence to one of responsible adulthood. It was supposed to be a simple series of concerts, fun, engaging. It turned into so much more. What started as a carefree excursion for many became a major effort to remain healthy.
Unlike many other large festivals of the time which were marred with tragic events, Woodstock was relatively calm and peaceful. Despite having 2 deaths (tragedy in itself, though the deaths were accidental in nature), Woodstock is primarily known for its relative calm. It almost wasn't. As food ran short, the crowd turned on the first time caterers, accusing them of price gouging and eventually burning down some of the concessions.
What ultimately kept the peace was the care of local citizens and, ultimately, the National Guard. Local farms and residents provided as much food as they could. The Hog Farm Collective, led by Wavy Gravy, purchased as much available food at local farms as they could, and provided granola to the massed attendees. However, by far the most important factor was the governor declaring Sullivan County a disaster area and having the National Guard fly in food, water, and medical assistance. Many histories of the event try to focus on the attendees helping each other. Certainly they did. But the desire of these people to show the world how peace and love could rule the day ultimately relied on a bailout from the US Government, provided by the National Guard. The attendees biggest asset was not getting in the way of the real help which outsiders provided.
In some ways, today's bailout culture can also be traced to the Woodstock generation. The old adage "20% of the people do 80% of the work" would best apply. Certainly the attendees were well-meaning, many well-behaved, all were there for a good time of peace, love, and music. Yet many were simply there because it had become free. The vast majority were, for lack of a better term, freeloaders who took advantage of a situation which had gotten beyond the control of the first-time promoters.
It is largely forgotten that Woodstock meant to make money for its investors and eventually fund the creation of a recording studio in the area. The investor/promoters were not able to make money from ticket sales, but they were smart enough to have movie cameras running both on the performers and within the crowd. Ultimately, the rights to the movie were sold by the promoters for $100,000 to Warner Brothers. The promoters were just trying to make ends meet.
The movie went on to earn well over $100 million worldwide and earned an Academy Award for best documentary for Warner Brothers.
In a twist of fate, Alan Gerry, owner of Cablevision Industries, eventually sold his company to Time Warner. He used a portion of his earnings from the sale to build the current Bethel Arts Center. In essence, Warner Brothers twice played savior to Woodstock and its place in cultural history. It was the drive of capitalism which created the event, the desire for profits which made the movie and album a huge success allowing this touchstone moment to live on, and the self-interest of capital which allowed it to be memorialized by saving the field and creating the non-profit, privately funded museum. Warner Brothers, or some form of it, is the gatekeeper to what is felt, by many, to be the cultural moment in which peace and love overcame the crass inhumanity of capitalism.
As I mentioned, the guides are idealistic and ideological. As they told this story, and how Woodstock was the "antidote" to capitalist greed, I asked a question. "Without the desire to create a studio, without the music on a best-selling album, without the movie rights, and without the sale of a cable company - all capitalist activities - where would Woodstock be today as an antidote to Capitalism?" I did not receive an answer, just a funny look from the guide.
How odd and ironic that this myth remains so ingrained in the memory of so many people.
However much some people believe it was, Woodstock was NOT a political event. There were some small political statements made by performers. Others who were there, and many who carried the history forward, try to use it as a political statement. There is none to be made. It was a cultural event, and its crowning moment occurred just after The Who finished Pinball Wizard, when Pete Townshend forcibly removed Abbie Hoffman with a "Get the fuck off my fucking stage."
Even today it's not a political event. Perhaps the best summation was by Max Yasgur's wife Mimi who, when asked why she didn't have another Woodstock festival, replied "you can't have another anything."
Max and the promoters had done something unique. It can be imitated, but it can never be recreated. The best we can do is to seek to relive small parts of it, the best parts of it, and remember what it represented. My hours walking the grounds, visiting the museum having a beer at Hector's and talking to locals who attended is as close as I'll ever come to seeing Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon or Janis Joplin perform.
I don't get to ever be one of the many millions who claim they were at Woodstock. Even today, several years after attending, I get to feel what it was like to be there and bathe in the glow of the era it represents. For as much 'bad' as there was in the 1960's, and as much 'bad' as there was at Woodstock itself, there was more good and great behavior which is worth learning from. It takes effort to separate the wheat from the chaff, but it's all there, even if revisionists would like us to believe a Utopian version of what happened. I like to believe the real-life version is a better story, because it's the version from which we gain valuable lessons.
There was peace and love. There was a tremendous amount of caring for others. Those are good stories. The real story, though, is that this was a mess, a completely mismanaged affair which ultimately proved to be a success in spite of many failures, mainly because many people completely outside of the event itself, gave of themselves to the attendees. The attendees, particularly the freeloaders, were in many ways oblivious to the mess they were creating. Out of that mess, however, a highly profitable market was developed. It was the crassness of an attempted socialist utopia which finally had a light shone on it because the greatness of the marketplace put the event itself on a stage. Not judging, just enjoying - to make a buck and have fun doing it.
Posted by Bulldog in The Culture, "Culture," Pop Culture and Recreation at 15:14 | Comments (20) | Trackbacks (0)
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I too was 7 when Woodstock took place but had no consciousness of it at the time, and really didn’t until my 8th grade social studies teacher showed us a film about it.
Incidentally I’m a Syracuse grad, class of ‘84, so we were there at the same time...
Can't say your name rings a bell, but I also graduated in 1984. Newhouse and Maxwell dual major. London Spring 1983. London Grad program June 1984.
I was in the engineering school, but hung out with a number of Newhouse kids. I considered studying abroad, but for some reason the engineering program required a full year at the London School of Economics, and that seemed too long to me.
By the way, lived in Flint, Day, then back to Flint as an RA, then DellPlain (RA as well).
I lived in Brewster freshman year, but in my fraternity on Walnut the remaining 3 years (outside of London).
My son just graduated, and he was in Flint and Dellplain.
Funny story - his freshman dorm room was the EXACT SAME as one of our close friends who entered in 1982. Weird...
That is a funny story about your son's dorm room...what are the odds?
What fraternity were you in?
Delta Tau Delta
We started the Dance Marathon in 1972.
We used to have the "Cupid Run" on the Quad on Valentine's Day (we'd choose one sophomore to run around the Quad and kiss girls and give them paper hearts or flowers)
We won the intramural championships 3 of the 4 years I was there (I played football, soccer, water polo, bowling, floor hockey, volleyball and horseshoes. I only played volleyball and horseshoes well. Played volleyball against Rony Seikaly when he was in his redshirt year - before he played basketball. His team won volleyball that year, obviously).
Very cool. I remember the Cupid Run, and I participated in the Dance Marathon all 4 years - two dancing and the last two as a ref - one of my favorite things at SU.
I didn't play a lot of intramurals, just softball, ultimate frisbee, and basketball. My engineering discipline (Industrial Engr, they dropped it not long after we graduated) was evenly split between Americans and foreigners (we had guys from Turkey, India, and South America), so we played a lot of US vs the World pick-up games - flag football and basketball.
The real story, though, is that this was a mess, a completely mismanaged affair which ultimately proved to be a success in spite of many failures, mainly because many people completely outside of the event itself, gave of themselves to the attendees.
Several of my hometown peers were at Woodstock. One, who was depressed by the affair, spent her Woodstock time drawing feet. Decades later her art work was exhibited in a New York gallery.
As I was 3,000 miles away in Berserkeley, I didn't go to Woodstock. But I did go to Altamont.
I would rather have been at Woodstock than Altamont!
There were surely a variety of opinions of the significance of Woodstock. I think Pete Townsend was right, it was just another concert for him. I think a lot more was made of it than was warranted but I read a book by the organizers and was impressed by their honesty and responsibility. While most of the people there spent a weekend or more being without responsibilities, the organizers vowed to clean up the financial disaster that Woodstock was. They payed back every cent. They deserve respect for that.
It was a terrific gathering of musical talent, and I enjoyed the movie. But the attendees were mostly post-adolescents still used to being on the teat, and still willing, in their childish way, to hold in contempt the social systems that bring food, water, and medical attention to people who can't provide it for themselves. There are people who never get over the idea of Society as Mommy. Good Mommy brings birthday cakes and pins your drawings on the fridge. Bad Mommy makes you do chores and take a raincoat.
I was in college then. some of my buds talked about going (we were in Fla.) then thought, Nah, too far. glad I didn't go then Really glad I didn't go now. did go to Gulfstream Park to see Hendrix, he wouldn't even come out on the stage, there was a very light rain. Mothers came out, Chuck Berry came out, He was the Best.
The first concert I ever went to was Jimi Hendrix/Soft Machine in New Orleans. Hendrix was amazing then. I still like him, but while admitting he was revolutionary, I feel his music was in some way not really music (it's hard to explain). He was a tragic figure like so many of those like him in the late '60s and early '70s.
Your very good question to the guide reminds me of a visit to Plymouth Rock earlier this summer. The ol' codger was telling about how the rock used to fill the entire little area, perhaps twice or three times as large as it presently is. Now locked behind a cage, it seems people would chip away pieces of the rock and take them home. So, naturally, I asked if any pieces ever surface, like on E-Bay, or on grandpa's mantelpiece, or in antique shoppes... The guide looked at me like I was attempting to traffic the historical artifacts from the trunk of my car. In fact, the rest of the tourists all glared as if I had personally insulted the guide and all of American history... I skedaddled, but I'm still looking for a piece of the rock if any y'all know any capitalist artifact thieves... ;-)
Nothing wrong with asking difficult questions. I ask them at the office all the time (really not the right place to do that if you like playing office politics, but I don't).
I did learn that people chipped off pieces of Stonehenge back in the day, and I'm certain you can probably find them if you look. People also carved their names in it, including Christopher Wren!
It does seem, however, that some chips of the rock exist out there (including at the Smithsonian):
During the summer of love my ex and I had just moved to the Bay Area. We had a little baby with us. Both from strong Episcopal backgrounds we were just looking for work and a decent place to live. We had been there since 1966. I had a part time job as bus tour guide. One of those day time around the town tour guide jobs. We did three things on those tours we showed them the Wharf, Knob Hill, the Park, and then all of a sudden we had to take them through the intersection of Haight Ashbury. Me in my nice khaki skirt, blue blazer, powder blue shirt, and cable car navy blue tie. We would take people from all over the world to cruise through and see the "hippies". It was quite a sight then I can tell you. Free sex, drugs, etc. all right there on the street in broad daylight. If only I had known then what I know now I would have stopped voting Democratic in the summer of 1968!
I was a HS freshman the year of Woodstock. Can't say I know much about it other than it gave us the wonderful National Lampoon Lemming's album (never saw the show)
and the preposterous but ever popular "Woodstock" by Joni Mitchell.
I went up there quite a few years ago on a ski trip. Judging by some of the locals we had contact with I'd say a fair number of people took that trip and never left the farm.
"John McCain exasperated conservatives, but he had his moments. I recounted one such during the 2008 campaign, when Hillary called for public funding for the Woodstock museum:
If you're under 70 and have no idea what 'Woodstock' is or why it would require its own museum, ask your grandpa. But McCain began by saying he was sure Mrs. Clinton was right and that it was a major 'cultural and pharmaceutical event.'
Which is a cute line. And McCain wasn't done yet: 'I wasn't there,' he said of the 1969 music festival. 'I was tied up at the time.'"
- Mark Steyn
I know two people who were at Woodstock. One says, "If you say you remember being there, you're lying and never went", and the other still lives it, over and over every year at the local hippy festivals around the tri-state in the summer.
One took the brown acid, and one avoided it, I guess.
Summer of 69, hitchhiked back from California, after spending part of the summer there with family friends, after graduating from high school in Ridgefield, CT. Came home to an empty house, mom, dad and sis away (pre-cell phones, e-mail!) on a trip. Friends asked if I wanted to go to Woodstock, said no, there'll be 50,000 people there- they said what else are you doing, so we got ready. Seven boys, just out of high school, ex Boy Scouts, ten man tent, food, water, camping supplies and we spent Wed night through Sun morning, left right after C,S,N and just as Hendrix was starting. It was a fun time. Glad I went.
I'm from somewhere in the sticks.
We didn't even hear about Woodstock until they made a movie about it.