It took me forty years and two months to get to Woodstock. The power of the place is undeniable all of these years later! Woodstock, the site of the 1969 world-shaking concert, is forty-three miles from the locale originally selected for what would be called “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music.” The final place chosen for the concert happened because of the happenstance of weather more than through the careful planning of the four organizers who brought the festival to fruition. Max Yasgur had had a poor hay crop during the rainy spring-summer of 1969, and he needed to recoup that loss for the operation of his dairy farm in Bethel, New York in the southernmost part of the Catskill Mountain region of upstate New York. The good luck of finding Yasgur followed several disappointments as local communities in the Catskills rejected hosting the concert. Generational differences were palpable in those days, due primarily to the coming of age of the 60’s generation: the baby boomers.
What was Yasgur’s farm, sold off in 1971 when Max Yasgur retired from the dairy business, is breathtaking! I had spent part of the summer of 1971 in nearby Swan Lake, but the sheer beauty of the natural bowl formed by the sloping land where the concert took place is almost indescribable. The landform making up the “bowl” itself is reminiscent of the ancient outdoor theaters of Greece still standing on the Peloponnesian Peninsula. But what made the concert site so spectacular is the surrounding and distant hills of the southern Catskills. On the unseasonably cold early-fall day when I arrived, the site was bordered by the rolling orange-fired hills that have made this place a magnet to generations of weary New Yorkers and others seeking temporary solace in nature and an escape from city life. If a small piece of nirvana can be found, then this is one of them.
In 1969 I worked at a summer camp for special needs children located in Waterford, Connecticut, nearly 200 miles from where the concert was held. Though I wanted to attend the concert, as did masses of young people from that era, the dictates of earning some money just after graduating from college was the deciding factor in keeping me away from the historic event. The camp had only a few television sets in the dormitories housing girls and the young women who were their counselors, while the male counselors were housed with young boys in cabins devoid of any technology. I would only learn about the concert from pictures in both Newsweek and Time magazines. The riveting photographs from the concert were of the masses of kids skinny-dipping in nearby Filippini Pond that made a backdrop to the concert stage that was placed in its most logical location at the base of the hills that formed the natural acoustical setting for the three days of music that had been planned (actually four days counting Monday morning August 18) by the festival’s organizers.
Back to generational differences and the concert. By the time Woodstock was staged, tens of thousands of protesters had agitated against the Vietnam War. I was one of them, having become stridently antiwar during the 1967-68 academic year when a group of students formed Providence College Students for Peace in Providence, Rhode Island. Since the campus was quite conservative, the college peace group had its own intergenerational problems and differences to deal with with the school’s administration. ROTC was also a significant presence on campus. I had been in the ROTC brigade during my freshman and sophomore years at PC. Many of my friends would go on to deployments in Vietnam following graduation.
Despite the differences between generations and perceptions of what constituted patriotism, the antiwar movement had had a significant effect on the perceptions of the war by the late 1960s. Television did the rest. Many people in the U.S. were horrified at the sight of TV reporting with a nightly dose of U.S. soldiers igniting the huts of Vietnamese civilians and documenting children being set on fire with napalm. However, as senator and 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern confidently stated, many in the U.S. would not tolerate open and vociferous dissent to the war while U.S. troops remained in harm’s way, no matter what truth was lacking in Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s justification for the unpopular war.
Just eight months following Woodstock, the Kent State and Jackson State massacres occurred. At Kent State, on May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen would kill four students and wound nine, one of whom was paralyzed. At Jackson State in Mississippi, on May 15, two were killed and twelve wounded. These students were killed and seriously injured for the crime of protesting the Vietnam War. In Ohio, Governor James A. Rhodes, with the tacit support of Richard Nixon, created an atmosphere in which open and aggressive hostility towards protesters was encouraged.
Today, so distant from those events, stands The Museum At Bethel Woods (opened in 2008) and a nearby open-air concert venue. Though many justifiably protested the commercialization of the Woodstock site, the exhibition at the museum is quite good, highlighting the history leading up to the 1969 concert, the concert itself, and its impact on the society in later years. I found only one minor error in the museum’s documenting of the history of the 60’s era having to do with the number of protesters who actually took a stand against the Vietnam War and risked imprisonment or exile (the museum’s estimate was far too low). The museum’s film and audio archives, presented within the larger exhibit, are riveting. Whether inside or outside of the museum, the incredible effect of finally being at Woodstock is undeniable: the crowd of 500,000—its colorful dress, the music venue, the massive rain and lightning storms that turned the farmland into a muddy swamp, and the spectacular natural beauty of the place.
Perhaps Max Yasgur’s words are the most memorable as he addressed the crowd of 500,000 from the concert stage in August 1969:
I’m a farmer, I don’t know how to speak to twenty people at one time, let alone a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something to the world — not only to the Town of Bethel, or Sullivan County, New York State: you’ve proven something to the world. This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place. We have had no idea that there would be this size group, and because of that you’ve had quite a few inconveniences as far as water, food, and so forth. Your producers have done a mammoth job to see that you’re taken care of… they’d enjoy a vote of thanks. But above that, the important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids — and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you are — a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I God Bless You for it!1
Just before exiting the museum into the nondescript museum store is the section of exhibits documenting the enduring power of the event, titled “The Impact Of Woodstock & The Sixties.” I found the words of Woodstock concertgoer Joe Coakley worth pondering, emblazoned in large letters slightly above eye level on wall…“I miss the spirit of that whole period of time.” Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell never made it to the concert, but wrote the prophetic words to the song “Woodstock:” “And we’ve got to get ourselves…Back to the garden.” I don’t think it will ever happen again, although I wish it would!
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be reached through his website howielisnoff.com.
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