If there’s one musical event that unequivocally symbolizes the Sixties, it’s the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, held on the Yasgur farm in Bethel Woods. For us teenagers in the 1970’s there was always a lingering suspicion that we’d been born too late; that we’d missed out on something important, a time that might not happen again during our lifespan. I was too young to go to the original festival but I remember listening to the Woodstock album with my neighbor on his turntable over and over until we had memorized the words to every single song on it.
When I travel to a historical place, I like to pick the person I feel will best enhance my experience, either because of their attitude, their knowledge of the location, or their interest in learning more about it. My college friend Carla was the obvious choice here. A flower child at heart, she knows so much about that time and even lived in the real Woodstock, NY when she was a teenager. We booked a “rustic” Airbnb in nearby Monticello and let the revels begin!
Music played a huge part in that decade, be it freedom songs, folk ballads, or rock and roll anthems. It seemed fitting to begin our weekend with a live concert in the beautiful amphitheater at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. That night’s performance featured five bands. What I liked best about hearing a variety of acts in one evening was that it felt like a mini-version of the Woodstock festival; all were stylistically diverse and had varying levels of talent and expertise. The first band we saw was Beach Tower at the Horizon Stage where emerging artists are showcased. Next up was American singer-songwriter Will Anderson, followed by 80’s jam band Blues Traveler. Grammy Award nominee, Jewel (who even yodeled for us!), and headliner act-Train. Just like on that same hill in 1969! And, in a similar spirit of collaboration, Pat Monahan invited both Jewel and John Popper to join him on some of the band’s numbers.
Saturday, we took a tour of the museum which is not only a worthwhile stop for the Boomer generation, anyone will find it interesting and meaningful. I loved that our guide had been a festival attendee at age nineteen! He not only provided details about Woodstock, he also shared stories and anecdotes, some of which Carla and I had never heard before. Like when Abbie Hoffman tried to storm the stage to make a speech during one of The Who’s numbers and Pete Townsend promptly knocked him back off with a swing of his guitar. Or how Richie Havens was asked to perform first when he showed up on time by helicopter, while the rest of the lineup was stuck in traffic. He had to perform a second set for the same reason and ended up adlibbing one of his best songs Freedom because he had run out of other material! And that Max Yasgar was not a hippie himself but a conservative dairy farmer who dared to risk the ire of his neighbors to prove to the world that “…half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music.”
Musicians came from near and far, working together to put on a once in a lifetime harmonious event. For me, highlights of the three films shown in the exhibit section included the sixteen-year-old drummer’s spellbinding solo when Carlos Santana’s band played, Grace Slick’s early morning rock serenade, Joe Cocker’s stirring rendition of the Beatles “I Get by with a Little Help from My Friends”, and Jimi Hendrix’s personal, political, and absolutely unforgettable rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Woodstock meant something different to everyone. Young people were thrilled about the chance to hang out with other kids and hear amazing music all weekend. Their parents, concerned about rampant drug use and a lack of supervision and structure, were not quite as ecstatic. Professional musicians and their bands were enthusiastic about having a chance to perform live for the fans who bought their records and, for some, their appearance at Woodstock either launched or cemented their artistic careers. And area residents were unhappy and resentful about the hordes of adolescents descending on their bucolic landscape.
One of the reasons this particular festival had such an impact on so many might be due to the adverse conditions it occurred under (thunderstorms, lack of food). Challenging shared experiences can forge a bond with others that never fades and such is the case with Woodstock. For two days I overheard men and women, now in their seventies or eighties, reminiscing and sharing stories about the rare and special occasion they felt lucky to be a part of.
My weekend jaunt was entertaining but I also found it incredibly healing to be reminded that Americans have been through tough times before and come out the other side still standing. After living through the chaos of the last two years I felt a compulsion to reconnect with a time when citizens were also feeling bombarded by violence on a daily basis, betrayed, angry, uncertain about the future, and just plain scared about the direction our country seemed to be heading in. Visiting Woodstock was a timely reminder that when we work with others instead of against them, practice kindness instead of cruelty, and value peace over polarization, we have a much better chance of overcoming things like racism, political strife, and across the board inequities.
So, why not spend a weekend in 2022 trying to recapture, rekindle, and reconnect with some of that original Woodstock vibe? Sometimes looking back is the best way to move forward!