Saturday, August 15, 2009

Happy 40th Anniversary, Woodstock Nation!

It’s hard to believe forty years have past since I was there. Yep, I’m one of those aging hippies who attended. Actually, I was fifteen years old, and my eighteen-year-old cousin offered to let me tag along with her group of friends if my parents approved.

Now, before you begin to wonder about my parents’ judgment – let alone sanity – in letting a fifteen-year-old go to such an event, you have to realize a few things.

One, we lived about an hour away from Sullivan County, New York and had relatives scattered throughout the area. In fact, it was the heart of the Catskills, long a Jewish resort area and we were familiar with all the Borscht Belt hotels there. So, my mother’s first thought was that if an emergency came up, an aunt or uncle could get to me in fifteen minutes, and they could be there in an hour. In other words, for us, it was a local event.

But the most important thing to remember is that nobody ever dreamed this three-day concert would turn into the enormous event we now refer to as Woodstock, with kids flocking to it from across the nation in numbers that nobody thought possible. Indeed, when Walter Cronkite was alive, he related the story that he let his own teenage daughter attend, also never suspecting what it would become. And when he flipped on his own TV, he had the same astounded and fearful reaction that my parents had, “Omgod,what have we done!”

Nevertheless, many years later, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic for that three-day festival, especially after reading this write up in today’s Washington Post. The reporter captures one of the things that made Woodstock so special – the harmony, love, and caring that all of its participants felt. Amazingly, over a three day period, a group of half a million young people got together, many indulging in both drugs and alcohol (beer and wine were among the mildest substances present) and nobody picked a fight with anybody else. It was remarkably violence free. I couldn’t imagine something like that happening today. In fact, every attempt to recreate Woodstock, from the Altamont Free Rock Concert, in Northern California in December of 1969, to a recreation of Woodstock in New York State in 1999, has been marred by some violence. Indeed, at Altamont, occurring later the same year as Woodstock, somebody was murdered by a Hell’s Angel serving as a security guard (whose bright idea was that?).

Although most writers and historians penning stories about Woodstock focus on the unique harmony and peacefulness of the event, there is something even more astounding about this three-day concert that many have forgotten. If you are a fan of irony, I promise you are going to love this.

The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in 1969 almost didn’t happen. Without the intervention of a local conservative Republican, it never would have occurred. I'll get to that part in a moment.

Further, it didn't even happen in Woodstock either. It was originally scheduled for Wallkill, a town to the east of Bethel, where the festival finally ended up. Wallkill was close to Woodstock, NY, which had always been an artist colony and had attracted a community of folk singers and rock musicians in the sixties. Janis Joplin lived there. So did Bob Dylan for a while. But the Wallkill town zoning board turned down the four promoters’ application for the concert. They were ready to cancel the event when a prosperous and conservative farmer, Max Yasgur, offered his farm in Sullivan County.
Yasgur, the conservative Republican, caught a lot of flak from his neighbors but he stood his ground. In fact, here is his son’s recollection:
"He said, 'You don't like these kids because of the way they look, because of the way they dress,' " said Sam Yasgur, who was 27 at the time. He said his father told the detractors, "Tens of thousands of soldiers died so they have the right to do what they're doing."

"During the festival, it was intense," Sam Yasgur recalled. "There were threats. There were neighbors who couldn't get out and milk their cows. Their fields were being chewed up by cars, their crops were being destroyed." But he said when his father was invited onstage, he surveyed that huge sea of people and defended their right to be there.
And for me, that should be Woodstock’s enduring legacy, every bit as much as the love and peace, and the drugs and hedonism. It was a time when a conservative Republican from a small town stood up for a group of hippies whose lifestyle he wouldn’t dream of emulating. Max Yasgur stood his ground for individual freedom and mutual respect despite all odds. That makes Woodstock very relevant to today and the future.

Woodstock proved that Americans of all political stripes can get along and stand up for each other's rights. All that's needed is the commitment to mutual respect and a love of liberty that Max Yasgur displayed.


Mike@Blueweeds said...

Karen - Great post. Liberal minds must think alike ... I also posted about Max Yasgur. I had no idea you were actually at Woodstock. Very interesting.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Thanks Mike! Yeah, my big secret is out - I'm an old hippie :)