The August 1969 Woodstock Festival was one of the baby-boomer generation’s iconic events.
Hoping to capitalize on nostalgia for that historic, unforgettable spectacle, enterprising individuals tried mightily to put together a 50th-anniversary commemoration called “Woodstock 50.”
In this case, history couldn’t repeat itself—Woodstock 50 was cancelled. And that’s for the best. The original Woodstock was one of a kind. It was a product of its time—the Vietnam War, psychedelia, flower children, the burgeoning sexual revolution were all facets composing the backdrop for Woodstock. Mankind had set foot on the moon for the first time just a few weeks earlier, and the exhilarating feeling that old limitations were to be thrown off was in the air. Millions of young people were eager to “go where no man has gone before.” That exuberant optimism seems absent today, supplanted by a sullen cynicism.
Attempts to recreate the “vibe” of Woodstock in 2019 were doomed to failure from the start. Woodstock 50 would have been a pale, artificial imitation. So much of the original Woodstock was spontaneous ad-libbing. Nobody had anticipated the mysterious force that magically lured 400,000 young Americans to Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York. The ever-increasing flood of concertgoers and the summer storms that turned the fields into quagmires and wreaked havoc with the concert’s timetable impelled constant improvisation.
No amount of meticulous planning could ever possibly have come close to replicating the kaleidoscope of Woodstock’s irreproducible mixture of surprises.
Woodstock has been mythologized and romanticized to the point where it now enjoys the status of a legend. But let’s get real here: The festival was a memorable, once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, yes, but it wasn’t all happiness and harmony. It had its dark elements. And it gets rather silly when you hear claims that Woodstock’s greatness was that it showed people could live in peace, because nobody attacked anybody. I didn’t go to Woodstock and most of the people I know didn’t either, but we don’t go around attacking people either. Granted, Woodstock was a great concert, but was it one of the great achievements of my generation? Not a chance!
Undeniably, Woodstock’s reputation—three days of drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll—is well deserved. But are those the things a generation wants to be remembered for? Hardly. As human beings, God’s children, and Americans, we are capable of greater and nobler accomplishments than simply skinny-dipping and getting high together. The “Woodstock Nation” turned the great American freedom of self-expression into a false idol of self-indulgence. Living according to mottoes like “do your own thing” and “if it feels good, do it,” might have worked for a fantasy weekend, but they definitely aren’t formulas for a truly great society.
Let’s take a look back at that communal orgy of drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll 50 Augusts ago.
Drug use was rampant at Woodstock. For many, drugs were about the giddiness of youthful experimentation and daring. Thankfully, most of those in attendance were able to move beyond that experimentation and avoid having drugs become a disruptive or destructive force in their lives. Others, sadly, were not so fortunate.
At the festival itself, at least one person died and a number of others required emergency medical care due to drug use. Pete Townshend, the brilliant songwriter and guitarist of The Who, has related that he saw dead bodies and that he was shaken by a powerful sense that America had gone mad. For some of those for whom drug use became problematical or tragic, Woodstock might have been the fateful fork in the road where their lives ran off course.
Sex and nudity were also salient features of Woodstock. Personal anecdote: Last fall, I saw an elementary school classmate for the first time in 56 years. I learned that Sally was one of the nude bathers photographed for Life magazine. Sally regards Woodstock as the best three days of her life. I’m sure thousands of other young, red-blooded Americans there got short-term thrills from playing Adam and Eve (the pre-fruit, guilt-free version) by shedding their clothes and living out sexual fantasies. (Joni Mitchell’s famous song “Woodstock” upgraded Yasgur’s farm with the lyric “we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”)
Woodstock attendees sowed wild oats there, but eventually settled down and formed healthy, monogamous families. However, as with the drug use, there were painful consequences for a minority of the sexual experimenters—both short-term (unwanted pregnancies) and long-term (addiction to “the forbidden fruit” of sexual pleasure that rendered those individuals incapable of forming stable, lasting families). Certainly, the soaring number of broken families due to sexual “liberation” in succeeding years takes some of the glow off the abandonment of traditional morality at Woodstock.
As for rock ’n’ roll, well, there my generation has a winner. Sorry, kids, but nothing being produced today has the originality, inspiration, and power of the Woodstock generation’s music. But even the great music had a downside. It showed how coarse our culture had become in the ’60s.
Romance and demureness were out; lust and raunchiness were in. One memorable occurrence at Woodstock was hearing nearly half a million young people shout out a chorus of F-bombs along with Country Joe and the Fish. That was novel, a guilty pleasure, maybe even cathartic. But would it have been worth reprising this summer, 50 years later? Nah. Today’s rampant vulgarity can trace its lineage to Woodstock, but it long ago became depressingly unoriginal and excruciatingly boring.
One of the great ironies of Woodstock was how some of the young dreamers there smugly considered themselves superior to the “materialistic” society from which they dropped out for three days of self-congratulatory hedonism. It apparently never dawned on them how utterly dependent they were on the goodwill and economic product of the staid, non-dropout, “bourgeois” majority of the population that the Woodstock Nation’s counterculture took for granted.
Who was it that built all the roads and cars that conveyed the festivalgoers to Woodstock? Who grew, transported, and donated the emergency food supplies needed to sustain 400,000 people? What about the medical helpers? Who built the homes and installed the plumbing so that those who slept in the rain and cavorted in the mud for three days could walk away and have a roof over their head and a hot shower to wash the mud out of their hair?
It was the bourgeois values of American society that the counterculture disdained—the real grownups—that made it possible for the entire self-indulgent affair to take place and to have a happy ending for most Woodstock attendees.
The real heroes of Woodstock—the ones we should be remembering 50 years later—were those working at the concert and the much larger number of people who didn’t attend the concert whose heroic efforts to provide sanitation, food, and medical care were all that kept Woodstock from becoming a mass disaster.
Representatives of America’s bourgeois culture literally rescued and saved thousands of representatives of the counterculture. I wonder how many counterculture kids learned to eventually appreciate the practical goodness of the culture they rebelled against. I wonder if they ever learned to be grateful for the bourgeois society that produced so much affluence that hundreds of thousands of people could party in a field with the confidence that they would be taken care of and the knowledge that when the music stopped, they would have comfortable homes to return to.
I don’t know which elements of the original festival would have been reprised at Woodstock 50, and now that it’s been canceled, we’ll never know. It’s just as well. Let Woodstock stand alone in the lore of American cultural history. And let millennials come up with their own unique signature cultural (or countercultural) event. That’s a great opportunity for them, actually. They have the potential to come up with something of more lasting value than Woodstock.
Peace, love, and rock ’n’ roll, everyone.
Mark Hendrickson, an economist, recently retired from the faculty of Grove City College, where he remains a fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith & Freedom.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.