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It Was Forty Years Ago Today

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Woodstock

Highways and byways clogged with streaming throngs, personnel and equipment “air-vac’d” via helicopter, emergency plans slapped into place.  A scene from disaster movie?  Breaking news of a natural or manmade catastrophe?  Neither.  This was Woodstock, a free (in more ways than one), three-day fete spanning the weekend of August 15th to August 18th, 1969 and celebrating the rock n’ roll, pop rock, and folk-rock music as well as the very spirit of its generation.

 

Held in Sullivan County in upstate New York at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm and surrounding open areas, the event was originally conceived as a business venture, the brainchild of two young, ambitious men joined by two others.  To shorten a long story, this brainchild sprang up practically overnight to give birth to a child of its own that bore little resemblance to its parent.   Attracting nearly half a million attendees exclusive of the thirty-two musical acts that performed that weekend, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, a.k.a. The Woodstock Festival, served as the turning point in the careers of previously obscure talents as well as the catalyst that widened the chasm of the Generation Gap and an experience that enriched those fortunate enough to have been on the scene.  “On the scene” included two infants who made their entrance into the world during the festival, and three souls who quit the earth: two as a result of a drug overdoses, the other the victim of a freak vehicular accident.

 

That historic rainy weekend became a good-natured free-for-all splashing and cavorting merrily in the mud.  A view from the stage revealed a swelling sea of humanity in tie-dyed garb, bathing suits, and birthday suits.  Of both sexes, of all ages (most of them under the dreaded three-decade mark), from different races, cheery either by disposition, the natural camaraderie, or recreational drugs, everyone seemed high on the music.  In a nation torn asunder by racial strife, the conflict in Vietnam, and the assassination of our brightest and best leaders, brave, outspoken music united and healed.  Woodstock’s arena became the actual and symbolic outcry of a generation: a great chorus blending the voices of artists with activists and plain ol’ lovers of great music.

 

With the New York Thruway jammed for miles and scheduled acts stranded in the gridlock, the concert’s organizers pressed first into service the acoustic performers (their equipment was not stuck on the highway or hovering overhead in helicopters).   Richie Havens opened strumming an acoustic guitar and unveiling his gravely-folksy voice, eventually finding himself facing the equivalent of the “dead air monster” that lurks in wait for every radio DJ: he had run out of material.  Confronting a live, music-hungry crowd of half a million, Richie improvised with Freedom, thus keeping the peace until his replacement arrived.  (The incomparable Ray Charles would one day find himself in the same sticky situation.  Flying by the seat of his pants, Brother Ray spontaneously combusted the catchy What’d I Say, which became one of his most memorable songs.)

 

Richie Havens and his mates presented a kaleidoscope of genres and styles, showcasing the talents of established and budding musical luminaries.  These ranged from the great sitar player, Ravi Shankar, discovered by the Beatles during their journey to India, to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s blistering Southern rock political manifestos, to the folk-activist ballads of Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez, to Janis Joplin, a brave Texan who challenged racial bigots in her high school corridors and far beyond, and whose keening pipes channeled old Delta blues men.  John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful was also on hand as a spectator but got shoved up on stage to perform, as did Joe McDonald of Country Joe and the Fish, who was contemplating a solo career and who launched said career, unplanned, as he too was Russian-volunteered as one of the acts.  The gritty poet voice of Bob Dylan was blowin’ in the wind, and Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, and the other members of The Band were hefting The Weight.  Santana, an unknown, tremendous talent, was leaving mouths hanging open and causing tears to flow with their achingly beautiful, bluesy-Latin fusion.  Before exploding onto the scene in the wake of Woodstock, Santana played free of charge in the streets of San Francisco, where that city’s residents dug their sounds, including my own dear cousin who early on pegged Carlos and his fellows as rising stars.

 

The closing act was Jimi Hendrix, an electric guitarist whose hard rock chops and black skin did not mesh well with the myopic suits Stateside.  Hendrix, who went on to set fire to the rock world as well as his famous guitar, only gained the full respect due him professionally after he migrated to England, which was a lot less color blind.

 

Forty years after this musical love-in galvanized a generation of free thinkers, we can track the careers and personal lives of the musicians who jammed during that three-day fest.  What we cannot track so easily are the lives of the latter-day hippies who frolicked in the rain.  What happened to those two children born during Woodstock?  Did they grow up political activists or perhaps attorneys defending the disenfranchised by way of the Legal Aide Society?  Did they grow up musicians, having heard some of the most incredible music of the day in the moment that they first saw sunlight refracted in the raindrops?  Did they mature into aficionados of soul music that knows no color but recognizes a common bond in the human spirit, or do they prefer the commercial drivel that has infested our airwaves for far too long?

 

Are they farmers, having taken their inspiration from the earth that received them as they made their way into the world?  Are they cops or soldiers, driven to maintain law and order and defend the masses in an ironic “up yours” to their anti-military parents?

 

And what became of those parents after Jimi’s last guitar chord lingered on the moist air and the crowd dispersed to go their separate ways?  Did they develop new technologies or medical breakthroughs?  Did they become teachers, social workers, or psychiatrists?  Construction workers, CDL drivers, or marketing mavens?  Did some of them migrate to Israel to live on a kibbutz, work the land, and share their resources with their fellows?  Or did they remain a lot closer to home and join forces in communes?   Did they pull a 180 and bow to The Man?  Did they trade in their sandals and headbands for suits and ties, melting away into office buildings, towing the company line, and buying into the American Dream like the character in Jackson Browne’s chilling song, The Pretender:

 

I’m going to be a happy idiot,
And struggle for the legal tender
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and the soul of the spender.
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy,
Though true love could have been a contender
Are you there?
Say a prayer
For the pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender.

 

If those who attended Woodstock entered the halls of huge corporations, what exactly were their roles there?  Were some of them engineers of the Enron scam or more recently, the $700 billion bilking of American public?  Did they pervert their love of music by signing and robbing new artists blind under the guise of legal sanctions?  Did they fade into the woodwork?

 

Are they living next door to you?  Did they marry your sister or brother?  Do they stare back at you when you gaze into the mirror?  And if so, does the restless, hopeful spirit that once bound your generation still beat in your breast and uplift you and compel you to do the things you do?  Do you remember, to steal a lyric from Steve Winwood, “the bigness and the mud?”  Do your memories of that storied weekend and the tenets unpinning it determine how you vote, how you have raised your children, and the nature of the organizations that you support?  Or are you just slugging away, day after day, like a drone in a hive?   Do you still dream?  And mostly importantly, can you?

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