Woodstock

From the Pastor’s Study – 8/18/19

I recall an old Frank and Ernest comic strip depicting the two title characters in Scottish Glengarry hats and kilts standing next to a sign reading, “This way to Loch Ness.” As a tiny lizard crawls by, one says to the other, “Aye Laddie, the tale grows with the telling.”

And so it goes. Stories and recollections do often change with time and telling. Friday morning, as I prepared to leave for my office at the church, I noticed that my wife had the television on. She was looking for a weather forecast and some news headlines. The story I saw being featured was a celebration (and I use that word quite deliberately) of the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock. For the few who do not know, Woodstock was an outdoor rock music festival held on a farm in southern New York State in August, 1969. Nearly 400,000 attended this event. (Millions more claim they were there.) Woodstock is remembered as more than a concert. It was in some ways a snapshot of the 1960’s counter-cultural movement.

An old proverb says, the winners get to write the history. The purveyors of the Hippie culture of the late 60’s and early 70 evidently won because their version of what was billed as “a Three Day Aquarian Exposition of Peace and Music” prevails. The mythology of Woodstock is that it was a positive social and cultural event that promoted greater love and understanding, and even helped bring an end to the Viet Nam War. And for those in attendance, as they say, a great time was had by all.

What is also celebrated is the music. Many notable musicians performed. Included was Jimi Hendrix who famously performed a four-minute-long distorted version of the National Anthem on his Fender Stratocaster that is recalled as an early Colin Kaepernick-style protest. Sadly, Hendrix died one year later from a drug overdose.

Janis Joplin interacted with the crowd in between numbers, asking if everyone was stoned. According to witnesses and her own biographer, at the time she herself was. She joined “the 27 club” two years later, dying from a poisonous mix of heroin and alcohol.

The press of the day reported Woodstock less favorably than the later legend. A New York Daily News headline read “Hippies Mired in a Sea of Mud.” An article in The New York Times editorial page called the event “Nightmare in the Catskills.” During the event, thousands crowded medical tents seeking relief from dehydration, hunger, and bad effects from drug abuse. The hunger issue was accentuated by twelve of sixteen food stands being burned to the ground by protesters angry that venders were charging money for food. A recent PBS documentary notes that during a rainstorm, an exposed power cable could easily have electrocuted the thousands in attendance. Three young people did die at Woodstock. When the festival ended the field was covered with hundreds of broken tents, blankets, trash, and human waste. Shortly after Woodstock, the local municipality passed an ordinance designed to prevent similar festivals from occurring.

In spite of all the fond nostalgia, only a minority of the so-called “Woodstock generation” embraced the values of 60’s counter-cultural movement. The actual legacy of Woodstock is the promotion of sexual licentiousness in the name of “free love,” widespread use of narcotics as recreation, and the idea that someone else should pay the bill and clean up the mess.

An effort to put together a fiftieth anniversary Woodstock festival in southern New York State was cancelled a few months ago. Too bad all the media celebration of the 1969 event was not cancelled as well.