BETHEL, N.Y. – The grass on the field is soft, and every step down into the bowl suggests that I am walking on pillows. I have seen this old alfalfa meadow hundreds of times – beginning with the film “Woodstock” and its accompanying record album through old newsreels, documentaries, and Hollywood treatments. Those images make the field seem enormous, but as I traverse deeper into the bowl I realize one could walk around the entire perimeter in less than 30 minutes.
Fifty years ago, 400,000 people set up camp in this upstate New York outpost for a weekend that was advertised in a simple poster that portrayed a dove perched on a guitar neck. “3 Days of Peace & Music,” the poster promised. It turned out to be much more than that. Thirty-one groups took to the stage during the weekend – including the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and a little-known band named Santana. The lineup suggested that the torch had been passed. Frank Sinatra and Elvis were not included. Instead, the musicians reflected a culture and ideology of young Americans who could no longer tolerate the status quo.
Woodstock turned out to be a lesson in tolerance and co-existence. America seemed to be convulsing at the time, and a younger generation demanded change. They wanted to end a bloody war that seemingly had no purpose, and was escalating – between 1967 and 1969, 40,042 Americans died in Vietnam. They also insisted that everyone living in America, especially its oppressed and its forgotten, have equal rights. They wanted elected officials to focus on the environment, and the poor, and not judge people by the color of their skin, or the length of their hair, or their clothing, or whom they slept with.
Logistically, the concert should have been a disaster: 50,000 were expected and 400,000 showed up. Yet, in the pop-up hippie community of nearly a half-million, patience and calm largely ruled the day. There were no murders or major violence. It was hardly a perfect weekend: organizers ran out of food, a torrential rainstorm turned the hill into a mudbowl, and two people died — one from a drug overdose, and another in a tractor accident, and many were treated in makeshift hospital tents. Still, it got the attention of Americans who had expected anything but a peaceful weekend. Even Max Yasgur – the farm’s owner, a Jewish Republican – praised the assembled: “The important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids – and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you are – a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I God bless you for it.”
There are three gentle hills that descend from the top of Yasgur’s old farm toward the bottom where the stage once stood. Many years ago the property was purchased by Alan Gerry, a Jewish guy who grew up in nearby Liberty who went on to build one of the largest cable companies in the U.S. (Disclosure: I actually worked for Gerry in the early 1980s during the early, Wild West days of cable, and met him a few times.) Gerry preserved the field, and built a Woodstock museum and concert venue at the top of the property where Santana will play later this evening.
As I walk along the soft hills I realize that I did not come for the music, or for the crowds or for the nostalgia. It is a necessary pilgrimage. I am here to think about the message that came out of this concert. While the media and history has rewritten – and perhaps overblown – the amount of goodwill that occurred here 50 years ago, Woodstock placed its own stake in the ground of change.
The concert did not stop the war, but it did empower youth. For some, the concept of peace and love seemed too much of a simplification of life. Others viewed Woodstock simply as a weekend of self-indulgence. But for youngsters like myself it made a lot of sense. We had yet to overly analyze each decision we would make, and could not understand why war had to be fought or why people were not treated equally.
In 1970, when I was 11, I went to the Surf Theatre in Swampscott and saw the film “Woodstock.” Looking back, it seems pretty tame even for that period. The film offered a different message than Hollywood was used to producing. There was no violence, and there was little that anyone could complain about.
I was not part of the Woodstock Generation, but my friends and I benefitted from our older brothers’ and sisters’ voices. And so, I grew my hair long, picked up a guitar, and often offered up the peace symbol when greeting friends in the 1970s. We didn’t quite grasp it at the time, but many of the social changes that protesters pushed for back then were making their way into mainstream culture by the end of the decade.
There is no music out here on the field now – just wind, and mostly seniors chatting quietly as they make their own discoveries on this emerald meadow. Above, a hawk soars toward the heavens. For the old hippies here, this is their Holy of Holies. I begin to ascend the bowl, and a drop of rain splashes on my face. I do not hurry, and instead look toward the clouds. I know they will pass. Just like they did 50 years ago.