I came upon a child of god
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ’n roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try and get my soul free
How can you describe the fires of Vesuvius or a sunny day in a Roman market square? History leaves us only pale shadows and dirty windows of the past to peek into. Even with celluloid how can it be described? Many would like to view Woodstock in the context of a rosy-days-gone-by scenario, but for those of you who didn’t grow up in that generation, it was a time of conflict and of friction.
My father’s closet was filled with blue suits, gray suits and brown suits. His shirts were all white and his ties were all thin with muted primary colors. When I went to the barbershop there were three haircuts available, the buzz cut, the crew cut and the “Regular” boy’s hair cut. If you deviated from those three people would ask, “What in the hell is wrong with that boy?”
For girls it wasn’t much different, dresses and nylons, with sensible shoes and a bouffant hairdo. Blue jeans could be worn around the house or while doing housework but never on a date or to a social event. To do so would bring the same question, “What in the world is wrong with that girl?”
This was the pinnacle of American prosperity, and it was believed that with enough white business shirts and blue suits any boy could be a success. It was a time when if a woman was pretty enough and talented enough she could snag herself a husband with a good job who would take care of her and provide a house in the suburbs.
My sister went to law school and my aunt used to brag proudly, “Janice is going to college. She’s going to be a legal secretary, don’t you know!” The very concept of a female lawyer was unfathomable. It was a time locked into laws, myths and stereotypes.
This enforced conformity began to break up with the Civil Rights Movement, the Beat Generation, the folk movement and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. The Civil Rights Movement made white Americans look at the society we proclaimed to be a model for the rest of the world and found that it wasn’t so perfect after all.
The Beats and the folk artists gave us alternative answers to the questions that we once thought were settled. There was Kerouac, Ginsburg, Kesey and Kurt Vonnegut. And who could forget Bob Dylan? This generation lived with the threat of nuclear annihilation and we were trained from elementary school to duck and cover and to stay away from windows. But as we studied about death from above they also told us about American history and all the concepts of Americanism.
I was a child so it was hard for me to reconcile what they told me at school with what I was seeing on the news. Angry mobs of white people cursing and ranting with picket signs by the hundreds trying to stop black children from integrating a public school. When Kennedy issued his executive order banning segregation in public facilities, the city of Montgomery Alabama filled in its public pools and paved them over.
It was a time of high tension, punctuated by the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. There were spectacles unmatched in American annals where people openly wept in the streets. When businesses shut down because they just couldn’t handle being at work right now. It was a time when people mumbled under their breath, “If they can kill the President, what is truly left of our democracy?” The muffled drums, the scenes of black caissons and the widows and their children, left America wounded and unsure.
The two sides became more polarized, with politicians like Ronald Reagan and George Wallace making young people their target of opportunity, claiming hippies to be ungrateful, unappreciative and unwashed. Just political rhetoric but it was rhetoric with clout. In those days trouble with the law could earn you a two-year sentence in the US Army. Where the judge would look down and say, “Son, you can do one year in this here county jail or you can go join the army and maybe make something of yourself.”
Again the clashing of two realities; the greatest generation telling the rising generation what was the correct path to follow. But Vietnam wasn’t Hitler and the Nazis; it was a stinking civil war in the backwaters of Asia to be fought to the death by young American boys because someone in the Pentagon thought that it was a good idea. Where eighteen-year-old boys expelled from high school would soon be wearing the green. When we lived in fear of “We interrupt this program to bring you a special announcement.”
To grow your hair long was a mark of rebellion, and it wasn’t just an angry rebellion but an intellectual rebellion. Conversations were about books and ideas. I carried around “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People” by Lenny Bruce for a month after finishing it in a week. I thought I was cool. I had a small mirror pin of Karl Marx on my blue jean jacket, but a lot of people just thought it was the ZigZag man.
I was hitchhiking one day, yes, you could hitchhike back then, and if you had long hair and blue jeans you were probably cool and other cool people would pick you up and give you a ride because you were us and not them. So, I’m going about five miles to a friend’s house and get picked up by a carload of freaks. They pass me the pipe and ask, “How far you going?” As I explained they said. “We’re going to California, man!”
“Really? Right now? That’s far out!”
“Hey, you want to come with us man? We got plenty of dope but we need some more gas money.”
I tried to explain, while keeping my cool persona, that I didn’t have much cash with me and my clothes were still at the house. Being all of fifteen I thought better of a two thousand-mile road trip and politely passed. They let me out at the red light but it was nice to have been asked. We had landed men on the moon, which made us believe that anything was possible. That emotion was tempered by landing thousands of men in Vietnam and the generational breakdown it fostered.
To the old it appeared as if the world had turned over and had spilled out heresy. To the young it appeared that all the world was new and that your path was not to be dictated to you but left for you to decide, for each to decide. And what was wrong with that?
You could be a vegan or a Buddhist, a pacifist or a Marxist, and that was cool; as the expression went, “It’s your trip, man!” I had a friend in high school that was into martial arts and he broke up the family dinner by announcing that he was going to use his college money to go to Korea and study under the masters. Another was a minister’s son who grew tired of the rules and haircuts. He borrowed his father’s car and made that two thousand-mile trip to California to join a commune. Another went to Vietnam and became a spot on a tree.
So, as we look back lovingly at Woodstock, remember that there was a reason that it was the way it was. There was a rebellion going on that said, “We can be peaceful because you don’t believe we can. And we can assemble 500,000 and be peaceful because we know that you can’t.”
It was a generation raised in nuclear conflict and the Cold War, with assassinations and political and social upheavals. It was a time of great prosperity, when the coin of the realm held value; a time when people began to ask if there wasn’t more than one way and were willing to accept others’ answers. From Richie Havens singing “Freedom” to Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” it was all about freedom.
What began as a counter-culture art and music festival became the highest exponent of what American freedom was supposed to be about. It was an alignment of the stars and a raising of the tribes; a moment in time, inescapable and unfathomable, magical and illusionary. Illusionary in that you didn’t have to have been there to understand it and even today we can feel the vibe through the videos on You Tube. But it is all gone now and what we see and hear are the echoes of the past and the paintings on cave walls. A story about when the sons and daughters of the greatest generation shook the world loose from conventional thinking.
Then they went into investment banking and raided their fathers’ pension plans. They voted for Reagan twice and wore their Vietnam veterans’ patches and waved the flag with patriotic fervor, forgetting who it was that put those patches on their jacket in the first place. They supported the troops with yellow ribbons while they forget about the black ribbons and the spots on trees.
Woodstock was a time when a generation took the weekend off to go up in the country and find their center and found something almost frightening to most humans, Peace.
- By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation
We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
David Glenn Cox is a staff writer for TLR and an award winning writer and musician; he is the author of the novel, The Servants of Pilate.