Jonathan Klate: The glory and failed promise of Woodstock

  • In this Aug. 15, 1969 file photo, concert goers attend the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival held on a 600-acre pasture in the Catskill Mountains near White Lake in Bethel, N.Y. The famous concert poster with a bird perched on a guitar neck advertised “three days of peace and music,” spanning from Aug. 15-17. AP

  • In this Aug. 15, 1969 file photo, concert goers abandon their trucks, cars and buses as thousands try to reach the Woodstock Music and Art Festival at White Lake in Bethel, N.Y. Anonymous

Published: 8/13/2019 8:00:16 PM

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 an’ get my soul free

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the iconic “Woodstock Aquarian Exposition” promising “3 days of peace and music,” and pretty well delivering on that promise.

There, along with the multitude, I was amazed, enthralled, and sometimes miserable. Try sleeping on a sheet of plywood under the oatmeal table at the Hog Farm in flooding rains, then shedding your wretched clothing in the morning to bathe in a cow pond, the muddy bottom already churned by a hundred other naked plungers, emerging filmed with sludge and out of options other than shrugging it off and wandering back over to the vast concert field to meld again into the placid horde and let the music wash over you.

The energy animating this one-off happening was a proliferation of psychedelic-infused consciousness that was at once benign, transcendental and naive, with a playfulness of spirit and youthful delight that was and is repressed in the dominant society.

The music that brought us together reached for and redefined freedom.

What is freedom? “Well to begin with,” said Nina Simone, “It is the absence of fear.”

Another dimension of true freedom is unpredictability, delighting celebrants of love and anarchy and frightening proponents of conformity and routine order. The spontaneously unfolding extravaganza of those three days was impelled by a ubiquitous ethic of peace and commonality.

Well maybe it’s just the time of year

Or maybe it’s the time of man

I don’t know who l am

But you know life is for learning

Learning. Rather than a landmark event from which the greater society might distill positively transformative lessons, the forces of fearful reaction would immediately reassert themselves.

The utterly unnecessary horrors of the Vietnam War had not yet troubled the mainstream. Napalming south-Asian children threatened neither complacency nor profits. But many recoiled in disgust from a peaceful enclave of exuberant and sometimes naked hippies in the thrall of musical celebration.

Today we see those who suppose themselves the champions of freedom, devolved by fear, advocating the proliferation of deadly weaponry, supposing this, rather than cultivation of benevolent consciousness, will yield safety. Whatever toting loaded guns achieves, absence of fear is not it.

Their idea of freedom is an intimidating swagger down the baby clothes aisle of a department store, loaded machine guns slung around their hollow chests. Their political progenitors recoiled in revulsion at men and women bathing peacefully in a country pond, relaxed in their nakedness, minds ebullient with music.

They claim to hate terrorism as the enemy of freedom when what actually terrifies them is, in the ultimate irony, freedom itself, of body, mind, and spirit.

There were no police at Woodstock, and no fear or crime

Imagine a gathering of a half million open carry advocates, each packing loaded guns, camping out for a few days literally on top of one another, with little water, no bathing facilities, scant food, and booze flowing as freely as cannabis and psychedelics were on Yasgur’s farm. Think you’d have no crime, no assaults, generous sharing of space and shelter, food and intoxicants, and songs of peace and inclusiveness wafting up to the heavens?

A fear-based society is the opposite of a free one, a paradox that is dooming us. A tolerance-based society emanates from a radically different quality of consciousness of which the fear mongers cannot conceive.

I don’t want to make that island of euphoria in the summer of ’69 out to have been better than it was, like some angelic utopia. Above all, our reach exceeded our grasp. Glimpsing heaven is not the same as residing there. Three days of peace and music does not a manifesto make or a benevolent society yield.

But it was wonderful in ways that are utterly beyond the imagination of the fear-driven crowd, and that seems all the more amazing in hindsight when we look and weep at our world today, armed to the teeth, blinded by suspicion, reviling those perceived as “other,” and in many quarters writhing in brutal agony.

We must not blame the regression only on reactionaries. We must look also to ourselves, at our deficit of love and courage to cultivate and sustain our vision, insomuch as we even had one.

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

*Song lyrics all by Joni Mitchell

Jonathan Klate lives in Amherst and writes about spirituality, ideology, and the relationship between these two.

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