Could Woodstock Happen Again?

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the summer of 1969, which for most people is a “so what?” sort of thing, but to anyone who lived back then or (like me) obsesses about “The 60s” period of American history, it’s a big deal. They don’t make years like 1969 any more.

40 years ago this summer, a lot of big things happened. The Who released Tommy and Hurricane Camille killed 250 people in Mississippi and Louisiana. Star Trek aired its final episode and three American astronauts landed on the moon for the first time. The Manson family murdered 8 innocent people and Ted Kennedy (RIP) received a two-month suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of a fatal drowning accident in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts.

But the biggest thing (well, aside from putting a man on the moon) happened at the end of the summer, in White Lake, NY. On August 15-18, nearly 500,000 people gathered on a massive dairy farm for “three days of peace and music.” It was Woodstock: the music festival of all music festivals and the era-defining high water mark of the iconic 60s.

Last week I saw the new Ang Lee film, Taking Woodstock, and wrote a review for Christianity Today. Inspired by the film, I spent much of my weekend watching the 4-hour Woodstock director’s cut DVD—the 1970-released definitive documentary film about the legendary event. If you haven’t seen it, SEE IT. In terms of capturing a moment in time and a particular “spirit of the era,” there are hardly any better documentaries out there.

It just blows my mind to watch this and realize the magnitude of it—to see half a million young people pouring into this middle-of-nowhere farm for an event that was about the music, yes (Hendrix, Baez, Joplin, Cocker, Sly and the Family Stone, etc), but mostly about the scene. The moment. The drugs and freedom and peace and camaraderie. It was the climax of all things “counterculture” and an unparalleled expression of generational solidarity. The hippies were there, along with the SDS activists, the bra-burners, gay activists, yippies, performance artists, yoga gurus, shaman, Vietnam vets, suburban straights and everyone in between. How amazing that one event like Woodstock could mobilize such a wide swath of American youth and galvanize them in their rebellion and idealism?

Could anything like that bring together a crowd of 500,000 young people today? I sincerely doubt it.

The thing about Woodstock is that it was literally the culmination of decades of cultural change and political foment, a sort of final consequence/celebration of all that had been building and bubbling up as the relatively new youth culture came into its own and established itself in opposition to the dominant hegemonies and systems of accepted technocratic order.

When Jimi Hendrix performed his iconic electric guitar rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to the rapt throngs of muddied young Americans at Woodstock, it was the apotheosis of so much. In that moment was George Washington, Davy Crockett, manifest destiny, JFK, the GI Bill, Bob Dylan, “I have a dream,” Montgomery, Berkeley, Nixon, Hiroshima, Hanoi, Chicago ’68, Ozzie and Harriet, and Huckleberry Finn. It was the youth, adolescence, and future of an entire generation.

These youngsters had been born after the war and had grown up in the idyllic Howdy Doody era of optimism, consumerism and capitalistic excess. And like their Beatnik forbears, they were convinced that there was more to life than bureaucratic clones, Levittown suburbs and white picket fence perfection. They resonated with Ginsburg when he wrote:

Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch
whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch
whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch
whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen!
Moloch whose name is the Mind!

They resonated with Kerouac when he wrote, in On the Road:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…

As Theodore Roszak describes in The Making of a Counter Culture, the driving force of the youth culture’s rebellion in the 60s was a rejection of the “technocracy” that had come to define America in the post-war era—the massive bureaucracy that was ruled by experts who deified technology, rationalism, and science and trusted in mechanization and specialization to solve the world’s problems. In contradistinction to this, the young, emerging counterculture in the 60s was increasingly characterized by an elevation of the personal, subjective and experiential rather than the broad, objective or ideological.

Channeling countercultural pioneers like Emerson and Thoreau, and feeding upon current European Marxist and existentialist thought, the 60s hipsters were convinced that the impersonal technocratic regime was waging war on human joy, on the preciousness of life and consciousness. True to the eternal hipster spirit, the emphasis was on the individual, on private and personal experience. It was less about class-consciousness than it was about “consciousness consciousness”

It was a generational rebellion, the mobilization of a youth culture that was larger and more prosperous and better educated than any American generation prior. And the world was spinning out of control in the 60s, which galvanized these restless youth in their revolt. People were getting assassinated right and left (John F. and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X), the Vietnam War was increasingly unpopular, the fight for civil rights was at a tipping point, there were riots and protests all over the world, rock music was being born, and so on and so forth.

There was a lot going on, and, importantly, it was all coinciding with the heyday of mass culture. The news of the world was now everywhere, the trends proliferated, the horrors unshielded from the public eye. And it was all on a limited number of media channels. Everyone saw and experienced the same stuff. This made it possible for so many people of the same age to be on the same cultural and spiritual page. They’d all grown up in the same Campbell’s soup post-war America. They were all equally nervous about Vietnam.

These days, there is still a lot going on, but by now we are used to a constant barrage of shocking news and earth-shattering events. Nothing riles us up anymore. Plus, there are far too many channels with which to receive information. Everyone gets a different story. Our music and cultural tastes are infinitely more disparate than that of our parents’ generation. Everything about culture is personal and fragmented rather than public and cohesive. Aside from the YouTube viral video of the week, nothing is really shared anymore.

Something like Woodstock simply could not happen. 500,000 young people in this era would never be able to agree on a motivating cause, let alone a lineup of bands.

But that’s okay. It’s not like Woodstock changed much of anything anyway. Its lasting importance is mainly that of an American cultural artifact—a nostalgic celebration of a revolution that nearly happened but didn’t. That, and an amazing 4-hour concert DVD.

10 responses to “Could Woodstock Happen Again?

  1. Pingback: Could Woodstock Happen Again? | youtube trends

  2. Surely only two astronauts landed on the moon in 69?

    Also, my impression has always been that another event in 1969 promised that Woodstock would never again occur: Altamont.

  3. Whoa…where did those 40 years go! It really does seem like yesterday. The energy of that time was…so positive and loving. It was everywhere I went in 1969. We were happy all the time whether we were high or not.
    What do we do now…just sit back and “Retire” or do we finish what we started in the 60’s? I say we get on with it.
    We want an end to greed and selfishness and especially the attitude of profit over people..where did THAT idea come from?
    We want peace not just the absence of war but a perpetual state of cooperation among people for the mutual benefit of all. Violence is never allowed to be a solution for ANY situation.
    We are smart enough to develop renewable energy sources using the sun, wind, water and geothermal, feed everyone of the planet and provide health care for all. It’s time to provided these basic human needs.
    In 2009 Woodstock is the perfect concept to germinate those ideals from 60’s in the soil of the 21st century and digital age and fertilize them with the ideas of the progressive-thinking youth of today.
    And of course there will be a lot of great music!
    Spread the word. Join

    Peace, love, music, one world,

  4. I saw the Woodstock movie a few weeks ago, and what stuck out for me was the great sense of community. Half a million people gathered together, and there were no fights or arrests. The neighbors and army even pitched in to make sure all the kids were fed and received medical care. To me, Woodstock was about what could be.

    Of course it was back to reality after the show ended.

  5. My first glimpse into Woodstock was in 1996 when I rented and watched the VHS copy of the Woodstock film, the second intro was earlier this year when I viewed the director’s cut that you refer to here. On both occasions, I’m blown away by the magnitude as you are. I’m a little surprised by a comment you made towards the end, the last paragraph probably sums it up the best, but right before that you mentioned “…nothing is really shared anymore.”

    and then,

    “Something like Woodstock simply could not happen. 500,000 young people in this era would never be able to agree on a motivating cause”

    That phrase made me stop and rethink the whole article again. Are we really that deep into a generation that has no common thread to align us?

    What events, circumstances do we need to draw this generation together? Do we need our own London Fire of 1666 in this generation to set our hearts to the one truth that will still require a common unity, that every knee will bow and every tongue confess…He is Lord.

    Lord have Grace, lest our own, lest my own, individual plan separates us, separates me, from your common thread of Lordship over all.

  6. “When Jimi Hendrix performed his iconic electric guitar rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to the rapt throngs of muddied young Americans at Woodstock, it was the apotheosis of so much.”

    Throngs? It’s interesting that crowd-shots during Hendrix show nobody there. Virtually everyone had gone home. Wonder why they left?

  7. To me, the important question about Woodstock is what sort of legacy does it really have?

    Did that kind of galvanizing, generational optimisim actually have any real affect? I’m not convinced that it did, beyond convincing our parents’ generation that sex wasn’t really a big deal.

  8. John- There were still 40,000 people left when Hendrix closed the festival. A huge number by most concerts’ standards.
    Said Michael Lang (the concert’s producer) of “The Star Spangled Banner”: “…it talked about everything that had been going on in all of our lives for the last decade.”

  9. Surely Obama’s post-election celebration in Grant Park was nearly the closest thing we will see to Woodstock for a very, very long time.

  10. Many may question (and rightly so) since they weren’t caught up in the frenzy of the late 60’s, whether Woodstock held great significance.
    It did. It was a manifestation of the mood and feeling of a nation.
    It held significance mainly because it was so spontaneous and overwhelming.
    For those who lived through it, it marked a time of mass rebellion and doubt of the “system” they lived in. Any searching…constant searching.
    Can it happen again? No. It’s not supposed to. And yet, it is the responsibility of this generation to stand up and create their own Woodstock. There are MANY issues more pressing today then in 1969 that are not being confronted. Forty years ago, a generation made a stand…collectively. Now, that same confrontation with the system is waiting to happen. But it may happen in some other significant way. Time is waiting. Courage is needed. History is waiting to happen. Make it happen guys!

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