Monday, August 17, 2009

The Baptism of Woodstock Nation

On the third day of Woodstock, Sunday, Aug. 17, 1969, the weather turned wet after Joe Cocker opened things up with a nine–song set that concluded with his rendition of the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends."

A thunderstorm interrupted things for several hours. The performances resumed around 6 p.m. with Country Joe McDonald. The closing acts had to be pushed back to Monday morning.

But Sunday, Aug. 17, 1969, had some remarkable performers — Ten Years After, the Band, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Johnny Winter (with his brother Edgar Winter), Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Perhaps that day, more than the other days of the Woodstock Festival, held the answer to Todd Leopold's question at"What is it about Woodstock?"

Correctly, Leopold observes that, even though there were many festivals in 1969, no other festival became synonymous in the public mind with an entire generation. Woodstock retains that status 40 years later, and I suspect it will always be remembered as the defining moment of the "peace and love generation."

At some point on that August weekend, those hundreds of thousands of people became more than a bunch of folks who were gathered in a field to listen to popular musicians of the day. They became "Woodstock Nation," in many ways as mythical and temporary a place as Peter Pan's Neverland.

I think the thunderstorm that Sunday afternoon brought everyone together. It was like a shared baptism. Without it, Woodstock might well have been like all the other music festivals of the time. But it seemed to me, when I saw the movie of the event years later, and even today, when I see clips from the concert, that playing and dancing in the rain and the mud, even though no music could be heard, had a cleansing effect.

Not everyone felt that way. Mark Hosenball writes in Newsweek that Woodstock was "a massive, teeming, squalid mess."

"If you like colossal traffic jams, torrential rain, reeking portable johns, barely edible food, and sprawling, disorganized crowds, then you would have found Woodstock a treat," he recalls. "For those of us who saw those things as a hassle, good music did not necessarily offset the discomfort."

I'm inclined to think that was a minority opinion. I'm sure there were some at Woodstock who were appalled by the conditions. Hosenball acknowledges that he "concluded that the crowd had grown too big for the venue" and "decided to check out." He reports that he "grabbed a one–way bus that the promoters had organized for would–be refugees, and on a rural highway several miles away from the stage, I hitched a ride from a carful of disappointed concertgoers."

But that was thinking that was more in keeping with the attitudes of the "squares" against whom many in the younger generation rebelled. Their elders were slaves to their creature comforts while Woodstock Nation was awash in a sense of innocence that, perhaps, was lost when four young people were gunned down at Kent State nine months later.

Well, even the boys of Neverland had to grow up eventually. And so did the residents of Woodstock Nation. Most of them are now in their late 50s or early 60s. Many married, had children and assumed adult responsibilities.

But for a single weekend in August, all that could remain in the unpredictable future. Most of the residents of Woodstock Nation were united in their desire for peace and their love for the music of their times.

And on that wet Sunday, at least, that was enough.