The Woodstock I never knew

A moment when the veil of the everyday world was drawn back, Woodstock revealed what its attendees hoped the world could be.

AP/File
Young people begin leaving the grounds of the Woodstock music festival after spending a rainy night on Aug. 16, 1969. Stephen Humphries’ cover story illustrates how Woodstock was more than just a three-day music festival.

As editor, I know that The Christian Science Monitor should change the way I see the world. I just never expected that to be true about Woodstock.

This summer is the 50th anniversary of the legendary music festival in upstate New York, and in this week’s cover story, staff writer Stephen Humphries looks at its legacy. The story he tells is one that I had never imagined.

As someone born after Woodstock took place, I knew my thought of the event was undoubtedly colored by caricature and myth. I imagined a lot of mud, a lot of music, and a lot of stuff not at all appropriate for discussion in a family newspaper. And those things certainly did happen. But in reading Stephen’s story, I caught a first glimpse of something else that happened, too. And more to the point, I caught a glimpse of something that was arguably more important, because it is why, 50 years later, we are still even talking about Woodstock.

The reason Woodstock endures is that, for those who attended and many others, it was a moment when the veil of the everyday world was drawn back, revealing what they hoped the world could be. Put another way, a massive, experimental, pop-up kibbutz tested a fundamental question: Can a gathering the size of Tulsa, Oklahoma, actually live peace and love – not just as a slogan, but as a palpable part of their minute-by-minute being – for three days? And the answer for so many of them was not just “yes,” but “yes” in a way so deep that the impression was indelible, like a stamp on the heart.

Hundreds of thousands of people who felt cast off from society, mocked for their idealism, and criticized for their misgivings about the Vietnam War felt suddenly consequential. And their ideals glowed in the practical ways people treated one another, even amid conditions unacceptable for a refugee camp. 

You need to read only the first few paragraphs of Stephen’s story to catch that spirit.

In reporting the story, Stephen came across a group of young people visiting Woodstock earlier this year. They were dumbfounded at the sense of mutual purpose that pulsated through the event. Today, “when you go to music festivals, you stay in one group,” Stephen said they told him. “You don’t engage in that communal sense.”

At Woodstock, people connected to something larger than themselves amid the music.

Anniversary stories can often be tired journalism, rehashing well-worn tropes to reinforce cultural myths. But they can also reach back into history to reveal the freshness and newness of thought that has stirred every generation. And that refreshes us today, too.

The story of Woodstock tells us something about the nature of the stories we tell ourselves. Woodstock absolutely can be a paean to the hedonism of the “me” generation. But it can also be a parable of how, for three days, a generation touched its best self, and how that glimmer has never entirely disappeared. 

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