We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion year old carbon
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden
— “Woodstock” (Joni Mitchell)
It’s been said that, “If you can remember the ‘60s, you really weren’t there.” Well, I was there. And I remember.
It was almost 50 years ago, but I remember Woodstock. Vividly. Sitting together in the dark, sharing a joint with friendly strangers, as a fantastic cascade of music from Richie Havens to Jimi Hendrix (not to mention Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and dozens of others) washed over us for hours. No adults in sight, just peace, love, and dope.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I was not actually at Max Yasgur’s upstate dairy farm. I was in my neighborhood movie theatre. I was only 14, underage for this R-rated movie, but having successfully talked myself in without a parent. Still, I felt part of the tribe— surrounded not by five hundred thousand concertgoers who had trekked in for six miles, but by about five hundred students from the nearby Claremont Colleges who had only trekked in for six blocks. No abandoned cars, rain, mud, food shortages, or bad brown acid.
It was many months after the actual festival, but its success, against all odds, had already established it as a cultural watershed. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had already notched a Billboard Top 20 hit with their cover of “Woodstock” as the lead single off their Déjà Vu album.
Joni Mitchell’s song, written only a month after the concert (which she was unable to attend), distilled brilliantly its essential elements in lyrics both poetic and prescient. They sang of getting back to the land, of being “a cog in somethin’ turning” like the great cosmic machine, citizens of a Woodstock “nation” that would grow to be larger and more enduring far beyond the number of those actually in attendance. “Maybe it is just the time of year, or maybe it’s the time of man,” she sang, “I don’t know who l am, but you know life is for learning.”
What is the enduring legacy of the Woodstock Nation, all these decades later? I recently sat down with two authors who pondered that question, 40 years apart, to get their perspective.
In 1979, Rex Weiner and Deanne Stillman published Woodstock Census, a book that basically asked the question, “Where have all the flower children gone?” The two authors developed a survey, an alternative census, that queried about a thousand respondents about their ‘60s experiences—sex, drugs, music, protests, cultural heroes, hairstyles—to try and quantify, somewhat unscientifically, how their attitudes and values had evolved, or remained constant.
“The reason we did Woodstock Census,” Weiner told me, “was that in the mid-seventies, a media trope emerged in which it was kind of an acknowledged truth that people of the ‘60s, whoever they were and whatever they had done, had sold out and become like their parents, and had reintegrated into American society, whatever that was.”
It was easy for editors of the day to assign that kind of story, he said, because the ‘60s were both annoying and even threatening—great to exploit in headlines and cover stories, but difficult for them to cope with or even understand.
“It was a defeatist, cynical, affirmation of the status quo,” Weiner explained, “and reaffirmed the jobs, the position, the life of the older generation that was in charge of the media—whose lives had been disrupted, and wanted to say something about it.” As a sort of rebuttal, he said, “That’s why we wanted to provide numbers and statistics, a numbers-based story that said, ‘not so fast.’”
Author Harlan Lebo recently published 100 Days: How Four Events in 1969 Shaped America. One of them was Woodstock. Against mocking media portrayals of a “hippie mud-fest,” Lebo said, “The vast majority of them didn’t live in communes, the vast majority of them didn’t abuse drugs more than the occasional joint, they were mostly white middle-class kids just challenged by a challenging age, just trying to find their place, and Woodstock for them—and after the movie came out, for the rest of the country—became the milestone moment when it became clear that a substantial part of this country did want things to be different.”
From the vantage point of 1979 and 2019, both books come to similar hopeful conclusions about the Woodstock festival and the Woodstock generation. “It’s the equivalent of, ‘If we can send a man to the moon, we can cure cancer,’” says Lebo. “If we can put 400,000 people in a cow pasture in New York, and they’re peaceful and have a wonderful time over three days, there’s a lot we can shape about the culture of this country, because we can do it, we can get along and work together to make this a better world.”
Forty years after his book was published, I asked Weiner if he thought the ‘60s had won.
“Not in the way that most people would think,” he answered. “It’s not as if we’re all running around in tie-dye and bell-bottoms. I think most people would agree that progress has been made on fronts that have always been beneficial to the American culture, and have been very American: inclusiveness, everybody getting paid the same for the same work, being equal before the law, all of these things that are enshrined in our founding principles.”
Looking ahead in our current cultural and political moment, he added, “It’s not about nostalgia, but to feel inspired by those times, to take lessons from it, and to carry it forward, yes, now’s the time. Now is the time.”
I don’t know how much any of this will resonate with Millennials, who would be today’s Woodstock generation. Clearly, problems remain when our national leadership seems bent on turning the clock back on every imaginable aspect of social progress. But as Lebo notes, “The ‘60s as a concept have long since died, for a good reason—which is that most of the primary issues the counterculture was addressing had moved into the mainstream discussion. The environment, civil rights, rights for women—all those issues had moved away from ‘radical discussion points’ and had become part of mainstream America, and they still are today.”
I’m keeping the faith.