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Taking Stock of Woodstock, 40 Years Later

The legendary music festival created a shared moment that today’s young people will recognize


— Photo by Burk Uzzle/Courtesy Laurence Miller Gallery, New York

Students in an arts journalism class I taught last fall at the State University of New York in New Paltz wistfully expressed their desire to attend a festival in what they viewed as a more innocent, "low-tech" time--when cellphones and Jumbotrons were nonexistent, tickets were cheap and you could see a band for the first time without experiencing it beforehand on YouTube or MySpace. These 20-year-olds loved watching the Woodstock documentary, and my guess is that many of them will join boomers in picking up the new and lavish boxed DVD and CD sets available that celebrate the sights and sounds of that extraordinary weekend.

But what of Woodstock's "deeper" meaning? Does it have one? As Michael and I finished writing the book, Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States. The next day friends e-mailed videos of impromptu revelry shot with iPhones on the streets of New York, with the added soundtrack of Jimi Hendrix performing the "Star Spangled Banner"at Woodstock. Then in January, during the inauguration festivities, I was struck by the op-ed pieces and newspaper headlines that compared what was happening in our nation's capital to the gathering at Max Yasgur's farm. It seems the phrase "Woodstock nation," originally coined by Abbie Hoffman to describe the counterculture, has in the 21st century been transformed to the more inclusive "Woodstock moment." That's a worthwhile legacy.

Whenever people spontaneously and jubilantly congregate, as when the Berlin Wall fell and on the night Obama was elected, the community created will keep the idea of Woodstock alive. And chances are good that--perhaps when the stars align and we least expect it--a Woodstock moment will surprise us again.

Holly George-Warren is the editor of the forthcoming The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: The First 25 Years.

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