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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

"Woodstock changed my life!" I've heard that phrase a lot lately--from folks who worked at the storied 1969 festival to musicians who played on its massive 75-foot stage to some of the hundreds of thousands who journeyed to rural Bethel, N.Y., that weekend of Aug. 15-18. I've even heard it from fans--like me--who only experienced it vicariously by watching the Oscar-winning 1970 documentary, Woodstock. The Woodstock Music and Art Fair made massive headlines 40 years ago, and now this summer it has returned once again to our consciousness.

Appearing at bookstores and arts conferences with Michael Lang, one of the festivalss producers with whom I wrote the new book The Road to Woodstock, I get to listen to people pour out their hearts about what the festival means to them. Those who made it to Woodstock get a faraway look, and they reminisce about hearing Richie Havens kick off the weekend on Friday afternoon or being swept away by Sly & the Family Stones funk groove late Saturday night. They remember sharing food or a toke, or laugh about maneuvering the crowded roads on a bicycle or sliding in the mud. For these people, Woodstock means membership in a community of veterans of a once-in-a-lifetime gathering.

Some were about my age that summer of '69--12 or 13 years old--and couldn't travel to Max Yasgur's dairy farm in the Catskill Mountains. Others complain that their parents wouldn't let them go, or that they got stuck in the massive traffic jam that ultimately closed the New York State Thruway for a time. Many who couldn't be there feel solidarity with those who were--and I think we all ache to hear the stories of what we missed. Lang has said, "What means the most to me is the connection to one another felt by all of us who worked on the festival, all those who came to it, and the millions who couldn't be there but were touched by it."

But what does Woodstock mean to the rest of us, those who have listened to the music, watched the film and witnessed the anniversary's proliferation of Woodstock-related merchandise--from limited-edition photographs to beach towels? Rolling Stone, in a 2004 special issue The 50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock & Roll, pointed out that "Woodstock pulled off the ultimate magic act of the 1960s: turning utter rain-soaked chaos into the greatest rock festival ever and the decade's most famous and successful experiment in peace and community." That it happened once gives hope that such events can happen again.

It does seem a miracle now that so many people came together under pretty primitive conditions, deluged by rain and short on food, yet peacefully coexisted. You can also see the beginning of things that today we take for granted: The Hog Farm commune, who helped organize the campgrounds and operate the free kitchens and bad-trip tents, helped introduce yoga and granola to the masses. The biggest political message was for peace, as the Vietnam War continued under President Richard Nixons command, but early environmental activism and animal-rights initiatives were also present at Woodstock.

"We realized we had the numbers," one festival-goer, then 16, told me. The whole world witnessed the youth of America becoming a voice for change; more cynically, marketers latched onto a new demographic that wanted to look and do things differently than the previous generation.

Way before the Internet, the underground press helped to spread the word about the festival and draw people there from all over the country, when it was rare for people to travel thousands of miles to attend a music event. Deadheads (who turned Grateful Dead tours into roving Woodstocks), todays followers of jam bands, and fests like Bonnaroo definitely were inspired by Woodstock.

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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