We long for change. We are uneasy in the prickles of our dissatisfaction. We are confused by the wild complexity of this world around us. We live in chaos and in chaotic times. We strive for simple moments of comfort and understanding.
Yet “we” feels elusive, almost impossible. “We” are not defined well as a plural, because if anything, we now live in either the first-person singular (“I”) but mostly in the second-person (“You”).
“You” don’t understand. “You” don’t care. “You” are a menace. “You” are ruining this country.
“We” need a moment.
Like 50 years ago this week. In a matter of days, we’ll celebrate the anniversary of Woodstock, an event that not only shaped a nation and a generation, but became a symbol of a time that has come to be envied across the planet.
Over a 10-day period that August, hundreds of thousands of young people journeyed to Bethel, New York, and under rainy skies helped give birth to the legend of counterculture paradise at Woodstock.
It was a true coming together. “We” knew all the bands, all their songs: Johnny Winter, Santana, John Sebastian and Country Joe, Richie Havens, Joe Cocker, The Who, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Band, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and, of course, Jimi Hendrix.
If “we” weren’t there with those half-million young Americans that August weekend, “we” wish we could have been (and more than a few of us claimed we had been when we hadn’t). Or, over time, we have desperately made plans, or pinned hopes, that someone would organize another Woodstock-like festival, wishing beyond all stars and their courses it, too, could be aligned to recreate that same magic.
A special on PBS’ “The American Experience” this week suggests Woodstock “cast a spell of freedom” that made us more confident about the direction “we” wanted to take. That has a loud ring of truth to it. There have been scores of commentators from foreign nations, many of them adults who acknowledged they had been, at that time, fed up with force-fed ideology and the shabbiness of life somewhere far, far away from upstate New York, and who dreamed of a free world.
Young people everywhere needed Woodstock.
At home, we needed the jump start we got from Woodstock. The times, they really were a-changing. There was the Vietnam War, a string of assassinations of American leaders, tensions about segregation, and seismic pushes for social change.
At that pivotal moment in 1969, Woodstock provided a powerful image of a united America, an antidote.
Some might argue that Woodstock was the moment rock ‘n’ roll lost its innocence. But many music historians (and even a few regular historians) suggest it was the moment that messages within the raucous music became the coalescing anthems for a struggling nation. It was a step toward a rebuilding, a change in attitude.
As one music historian noted recently, “Our role models were never just entertainers; they were generals in the ‘Army of Rock,’ in a battle for a better future.”
We need a Woodstock today, an event of significance that will redefine the unity of “we.” But as organizers have proven over the last year, you can’t force lightning to strike twice. Such an event needs to be powerful and spontaneous, and innocent — not booked well in advance.
Today, the world looks to America and sees a nation devoid of the chemistry that once made Woodstock so unique. The mixology of our problems has worsened: we are more divided by race and class; social injustice hangs over us along with the large, dark clouds of intolerance, ignorance and a lack of compassion. “We” are far apart.
Woodstock defined our freedom in 1969; 50 years later, we are seeing just how fragile that freedom has become. We need the complexity of our situation today to once again be a thing that helps unite us.
Hidden in the liner notes, there is a nondescript blurb from Erick Blackstead, the producer of the three-record album for Woodstock. It reads: “The recording of the music at Woodstock was a challenge of unprecedented scope and complexity requiring a level of endurance from both man and machine previously unheard of in location recording. The music and sounds in this album were selected from 64 reels of 8-track tape recorded over a period of three and a half days in three continuous 18 hour sessions. Technical flaws, resulting from equipment failure as well as human overload are inevitable in a venture of this size. Just as inevitably, some of them occur in the material included in this album. Consider them like the scars in fine leather, proof in the origin and authenticity of the material in which they are found.”
“We” need a Woodstock, no matter how hard it is or how flawed it turns out. An anthem for “our” tomorrow awaits.