Surely you've noticed all the buzz in the last few weeks about the 50th anniversary of Woodstock (August 15 - 18, 1969). If you had the good fortune (or misfortune, in some cases) to be at that iconic event, you surely have a memory to last a lifetime.
I didn't make it to Woodstock, but I was keenly aware of it. The closest I came to a mini-Woodstock experience was attending a free concert in New York's Central Park. In August 1969, I was a New York University (NYU) student, about to enter my senior year. NYU was a hotbed of radical social protest and anti-war activity; I played a non-violent role as editor of a student satire magazine.
Most of us didn't know it at the time, but Woodstock would come to represent the aspirations of an entire generation. In a recent article for The New York Times, music critic Jon Pareles wrote, "Woodstock was a brief moment that would provide contradictory lessons for generations to come. It was entertainment that felt momentarily rebellious — 'a festival of peace and music' — that posited art as an alternative reality. ...It lived up to that 'peace and music' billing to gather an unexpectedly large, unexpectedly amiable community; it envisioned pleasure as a solution to societal strife, not merely a distraction from it. (That didn’t pan out.)"
Abbie Hoffman, co-founder of the Youth International Party, better known as the "Yippies," famously branded the Boomer generation "Woodstock Nation" in the event's honor, although he may have been projecting his own activism too broadly. The numbers were indeed impressive -- some one million people journeyed to Bethel, New York, where the Woodstock festival took place, and about half a million actually attended the event. However, the impact of Woodstock Nation is harder to define.
One could accurately view Woodstock as the culmination of an era of protest and unrest, largely influenced by young activists. The Sixties and early Seventies included such movements as civil rights, gay rights, women's liberation, environmentalism and anti-war, tinged with the hippie counterculture attributes of "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll." While activists may have had the loudest voices, a segment of our generation preferred to align with the "Silent Majority."
Can we objectively credit Woodstock Nation with bringing about real change? Yes, the era's activists participated in movements that eventually brought about fundamental change, not the least of which was ending the Vietnam War. Still, fifty years after Woodstock, we face many of the same social and global challenges we protested against then. Why couldn't we sustain the vision of Woodstock Nation? It may simply be that our generation had to accept the reality of moving on in life -- earning a living, starting and supporting a family, saving for retirement and, for some, caring for our own parents. In short, we grew up.
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