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Did Woodstock really define a generation?

Posted Friday, August 14, 2009, at 1:28 PM

Remember Woodstock?

Big party in the mud on some guy's farm. Somewhere back east. Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll. Forty years ago this weekend.

The legend goes that there were 500,000 people there and that it was all about the 60s generation, all those baby boomers. Peace and love and music.

Some people suggest there were only 200,000 there; others say it was 700,000. Nobody really knows because, as word spread, people simply arrived on the site, at one point shutting down the New York State Thruway.

Which reminds me to say -- the event wasn't really in Woodstock. It was held 40 miles away in Bethel, N.Y., when the original deal in Woodstock fell through.

The party wasn't quite as spontaneous as it might have seemed at the time. The four organizers had been working on the project for at least six months. Two of them were young men with a lot of money, another one was a songwriter and the fourth was manager of an obscure rock band; all of them were in their early 20s.

All that peace and love and music didn't come cheap, by the way -- it cost more than $2 million by the time all the bills were paid.

It wasn't quite as peaceful as some reminiscences would have it. More than 5,000 medical cases were reported to the New York State Health Department, including nearly 800 cases of drug abuse, eight miscarriages, two deaths from drug overdose and one death in a tractor accident.

The legend of Woodstock has grown in the 40 years since 1969. If everyone who said, "I was there" had really been there, it would have had to be a much larger event than it was. And it's been suggested that if you say you were there, you weren't, because if you really were there, you'd have been stoned and unlikely to remember it now.

Maybe, but for those of us who do remember it -- not because we were there, but because we were not -- does it really matter that it happened?

I'm solidly in the Boomer generation, born in early 1946. By the time Woodstock happened, I was already 23 years old and working. My life was centered around keeping my job, making sure I had enough money to live on, paying my bills and looking forward to the future. I wasn't a college graduate then, but still I had a lot of company in the demographic category of young people just starting out.

That same summer, only a few weeks before Woodstock, an American walked on the moon. It was a monumental achievement. I didn't think people dancing in the mud on a pig farm for three days was anywhere close to being an achievement, let alone on the scale of going to the moon and back. I didn't think so then and I don't think so now. It absolutely didn't inspire me to drop everything and head east. To be perfectly frank, I thought it was all a little, well, stupid.

Through the years that followed Woodstock, I thought my opinion on this subject was very much in the minority, and I kept it largely to myself.

And then I read the following quote one morning in the newspaper, many years later:

"Remember, not everyone joined in the counterculture. Not everyone demonstrated, dropped out, took drugs, joined in the sexual revolution or dodged the draft. Not everyone concluded that American society was so bad that it had to be radically remade by social revolution. ... The majority of my generation lived by the credo our parents taught us: We believed in God, in hard work and personal discipline, in our nation's essential goodness, and in the opportunity it promised those willing to work for it. ... Though we knew some changes needed to be made, we did not believe in destroying America to save it."

My unlikely ally was Marilyn Quayle, who included those words in her speech to the Republican National Convention in August 1992.

Early this year, I read "Boom," a book about the baby boom generation by Tom Brokaw, in which a lot of the people Brokaw interviewed expressed a similar point of view.

It's nice to know I have some company. America is not a perfect country, and we are not a perfect people. But we have been a successful country, for the most part, because most of us do believe in hard work and personal discipline and in the many opportunities we can create because of those beliefs.

Maybe Woodstock was fun for whoever was really there. But I'm equally sure that those of us who weren't there have done just fine without the experience.

Author's note: Information about Woodstock was gathered from www.woodstock69.com/wsrprnt8.htm

For a very informative look at generational differences in music in the last 40 years, a survey by the Pew Research Center can be found here: http://pewsocialtrends.org/pubs/739/wood...

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You are right not everybody droped acid and dropped out. I was born in 56 and I looked upon the pictures of the event in the major news magazines of the day and it did not look like much fun to me. I will say that the advertising art of the event was great. The psychodelic art of that my generation was fun. But today I don't own any of that art nor am I fond of it. Today I love the Marshall Muni Band, Marshall Philharmonic, and Community Chorus these are my concerts. I believe that our local music (including Bob James) is great compaired to that mess. I'll take my mud at a spa not the ground I walk upon.

-- Posted by movaldude on Sat, Aug 15, 2009, at 12:07 AM

The only "Woodstock" I remember from '69 was on my M-14, in the 'Nam!

-- Posted by AlphaState on Sun, Aug 16, 2009, at 9:53 AM


What did Wavy Gravy say in the Woodstock movie? "We showed the world how to live." Woodstock was five hundred thousand or so young people getting high and watching some bands. That's about all there was to it. They got high, goofed off, made a mess, and then went home and left a pile of trash for someone else to pick up. A real new world creation.

Somehow, the fact that The New World that was being created was totally dependent on the Old World's sanitary, transportation and economic structures was totally ignored by the media and the "Counter Culture." For the Boomer generation, it hit high gear when Life Magazine sold millions of extra copies each week that featured the Beatles or some youth oriented story on the cover. The Woodstock generation had it rough, though. They were manipulated and slyly, subconsciously coerced, and the world confronting them as they grew out of their 1950's adolescence was frightening as all hell. By the time Woodstock happened they had plenty of fears to confront. Duck and cover. Nuclear war. The Draft. Assassinations. Urban riots. Desire. Despair. Confusion.

Can we blame them for their grasping for meaning? While LBJ got up every morning and had the fun of deciding which Vietnamese targets to bomb (never mind that he had no war expertise), every 18 or 19 year old kid got up and worried about whether he would have to leave home and go to some god forsaken jungle, while others were already waking up in the jungle. Woodstock left its imprint.

-- Posted by Third Child on Sun, Aug 16, 2009, at 1:17 PM

Other events defined the sixties much more than the frolic in the mud. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/opinio...

-- Posted by Oklahoma Reader on Mon, Aug 17, 2009, at 12:34 AM

Great piece Kathy. I enjoyed reading it very much and you brought up a lot of very good points.

-- Posted by news across on Mon, Aug 17, 2009, at 4:03 AM

The late 1960's social watershed, irrespective of any particular event like Woodstock, was truly significant. At Notre Dame, where I went to college, you could SEE it as students filled the Quad during a morning change of classes.

In my senior year there were two easily identifiable groups of students with attitudes to match their hair style and clothes. My class (born in 1945) and the Juniors (1946) had short hair, dressed up for classes, were interested in the sciences and engineering, and 2/3's of us were in ROTC. The Sophomores (born in 1947) and Freshmen (1948) had long hair, dressed down, were interested in how soon ND would go co-ed, and only 1/3 of them were in ROTC (many betting that they could get a 4F classification or praying for a draft lottery and a high number). Looking down the Quad students looked like vinegar and oil. No mixing. Luckily the dorms were segregated by class so fights over social philosophy were largely avoided.

It was a major social chasm. For example, four years later I wound up on top of an Armored Personnel Carrier reading the cease and desist order through a bullhorn to a group of L.A. based anti-war demonstrators that included one guy wearing a well-used ND sweatshirt. He was probably on campus when I was. Now we were foes.

-- Posted by AF Brat on Tue, Aug 18, 2009, at 11:37 AM

In 1969, thing were still ugly in Vietnam and showed few signs of improving in the near term. Forty years later, things are still ugly in Iraq and Afghanistan and showing few signs of improvement in the near term. In 1969, student protests were a daily event. In 2009, the student protesters don't exist. I can point to only one significant difference for students between 1969 and 2009 that might account for this dramatic difference and that it the absence of a military draft.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Tue, Aug 18, 2009, at 3:29 PM

I was 10 when Woodstock happened, but I grew up believing in the Woodstock mystique, not questioning the assertion that it was a watershed event. I mostly liked the music. Still do. But I'm more inclined to agree with Kathy's point that the event meant more as a meme than as an accurate descriptor of a generation.

Kathy pointed out today that Woodstock might have more accurate described my generation than hers. I reckon that's so, and that's a tribute to the power of the meme to influence impressionable young minds. Like mine.

But I got over it.

-- Posted by Eric Crump on Thu, Aug 20, 2009, at 5:34 PM

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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.
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