After graduating from Bowling Green State University in June of 1969, I hitchhiked across northeastern Canada and New England for a month. By this time I had hitched over a couple of thousand miles, seeing the world beyond my home state of Ohio. I returned to the town of Bowling Green in August to finish the summer before heading off to California to attend a seminary. Within a few days of being back, Tom Hine, who was about to graduate and was wrapping up his stint as the editor of our college newspaper, handed me a flyer promoting a big outdoor concert in rural New York State. I put it down, saying I couldn’t afford the twenty dollar admittance fee, since it was more than the total of what I had spent on the road.
Tom smiled, waved a press pass in front of me, and said I could go with him for free. He had secured a 1967 Pontiac from a friend. He was going along with his girlfriend, Elise Grimm, and Fred Zackel, who wrote a column that justly and humorously punctured the self–important egos of college students. So, I joined them, and we headed east to witness the dawning of the Age of Aquarius at Woodstock.
Late Thursday evening we found ourselves driving slowly down a narrow, one-lane road clogged with cars snaking through the rolling countryside toward the concert site somewhere in a wooded landscape that was punctured by pastures of grazing land and tilled fields. We crawled along at five miles an hour until we came to a standstill, still nowhere near where this supposed concert was to be held. The sun had set and we were tired, so we pulled the car over to the side of the road to sleep. We would finish our journey the next morning.
I left Tom and the others behind in the car to scout around, checking out encampments that had just sprung up in the nightfall in the stands of trees and broad meadows alongside the road. Spotting an unadorned canvass tent about the size of a two-car garage, I poked my head inside. Not a person around, just the smiling face of Chairman Mao plastered on the front page of some revolutionary newspapers piled in endless stacks spread out across the tent. From my previous rounds of visiting a dozen campuses that year, I knew who they belonged to; perhaps not the specific name of the group, there were many sprouting up at the time pledging allegiance to the chairman, but I knew their slogans and thinking. They would be dedicated to a strict adherence to work for the toiling masses and would avoid any unnecessary pleasures that might steer them off that course. In other words they were not a fun loving crowd to hang with.
But here were mounds of evidence that acolytes of the one true way to salvation had found their way into the midst of what was to be an orgy of love, music and drugs. Surrounded by hundreds of thousands of half-naked, young bodies swaying and chanting to music over a three-day weekend, how could they possibly hope to sit down and form collective study groups to discuss how liberalism was the enemy of the people and how overthrowing Capitalism should be their calling.
I don’t think they had much success. I never witnessed any study sessions. But that night I was grateful for their optimism, because Mao did provide me with a nice bed. I curled up on a pile of their papers and slept peacefully until morning when I rejoined the others to continue our journey.
We slowly crept beside an endless stream of college kids drifting down the bucolic country road. Waving our press pass out the window, we were able to cut to the front of the line and park a hundred yards from a huge wooden stage under construction at the bottom of a grand semicircular sloping meadow. Two seven- story-high wooden towers, mounted by the biggest outdoor speakers I had ever seen, flanked the platform.
Construction workers, or rather kids in jeans, were frantically erecting a fence that stretched from both sides of the stage. It looked fragile among the sea of bodies pouring over the ridge and down the vast grassy slope from all directions. I felt as if Moses had freed his people from the boredom of Ohio, and other such places, and led them to a promised land of endless music and entertainment.
As the day wore on, the fence continued to reach out, but not as fast as the crowd grew. I sat on the ridge musing how this frail demarcation between free access and paid admission was going to encircle the ever-expanding population, like a pair of arms trying to encircle an expanding balloon. By the afternoon, some anonymous voice boomed cheerfully over the sound system, just hours before the concert began, “It’s now a free concert!” Oh yeah, I thought, as if they had a choice.
Richie Havens, one of my favorite folk singers, who never reached the prominence he should have, opened the concert strumming his guitar. Alone on this huge stage, he sang the playful tune, “With a Little Help from my Friends.” This is what it is all about, I thought—creating a kaleidoscope of people coming together and celebrating life. For me, this great gathering brought a sense of freedom from life’s chores and an invitation to just relax for a time and imagine a better future, without the Vietnam War and racism. The Woodstock Nation of peace and love had been born.
However, it was a birth without much advance planning. It seemed most of us had left home with only the vaguest idea of what we would do upon our arrival. Bringing provisions or sleeping bags was an afterthought. I ran into one girl from BGSU who found herself there after simply being asked by a car idling outside her dorm if she knew of anyone who wanted to go to a concert. Grabbing her purse and camera from her room, she jumped in the car, and after an eight-hour drive down Route 6, found herself at the Woodstock festival.
Friday night, Tom and Elise slept in the front seat of the Pontiac, Zackel and I traded off between the backseat and the trunk, or slept under the open skies, when it wasn’t raining. We brought nothing to eat, not even a sandwich. What were we thinking?
Apparently, the concert promoters weren’t thinking either, since they provided only a paltry number of food booths. With so few food venues, many of us had to scavenge for food among the other concertgoers. After spending hours doing just that, I rejoined our camp after nightfall, carrying a watermelon, a gift from some generous hippies. We ended our first day eating watermelon and listening to folksinger Joan Baez singing about labor activist Joe Hill.
Saturday morning brought heavy humidity, warm rain, and oozing mud. Decorum, if it ever applied to this group, soon washed away. Strangers were hugging, sharing food and joints, and to my surprise, feeling free enough to shed their clothes in public. Standing in front of me in an open field a young college couple calmly took off their t-shirts and pulled their jeans down, then plunged into a muddy pond, joining other naked bodies. I thought about joining the fun, but lacking a towel and being doggedly practical, I took a pass, not wanting to spend the rest of the day filmed with mud.
In a cluster of a half million young people, I thought I’d run into at least a dozen folks I knew, but I didn’t, except for Louise Conn, a fellow BGSU graduate and our student council chaplain who read Winnie the Pooh at the council meetings. After I had been elected the student body president, I politely converted the position of chaplain to one of poet, I figured that the position was intended to lift everyone’s spirits, regardless of their faith. And being a public university, no God could claim sole authority over it.
I assumed I’d never see Louise after graduation. But, there we were, carefree, happy, and sharing a joint, high above the stage on the ridge behind the largest mass of bodies I’ve ever seen. Canned Heat came up and started playing "Goin' up the Country." Its strong driving beat filled the air like a mad piper's tune. In response, the entire Aquarian tribe before us, stood up and began dancing. Louise grabbed my hand and said we had to go down and stand next to the stage. As Canned Heat played on, we descended the knoll, dancing and twirling around gyrating bodies. Unfortunately, in the frenzy, my sandals fell off and Louise's hand slipped away. I searched for my sandals in the torrent of jumping legs, flying arms, swaying torsos, all spinning to the beat of "On the Road Again." Miraculously found I the sandals, but I never saw Louise again.
Despite the apparent chaos of the gathering, an implicit bond of celebration kept folks in a cooperative mood. That day, the Cultural Revolution’s music drowned out calls for a political revolution. Yet, Woodstock itself was the most successful political expression of the sixties, It wasn't a protest against anything in particular. Rather, it was a shout out against the status quo by celebrating a culture of peace, a message attracting more people than any single prior rally.
The media assumed that a gathering of hundreds of thousands of youths smoking cannabis, dropping acid, and going naked, couldn't lead to anything good. There was only one New York Times reporter at Woodstock. He later told another writer how his editors wanted him to emphasize how the event was teetering on a social catastrophe and to downplay the level of cooperation among the thousands of strangers who for three days gathered with no formal supervision. The whole time I was there, I never saw a single police officer.
In contrast, in December of that same year, a similar huge, outdoor concert held at Altamont, California did not have the same peaceful outcome. Street- hardened Hell’s Angels provided assistance and security, unlike Woodstock, where hippies led by a free spirited character called Wavy Gravy provided security. Free flowing alcohol fueled multiple fistfights and a homicide at Altamont. Clearly, just bringing youth together around music did not result in a blissful event.
At Woodstock there was a shared set of values reflected in its promotional material and setting. Unlike Altamont’s rock and roll concert in a racetrack, Woodstock was advertised as "Three Days of Peace and Music” in the countryside. There were a few drug overdoses and three deaths, one from drugs and two others from accidents. However, given that half a million people came together for a weekend with minimal infrastructure and police presence, it was a miracle there were so few incidents. I like to think that Woodstock was the embodiment of the peace and love ethos that permeated the sixties.
The Woodstock books and movies, magazine articles, and academic reflections would all come later; but for those three days in the summer of 1969, it felt as if youth shared a belief that they could both enjoy and change the world; social justice at home and abroad was important, and doing something about it was possible. Afterwards, all we had to do was sustain that feeling, for the rest of our lives.
Nick Licata is the a former Seattle City Council Member, Founding Board Chair of Local Progress & author of Becoming A Citizen Activist. He can be reached at www.becomingacitizenactivist.