Karen Breda poses for a photograph in a garden in West Hartford, Conn. Photo: AP
entertainment

Woodstock generation looks back, from varied vantage points

23 Comments
By JENNIFER PELTZ

It was the weekend that shaped the image of a "Woodstock Generation." And that image would echo, appeal and provoke for generations to come.

To many who went or wished they did, the pivotal festival of "peace and music" 50 years ago remains an inspiring moment of counterculture community and youthful freethinking.

"We went for the music and found something so much more, and so much more important — camaraderie," says Karen Breda, who was 17 when she went to Woodstock. She recalls feeling part of "a generation that felt like nothing could stop us. Peace. Love. The whole thing."

Some other Americans saw Woodstock as an outrageous display of indulgence and insouciance in a time of war. And some didn't look to Woodstock to celebrate their own sense of music and identity.

"There was no one baby boomer generation. There was no one approach to what Woodstock meant," says David Farber, a University of Kansas professor of American history. But Woodstock became an "aspirational vision of what countercultural youth thought they could achieve in the United States."

Breda didn't go to Woodstock looking for a societal vision. She was fresh out of high school and liked rock concerts, and the three-day lineup was packed with acts including The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

After lying to her parents about her destination, Breda arrived from Boston to find a mind-boggling mass of people, tents, blankets, pot smoke, patchouli and underpreparedness.

Organizers had sold 186,000 tickets; ultimately an estimated 400,000 people showed up for the festival on farmland in Bethel, New York, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) northwest of New York City.

Space, water and toilets were in short supply. Security was thin. Rain and mud abounded. Breda and her friends slept in their car after getting separated from another vehicle carrying their camping supplies. It was a trek to get near the stage.

But what she remembers most was happening in the crowd — concertgoers meeting each other, sharing what they had, playing guitars together.

At a time of bitter protests over the Vietnam War, Woodstock "seemed to transcend the anger that clearly a lot of people were feeling. It was about being together. It was about helping out someone that needed something," says Breda, now a nursing professor at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. "The music spoke for us."

Concertgoers weren't the only ones struck by the fellow-feeling and calm in the crowd — despite scores of drug arrests, medical problems ranging from cut-up bare feet to LSD freakouts, and two deaths, one from a heroin overdose and another when a teen was run over, according to The Associated Press' reporting from the time.

There were no reports of violence, and a local police chief called the crowd "the most courteous, considerate and well-behaved group of kids" he'd encountered in his career. Max Yasgur, the dairy farmer who leased his land to the festival, said meeting them "forced me to open my eyes."

He added: "I think America has to take notice."

It did. Often with scorn.

Many Americans saw Woodstock as a spectacle of spaced-out, skinny-dipping, promiscuous hippies cavorting in squalor — with "little more sanity than the impulses that drive the lemmings to march to their deaths in the sea," as a New York Times editorial put it (while allowing that "the freakish-looking intruders behaved astonishingly well").

And for some, Woodstock would serve as an enduring symbol of the divides of the Vietnam War — on one side a throng of young people gathered for "peace and music," on the other more than a half-million of their peers fighting in Vietnam.

"I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time," the late Sen. John McCain famously said in 2007.

His remark — an allusion to his 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam — got a standing ovation from a Republican presidential primary debate audience. The former Navy pilot would later earn the nomination.

Two years later, the Veterans of Foreign Wars' magazine marked Woodstock's 40th anniversary with a cover story spotlighting some 109 service members who died in Vietnam during the festival and "are never lauded by the illustrious spokesmen for the 'Sixties Generation.'"

The Woodstock audience did include at least one Vietnam veteran, snapped in a well-known photo . Performers included Country Joe McDonald, a Navy veteran who served mainly in Japan. His anti-war "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag" became a memorable Woodstock moment.

"Some people alluded to peace and stuff, but I was talking about Vietnam," McDonald said in a phone interview.

The song's profane introductory cheer "is an expression of our anger and frustration over the Vietnam War, which was killing us, literally killing us," said the singer, who helped spearhead the creation of Vietnam veterans' memorial in Berkeley, California, in the 1990s.

On the same day his band, Country Joe & the Fish, played at Woodstock, another audience of thousands was in a Harlem park for a concert with its own sense of community and yearnings to challenge the status quo. Headliner Nina Simone delivered a set infused with songs of black empowerment and a militant poem that asked black people "are you ready" to instigate social change.

The show was part of the Harlem Cultural Festival, a concert series that would later be dubbed a "Black Woodstock."

Over six summer Sundays, an estimated 300,000 people in total gathered to see acts including Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips and — like the upstate Woodstock crowd — Sly and the Family Stone.

"It was like a mini-Woodstock to a lot of people," says Ethel Beatty Barnes, who saw the Sly and the Family Stone concert that July, when she was an 18-year-old New Yorker.

Her mother wouldn't let her go to Woodstock. But Beatty Barnes feels the city-sponsored Harlem festival, which was showcased in two network TV specials, showed people didn't have to go far to come together around music.

"It was embarking onto 'what do we have already here where we can have people gather?'" says Beatty Barnes, who became a Broadway actress and singer. "It was a really great thing."

A half-century later, the Harlem Cultural Festival's anniversary is being marked with events including a concert in the same park, hosted by rapper and activist Talib Kweli. It's part of Future X Sounds, a socially conscious concert series.

Meanwhile, four days of concerts and events are planned at the Woodstock site, now the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

The lineup includes 1969 performers Santana and John Fogerty, but the arts center has made clear it isn't hosting a freewheeling festival: Spectators will need tickets and checkpoint travel passes to get to the site. Plans for a sprawling commemorative Woodstock 50 event elsewhere collapsed amid permitting and other problems .

Thinking back, Breda rues that "subsequent generations didn't have the opportunity to experience something that I consider to have been so beautiful."

But, she says: "It feels like something that could never happen again."

© Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.


23 Comments
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Well I was in Vietnam at the time. Those of us there never even heard of Woodstock. And I still am not a supporter of what they stood for. Seems to me the results of all that “peace and love” aren’t so good overall. Just look around at USA now...

-8 ( +5 / -13 )

Woodstock generation looks back, from varied vantage points

And all of those vantage points are very selfish and self absorbed with no appreciation for the wealthy and privileged society that was bequeathed to them.

-10 ( +3 / -13 )

@wolf-- wealthy and privileged society bequeathed to them? Sounds like a time capsule from the Jay Gatsby Roaring Twenties!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

On the same day his band, Country Joe & the Fish, played at Woodstock, another audience of thousands was in a Harlem park for a concert with its own sense of community and yearnings to challenge the status quo. Headliner Nina Simone delivered a set infused with songs of black empowerment and a militant poem that asked black people "are you ready" to instigate social change.

Much as I love Woodstock and the various ideologies behind it, the Harlem Park concert sounds much more interesting.

Still missing Nina.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Of course it is tricky to summarize the life impact on 500,000 concert goers, but the artists there who didnt die soon after--Jimi, Janis--had pretty good careers. Carlos Santana in particular was launched to national fame by this gig, though it was epochal for Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker, Richie Havens etc. Joan Baez was already an industry veteran with a decade of records. Bob Dylan stayed home nearby with a loaded gun to fend off possible intruders.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

@Toasted Heretic,

It certainly was. Here are two performances from the Harlem Park '69 concerts:

Nina Simone with the great "Revolution":

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RP7ePzFMfHQ

Sly with "Everyday People":

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJt-C6I6EDs

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Really, time to forget the whole Woodstock Generation hype. Woodstock was a three-day gig that had limited relevance to anyone outside the US who wasn't at the event, and it should have been forgotten long ago. Glastonbury probably has more relevance in the UK (where most of the best bands of the era came from anyway) and for me personally, Sunbury '72 and '73 in Australia, which of course no-one outside Oz will know anything about. I'd never heard of the Harlem Park concerts until I read this, but I'd rather have been there than at Woodstock.

Woodstock, the album, is overrated. Hendrix was one of the greatest artists of all time, but he's overblown and undisciplined. Santana was good, Country Joe, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker - but the rest... meh. Richie Havens sums it up best. He's good, he's memorable, he's spirited - but most of what he plays is just filler. That describes most of the bloated, sprawling triple-disc album, really.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Woodstock was a three-day gig that had limited relevance to anyone outside the US who wasn't at the event

I was a 14-year old in Scotland at the time. Country Joe McDonald's song seemed very relevant to me.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

I was a 14-year old in Scotland at the time. Country Joe McDonald's song seemed very relevant to me.

I was an 18-year old in Australia at the time. Australia had a draft which sent its 20-year olds to Vietnam. The song seemed very, very relevant to me. The movie and the event, not so much.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Woodstock, the album, is overrated. Hendrix was one of the greatest artists of all time, but he's overblown and undisciplined. Santana was good, Country Joe, Arlo Guthrie, Joe Cocker - but the rest... meh.

Sly and the Family Stone were good.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Woodstock was a three-day gig that had limited relevance to anyone outside the US who wasn't at the event

I wasn’t born when Woodstock took place and watched a video of it as a kid in the UK.

Country Joe’s message is relevant to all eras.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Joe Cocker’s Beatles cover is just one assume song.

But I cant agree to the label “Woodstock generation”. So many movements were happening in the 60’s and 70’s I don’t think it’s fair to others who were out in streets as opposed to sittin on a lawn trippin.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Seems to me the results of all that “peace and love” aren’t so good overall. Just look around at USA now...

Agreed. You can see it in the cultural decay that pervades America today. Sad really.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

Sly and the Family Stone were good.

Yes, serious omission on my part not to mention Sly.

Country Joe’s message is relevant to all eras.

Indeed. But at the time the Vietnam War was on, a now-deceased friend and I used to sing Fixing To Die Rag at parties. It didn't always go down well, depending on who was listening at the time.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

You can see it in the cultural decay that pervades America today.

What cultural decay did peace and love contribute to the US and how did it manifest?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@GyGene

Well I was in Vietnam at the time.

I had a summer time factory job at the time. I returned to my university campus in September and heard all the long-hairs (mostly friends) talking with regret about not having gone (to Woodstock, not Vietnam).

It seemed that just saying you knew someone who went gave you special status - a bit like a medieval artisan claiming he knew someone who had made the pilgrimage to the “Holy Land”.

On the other hand, I actually heard a wounded Marine who had returned from Vietnam whom I met off campus called a “baby killer” (not to his face!) by a wish-I-had-gone-to-Woodstocker.

Apart from the merits or demerits of the music, the “Woodstock Generation” became a model for today’s virtue signalers.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

@Toasted Heretic

What cultural decay did peace and love contribute to the US and how did it manifest?

“Peace and love”? You have been taken in by self-aggrandizing propagandists.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Toasted HereticToday 08:41 am JSTYou can see it in the cultural decay that pervades America today.

What cultural decay did peace and love contribute to the US and how did it manifest?

30 years ago, 'peace and love' was really starting to sprout up as the Iron Curtain was falling down. Hungary and Poland had thrown off their Communist regimes peacefully and Czechoslovakia would soon follow. East Germany would soon allow people to emigrate to West Germany and the Berlin Wall was opened up in November. The U.S.S.R. was undergoing perestroika and in the Baltic republics there was the ethnic regional 'Singing Revolution'. Bulgaria's regime resigned from power. Romania's was overthrown violently.

As a musical indicator, Tears For Fears had a #2 hit with 'Sowing the Seeds of Love' and that summer the Moscow Peace Fest went on, featuring artists like Alice Cooper, Judas Priest, Motley Crue, Poison and more.

The Cold War ended by peaceful means at the end of the 80s decade. A new decade was coming, it was a time of hope.

I had just got out of the military the previous year and I was proud to have served during a time of glasnost and change. however, even as the USA and USSR buried the hatchet I knew that there would be other despots - like Gadhafi, Iran's ayatollahs and such who love to cause trouble to deal with. Still, the 2 main superpowers settling their differences without war - it was a great feeling! Even the Panama War of 1989-1990 couldn't spoil it.

In 1991 Americans got addicted to war when it was all over the TV and radio, and they loved it. Ate it up. Souvenir T-shirts, coffee mugs, junk were sold in the name of 'supporting the troops' who got neglected by our government and were now gladiators. It was sickening. And America itself is ruled by a hateful immature racist scumpot even worse than the Communist clods who were deposed in Eastern Europe 30 years ago. Very sad.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

The “Woodstock Generation” has been a curse in American society and the world in general.

and, You can see it in the cultural decay that pervades America today.

As one of that generation I feel duty-bound to refute these two very emotional responses which, without a shred of evidence, constitute a cruel calumny against a generation of young men and women who paid with their blood for the real "curse in American society", the "military-industrial complex", which a prescient President Eisenhower warned in his valedictory speech to the nation posed a grave threat to the republic. Woodstock, a prominent symbol of America's 1960s' cultural revolution, still serves as a lightning rod for the raging culture wars which 50 years later continue to scar American society.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

u_s__reamerToday 11:53 am JSTThe “Woodstock Generation” has been a curse in American society and the world in general.

and, You can see it in the cultural decay that pervades America today.

As one of that generation I feel duty-bound to refute these two very emotional responses which, without a shred of evidence, constitute a cruel calumny against a generation of young men and women who paid with their blood for the real "curse in American society", the "military-industrial complex", which a prescient President Eisenhower warned in his valedictory speech to the nation posed a grave threat to the republic. Woodstock, a prominent symbol of America's 1960s' cultural revolution, still serves as a lightning rod for the raging culture wars which 50 years later continue to scar American society.

Stupid hypocritical sheep in America still like to be led around by the hand. Look at the Trumpsters of today. The 'Woodstock' generation isn't/wasn't about irresponsible sex, drugs and debauchery. Previous 'more moral' generations were that way - history, even the Bible and other religious texts describe it all.

The curse is that people are raised to believe in and swear allegiances to something that really isn't there and live for, work for and die for the modern 'military-industrial complex'/machine that governs our lives - and only an elite profits from. It's not a hippie thing, a punk thing or anything but common sense and yes, a moral thing.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Stupid hypocritical sheep in America still like to be led around by the hand. Look at the Trumpsters of today. The 'Woodstock' generation isn't/wasn't about irresponsible sex, drugs and debauchery.

All liberal tenants

Previous 'more moral' generations were that way - history, even the Bible and other religious texts describe it all. 

What’s wrong with that?

The curse is that people are raised to believe in and swear allegiances to something that really isn't there and live for, work for and die for the modern 'military-industrial complex'/machine that governs our lives

Come again?

and only an elite profits from. It's not a hippie thing,

Yeah, it was because most of them gave birth to radicals that are like a cancerous cell in our schools, media and TV and Film as well as government, not to mention the bad fashion they gave us back then. My parents always despised Hippies and always thought even back then that, that movement would be the downfall spiral of America, thank God I always listened to my parents.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

The CIA were a large part of the SF hippie movement when they released onto the streets huge quantities of pure Orange Sunshine LSD and Blue microdots. Timothy Leary CIA.

https://etherzone.com/the-cia-created-the-drug-culture-my-weekend-with-timothy-leary/

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I personally know quite a few people who experienced the 1960's hippie movement, travelled overland to Indian but went on to become some of the biggest capitalists in the world. Many people without direct experience speak much nonsense.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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