The Woodstock Festival began forty-nine years ago on August 15, 1969. I was just under a month short of my 15th birthday about to start my sophomore year in High School when Woodstock happened. I remember the news reports and my stepfather’s pretty caustic commentary about what was going on there. I did not know what to make of it at the time.
But, when I saw the Woodstock documentary the next year, I wished I could have been there!
Earlier this summer, while visiting my brother and his wife in New York, I learned that their place was very near Bethel Woods, NY where the Woodstock Festival was actually held. When my brother suggested that we drive over to see the place where it happened, I was excited to go.
As I walked the fields, I tried to imagine the 400,000 people who were there. I could see them in my mind’s eye remembering what was depicted in the documentary but it was mind boggling to consider the magnitude of it when standing where it happened.
Just about anything that could go wrong did. The late change of venue from Woodstock to a dairy farm at Bethel Woods left no time for adequate preparation. They barely finished the stage leaving no time for fences and controlled entrances to check and sell tickets. The crowd that gathered was eight times as large as the number they expected. And it’s estimated that 2 million tried to come but could not get there due to roads being completely clogged with traffic. Then heavy rains began to fall on the first day of the festival rendering the fields in front and all around the stage a vast muddy quagmire. But then the music started and something fantastic happened.
As I stood there 49 years later, looking all around, I was deeply moved as I remembered Woodstock in the context of the social turbulence and violent clashes of the late 60s. Think of it, 400,000 people gathered there for three days of peace and music struggling with the rains, the mud, the food shortages, and inadequate sanitation. Yet over those three days there was not a single violent act recorded. Against all odds, what was promised on the posters seems to have happened on a very large scale – three days of music and peace.
As I ponder it, I cannot help but think of where America is today – deeply divided and polarized. What might be the effect in these troubled times if hundreds of thousands of people could gather in places all across the country for days of music, art, and dialogue choosing to open their minds and their hearts and working together to build bridges of understanding and even collaboration across our differences?