Woodstock wasn’t all peace and light, writes David Quinn
It’s now 50 years since the high point of the 1960s counter-culture, namely the huge music festival that took place at Woodstock in New York state in mid-August 1969. It featured some of the biggest music acts of the day. Organisers originally estimated it would attract 50,000 people. In the end, around 400,000 attended.
It became so big because it caught a cultural moment. The Hippie movement was at its zenith. It offered a radical alternative lifestyle to the materialistic, consumerist, bourgeois and conventional one then on offer to the mostly middle-class young people who declared themselves part of the movement.
With the ending of World War II, America, in common with other Western countries, experienced a ‘baby boom’. Soldiers returning from the war in their millions got married, settled down and had large families. This huge ‘bubble’ of young people, born from the mid-1940s, came of age in the 1960s. Someone born in 1950 was 19 the year Woodstock took place. They grew up in an America that was becoming more and more affluent, had full employment, was living through the civil rights campaign and was roiled by the Vietnam War.
These elements all combined to produce the ‘counter-culture’, which rejected the values of the previous generation. This was the era that invented the term the ‘generation gap’. One of the things that appeared to be thrown overboard was religion, especially Christianity.
In fact, the Hippie movement was deeply religious at its core. It was also romantic, in the sense of having a very idealistic vision of the world, and emphasised feelings over rationality.
William Wordsworth said poetry should begin as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling”, and Hippies would have regarded that as a good philosophy towards life in general.
The movement was often explicitly religious, in that it embraced Eastern forms of religion like Buddhism and Hinduism. Both of these seemed very exotic to the counter-culture. They had none of the baggage of Christianity. Most hippies had no proper, first-hand familiarity with the real-world histories of those religions and so could easily romanticise them.
Eastern religions also seemed to offer a path to a higher level of consciousness where true peace and contentment could be found.
It helped that the Beatles had spent time in India taking part in a Transcendental Meditation (TM) training course at the school of the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
But Christianity got a look-in too. Jesus was detached from the Church as a whole and presented as a sort of early Hippie preaching peace and love.
There was even a Hippie sub-culture called ‘the Jesus People’ and hit musicals like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar were produced.
Woodstock sought to combine all the elements of the Hippie movement; music, a rejection of convention, sexual liberation, drugs (another supposed route to higher consciousness), plus the basic underlying message of peace and love.
The idea was to lead the whole of society towards a new, more authentic way of living. It all made for a very heady brew.
The hundreds of thousands of young people who attended Woodstock wanted to transcend ordinary life with all its petty concerns and merge into a boundaryless love. Their basic religious motivation should be obvious.
Even the ‘free love’ was a utopian attempt to return to a sort of Edenic paradise where we would no longer even be aware of our nakedness.
But as with all utopian movements, reality intruded. It even did at Woodstock. There were so many people there, that many inevitably fell sick and outside medics, including from the hated US army had to be flown in to help. Many overdosed because drugs were so plentiful, and victims had to be helped down off bad trips.
Food and drink ran out and the surrounding towns, populated by people of good will leading conventional lives and holding down conventional jobs, did a whip-around and ensured everyone was fed over the three days of the concert.
As one local lady said, “We may be hicks here, but we believe in the Bible and we’re supposed to feed the hungry.”
A sort of feeding of the multitudes took place, you might say, but it could not have happened without the Bible-believing local ‘hicks’ who were anything but hippies, while at the same time sympathising with the basic idealism of the young people attending Woodstock.
To put it another way, unconventional forms of living are mostly made possible by conventional forms of living. This is even true a lot of the time of religious life. Some religious orders are self-sustaining, but in the past they often relied on bequests and donations and dowries to buy land and build their convents and monasteries. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as due acknowledgement of the necessity of conventional life is made.
The Beatle with the most sympathy for the Hippie movement was George Harrison, but he saw the grubby side of what was happening.
The ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967 centred on Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. George Harrison visited. He wanted to believe something new and big was taking place. He was instantly disillusioned.
As he said: “I went there expecting it to be a brilliant place, with groovy gypsy people making works of art and painting and carvings in little workshops.
“But it was filled with horrible spotty drop-out kids on drugs, and it turned me right off the scene.
The Hippie dream was mostly good, but like all dreams it had to confront reality, and it also had a nightmarish side. This year might be the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, but it is also the 50th anniversary of the ritualistic murder in Los Angeles of the heavily pregnant Sharon Tate and three of her friends by Charles Manson and his ‘Family’. Manson was another quintessential figure of the 1960s.
Unfortunately, all romantic movements eventually encounter the dark aspects of human nature.