Upon a Time in Woodstock

Fifty years after the monumental music festival, we revisit NR’s contemporaneous dispatch from the front.

Editor’s Note: The following piece originally appeared in the September 9, 1969 issue of National Review.

No stars that night over our outdoor city, and we, a half million of us, sat fitfully up in our amphitheater-turned-bog, hearing singers and guitars below but not really listening. Behind the stage, across a country road, a field stretched out, the fence around it laced with a string of red Christmas-tree bulbs — our own, private constellation. The lights, blurred by rain, glowed eerily and took our attention, because sound was there too, a whipping whine, much louder than the music. A spotlight shot its bright cone earthward, a visible sign of something hovering, blowing up wet grass, and then, finally, touching ground. Many in our city — who knows why? — suddenly broke into applause.

One young man, half-high on marijuana, offered a stoned reading of the scene: “You see, the Martians announced they would pay Earth a visit, and all these people came out to greet them, and some bands got together to play a few songs of welcome.” Far. Out. But then the scene, like other scenes during those three days, invited wild interpretations. The Woodstock Music and Art Fair fit no one’s expectations, and we groped to give it form and purpose — and continued groping until the end.

True, the focus, the central interest of the weekend was not this landing on the helipad. But then — and this created our confusion — neither was it the music, the single attraction that had lured one of every seventy Americans from 15 to 25 to an isolated New York farm. So many came to listen that we overwhelmed the performers, however well some of them played. Our cars, our tents, and ourselves improvised a city, 22nd largest in the United States, and the fact of this city, its weather, its privations, its confusion, and its civility, dominated our senses. We shared a formless experience, one we had not prepared for, and it gratified immensely.

There are, really, only three groups of people who disapproved our pleasure. First, and justifiably, the farmers and townspeople of upstate New York, who did not engineer their own inconvenience. Our improvised city, without enough land, shelter, food, warmth, or sanitation to sustain itself, took over their roads, parked its cars on their lawns, pitched its tents in their fields, rustled their crops, stole their fenceposts for firewood, used their creeks as garbage dumps and latrines. We wronged them. Eight thousand of us hung around on Monday to clean up, make amends.

The Left, too, hated the Fair, what it was supposed to be and what it actually was. The idea of holding it was an affront, a fantastic wager that the revolution of youth is far less political than cultural. Eight, maybe ten thousand people swept into Chicago last summer to see Hubert Humphrey and Richard Daley. Nowhere, New York offered Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and the promoters needed 200,000 customers to break even on their investment. When the bet paid off too handsomely (our overlarge crowd broke down the gates, the ushers never sold or collected tickets, the promoters lost more than $1 million), and, swelled to city size, we transformed ourselves from an audience for music into participants in a muddy void, we filled that void not with rebellion and angry talk but with drugs and quiet friendship. Our uninvolvement, our frivolity, maddened the Left. We did not even collect pennies for SANE.

Some locals, the Left — and then many ordinary Americans disliked us too. Our city’s drugs were illegal. Its citizens unkempt. And, worst of all, the city was a mob, the nemesis of all purposeful men, all believers in American individualism. But it was not planned that way. Most of us by far had come for music, to enjoy a one-to-one relationship with the stage, not to be lost in a muddy commune. Else why would we have chosen Woodstock? There have been other festivals this summer, and hundreds of “be-ins,” but none drew close to our half-million. None offered so many fine musicians.

We became a mob, but only because our extreme disorientation, our fear of being trapped there, the pleas to share, be cool, it’s the only way to make it, forced a collective consciousness upon us. What made us a mob made us good, too, because our fears and needs pushed the limits of togetherness beyond our city of peers, to the gracious and generous police and townspeople. The worst of us learned that cops and rednecks are more angel than pig.

Our city depended on them, and they on us. We behaved well so that the squares could help us survive. Doctors healed wounds, treated illnesses, smoothed out rough “trips.” Police helicopters flew in our food, flew out our sick. Farmers shared their produce. And the promoters, after having made the one gigantic mistake of conceiving the idea of Woodstock, spared no expense to make us less uncomfortable, even when they knew we had robbed them of their profit.

The few very hip ones among us came away from it all positively glowing. Had not the rest of us failed to find purpose in being there, had not we simply existed communally, and yet enjoyed it? It seemed to some that the ideal hippie, killed in San Francisco by methedrine and angry politics, had been reborn, and in such numbers that he might survive, multiply, maybe even prevail.

But that — the root of the individualists’ fear — is making too much of Woodstock. It was only a moment of glorious innocence, and such moments happen only by accident, and then not often. Had everyone known we would be a city, there would have been more toilets, more food, more tents, more water, more comfort generally. And therefore less confusion and fear, less need to band together and be good. Had the East coast known there would be a complete electrical failure on November 9, 1965, workers would have stayed at home, housewives would have stockpiled canned foods and candles, and no puzzled, gay, and loving people would have flooded downtown streets.

And these accidental bursts of aimless solidarity do not last forever. America take heart. By Sunday afternoon, most of us had abandoned Woodstock, eager for a return to form, purpose, and individuality. The same thousands who waved gaily from their cars, hardly creeping away from the mudpile, were driving furiously and honking horns by the time they got back to New York City.