Our Opinion: Bittersweet moment that was Woodstock

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The Woodstock music festival, held from Aug. 15-18 50 years ago, was supposed to be just another summer gathering of bands and fans. But it achieved iconic status that has not dimmed over the years. The music, the mud, the sea of people living peacefully if not hygenically on Max Yasgur's dairy farm combined to turn the festival into a representation of the best of the 1960s, a tribute to that decade's idealism and hope and the power of a music as a cultural force.

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, as it was formally known, was actually held in Bethel, N.Y., less than a three-hour drive from Pittsfield. Of course, the drive would have been a little longer back then as the crowd of roughly 400,000 people, far more than overwhelmed organizers had anticipated, caused the partial closing of the New York State Thruway after many festival-goers abandoned their vehicles and walked the rest of the way. ("The New York State Thruway is closed, man!," the Berkshires' own Arlo Guthrie famously shouted from the stage.) The quarter-mile site wasn't built to handle anywhere near that many people and then came the summer thunderstorms that turned the site into the proverbial sea of mud. (Residents and visitors should be aware that the Normal Rockwell Museum exhibit "Woodstock to the moon: 1969 illustrated" (www.nrm.org) contains artifacts from the festival, including the original poster.)

It was obvious even as the festival was going on that this was a significant cultural moment. The Eagle acknowledged this in an editorial that ran just after the event. The editorial's analogy between the unanticipated throng at Woodstock and a Tanglewood finding itself "besieged by 22,000 rock fans where only 8,000 had gathered heretofore," was a sound one. Tanglewood, by opening Koussevitzky's Shed and bucolic lawn to bands like The Who and their passionate fans, was a part of the cultural phenomenon that produced Woodstock (where the Who famously performed behind schedule at 5 a.m. on a Sunday). Lenox and Stockbridge were left to adjust to the new reality.

The Eagle editorial quaintly referred to those in attendance as "youngsters," the way Ed Sullivan five years earlier would admonish the "youngsters" making a racket to settle down before the Beatles or the Rolling Stones took the stage on CBS. "The youngsters today," analyzed The Eagle, "don't want to read about it in the paper or see it on television, they want to be there while it is happening." The only obstacle is their "ability to convince their parents, willing or unwilling, that's it is all right for them to go there."

Those youngsters, of course, went on to have their own youngsters who in turn had their own youngsters, over the past half-century. The Woodstock youngsters were at the vanguard of the baby boomer movement, a generation that indeed wanted to participate, to "be there." They changed the nation for better (according to the boomers) or worse (according to millennials), depending upon your perspective.

That this massive gathering in a confined, waterlogged place never turned ugly was a remarkable achievement that The Eagle paid tribute to, observing that what "amazed townspeople and police officers who had dealings with the young people was how thankful and courteous the young people were." It was a shining moment of peace and harmony, but sadly it was a moment that symbolized an ending, not a beginning Four months later came the disastrous Altamont Festival in California that left four dead, including a fan killed by a Hell's Angel while cameras rolled. In its ugliness so counter to the vibe at Woodstock, the festival signaled the end of the '60s and heralded the turmoil of America in the early 1970s.

The Eagle editorial concluded by observing that "those youngsters who made it to Bethel" would always be able to say, "Woodstock? I was there." Those grizzled Woodstock veterans can say exactly that, and thanks to their recollections, sundry recordings and videos, the Woodstock movie, and memorabilia like that at the Rockwell Museum, everyone else can claim a piece of that joyful if now bittersweet event over three days in the New York hills.

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