15 August 2009

Woodstock Memories

I remember Woodstock. These memories filter through intervening scenes, perspectives, and mentalités. I'm more a child of the Seventies than the Sixties and missed the festival at Max Yasgur's farm forty years ago. I was too young.

My memories of Woodstock are second hand experiences animated through Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music (The Director's Cut) (1997), The '60s (1999), and the study of history. Woodstock and the Sixties first presented themselves in my study of history through Professor Leroy Ashby's lectures in U.S. History, 1941 to present (the course covered a forty year period when I took it).

Ashby's innovative lectures brought history to life. His narratives were supplemented with clips from such music as Jimi Hendrix's Woodstock performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner," Country Joe and the Fish, and maybe Eric Burden and the The Animals or Joan Baez. I lack his song list, but attempted to reproduce his style a few years ago while teaching a course called Recent American History. My list of "protest music" included "Okie from Muskogee" by Merle Haggard, Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," and Phil Ochs' "I Ain't Marching Anymore." I should have presented Frank Zappa's "Plastic People" alongside "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield as springboards for reflection upon the so-called riots on Sunset Strip. Seeing these demonstrations protesting the closing of Pandora's Box through the contrasting lenses of these two songs (one of which was performed in Monterey 1967), students might develop some critical historical questions for exploring the youth movement of the Sixties that Woodstock has come to symbolize.

Woodstock serves as the denouement for the fractured family sub-plot in The '60s. The Herlihy family at the heart of the film includes three typical children. Katie (Julia Stiles) gets pregnant as a teenager and follows her lover to San Francisco, where his feeble, "bummer," is offered when she needs cash in order to buy medicine for their sick baby, cash that he just spent on drugs. Through this film, we see the dark side of the Summer of Love. Michael's (Josh Hamilton) Catholic idealism carries him into the civil rights movement, the Pentagon siege, and into constant struggle with a rival suitor for the heart of a woman. She begins to consider Michael again after the rival dies in a self-created blast as a member of the Weather Underground. Brian (Jerry O'Connell) joins the Marines and goes to Vietnam. Through a deus ex machina (some movie critics use the term flaw) the divergent paths of all three siblings converge upon Woodstock where they find each other after several years apart. They return together to their parents in Chicago and enjoy a happy reunion, and start the process of healing.

Such is the hope found in the memories of Woodstock that many celebrate today.

Last weekend, The New York Times got the scoop on the anniversary and published assessments of Woodstock's legacy from such writers as Ishmael Reed, Rick Perlstein (whose Facebook alert put me onto this article), James Miller, Joan Hoff, and others. Miller called the festival a pseudo-event. Others, too, have been critical.

Freedom from Responsibility

A tone of moral censure underscores the narrative of the Sixties in A Patriot's History of the United States (2004) by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen.
Rock music reaffirmed the sexual and drug revolutions at every turn. By 1970, although still exceptionally popular, neither the Beatles nor their bad-boy counterparts, the Rolling Stones, had the aura of hipness, having ceded that to rising new and more radical groups whose music carried deeper drug overtones.
Schweikart and Allen, 703
For these authors, hipness was rebellion against authority. The music industry cashed in on this rebellion with the Woodstock festival. The authors of A Patriot's History omit stories of how the mega-concert became free as the crowds overwhelmed any semblance of security, and the promoters took a bath. But, they mention the full-length film--Woodstock (1970)--that followed the event and that continues to bring profits through several anniversary editions.

Schweikart and Allen cite one critical source for their brief discussion of the music festival: David Dalton, "Finally, the Shocking Truth about Woodstock Can Be Told, or Kill It Before It Clones Itself," The Gadfly (August 1999); their citation also mentions conversations with Dalton by one of the two authors, presumably Schweikart as he started his career in a band. From Dalton they offer the observation that at Woodstock drugs "ceased being tools for experience ... and became a means of crowd control" (704).

The authors of A Patriot's History emphasize the drugs and sex, the garbage left behind, and the commercialization of the music. They frame Woodstock between the sexual revolution and the mayhem in Hollywood perpetrated by Charles Manson's followers the week prior to the festival. They do not inquire into the motivations of the organizers nor the experiences of the participants.

People's Histories

Neither A People's History of the United States (1980) by Howard Zinn nor Paul Johnson's A History of the American People (1998) mention the Woodstock Festival. Even so, Zinn's three chapters on the Sixties emphasizing the Civil Rights Movement; protest against the American presence in Vietnam, and the crimes of Richard Nixon; and the emergence of Red Power, Black Power, Chicano nationalism, and woman's liberation all seem to suggest a broadly positive assessment. Even so, Zinn might object to the ways the youth movement was exploited by corporate America. Schweikart and Allen note how "peace, love and rock-n-roll" became an advertising slogan not only for Woodstock, but for other products.

Johnson's one indexed reference to drugs credits popular music with fomenting the spread of drug culture. From 1920s jazz, swing and bop in the 1930s and 1940s, ...
There followed 1950s cool, hard bop, soul jazz, rock in the 1960s, and in the 1970s blends of jazz and rock dominated by electronic instruments. And all the time pop music was crowding in the phantasmagoria of commercial music geared to the taste of countless millions of easily manipulated but increasingly affluent young people. And from the worlds of jazz and pop, the drug habit spread to the masses as the most accelerated form of downward mobility of all.
Johnson, 706
Johnson repeats this theme of downward mobility in his discussion of Gangsta Rap, where he segues into expressing his affinity for the arguments in Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted our Higher Education (1991). It's clear that his views of Woodstock would not deviate far from those of Schweikart and Allen.

Addendum (24 August 2009):
Earlier this morning, Larry Schweikart posted "Woodstock at 40 ... er, wait, is it 40 already?" on his blog A Patriot's History of the United States. In the second sentence, he calls Rush Limbaugh his mentor, or he imagines Rush Limbaugh as the mentor for his imaginary reader that he is quoting--the syntax of his parenthetical statement lacks some precision on this point. He then suggests that he and Rush share a love of the music of Woodstock, and that he has seen the film something like twenty times. He repeats and emphasizes David Dalton's assertion that at Woodstock drugs became a means for "crowd control".

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