Perhaps it’s the passing of Walter Cronkite, the last trustworthy newsman, who talked us through so many national dramas – the first steps on the moon, Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, Woodstock, Watergate – or maybe it’s that magic number – forty. Forty years ago so many things seemed to take a sharp turn toward a brave new world.
For many of my generation, forty years ago this summer will always be remembered for the concert that changed everything. Before Woodstock happened, thousands of young people across the country were listening to a new kind of music, dreaming of peace and a future without discrimination of any kind. Many of us were new to discrimination as a firsthand experience. We came from middle-class homes and had always operated under a banner of acceptance from the establishment. But then we grew our hair longer, and began to question government policies, and we dared to suggest that there could be a better way.
“Freak!” “Get a job!” “Get a haircut!”
Total strangers would slow down as they drove by to yell at us as we stood on the sidewalk. It was a kind of revelation. It seemed funny, and sad too, that people could get so worked up over some long hair and tie-dyed T-shirts. But, in 1969, such simple things were viewed as signs of moral decay, right up there with the easy availability of birth control and recreational drugs.
In 1969 I had already been labeled a hippie for some time, and I scorned the judgment of the straight people who tried to convince me I was headed down the wrong path. I thought I knew where I was going.
In the summer of 1969 many people I knew went to Woodstock. I didn’t. Didn’t want to. Have never regretted not going. But I do appreciate what Woodstock did for the nation. For one thing it forced the whole country to recognize that those hippies might be crazy but they sure knew how to get along, and that’s more than you can say about a lot of people. And I was proud of the way my brothers and sisters managed to get through what was without a doubt a fantastic concert, but also a grueling physical ordeal, peacefully and even joyously.
But even though I wasn’t there, I consider myself a member of the Woodstock generation, and I respect how their shared experience has the elements of classic myth, where the hero/heroine goes on a journey and faces hardships and discovers wonders, and returns forever changed by the experience.
The reason I never missed Woodstock was a band called Claude Jones. Claude Jones began in the summer of 1968 in Washington, DC. My husband was the bass player in the power trio that got it started. As the band grew in size and following, it took on a life of its own which we called the Amoeba.
The Amoeba was my Woodstock. Only instead of three days, it lasted three years. The shadow and shine of that experience changed me fundamentally. Sure, some of it was carefree stoned fun. But a lot of it was an education in trust and hope and limits.
We were a communal group. It was a sort of family redefined as those who willingly joined to work for the good of the whole. Of course, human nature being the flawed thing that it is, such idealism may seem somewhat naive. But, if you can avoid the pitfalls of personality, you may be lucky enough to ascend to the next level where you feel truly connected, heart and soul, to a larger purpose. Kind of like religion but without the dreary dogma and threats of punishment.
Anyway. It was pretty darned great while it lasted. I don’t know if future generations will manage to override the seemingly unstoppable human drive to self-destruct. Maybe all this Twittering and internet jabbering will lead to a virtual Woodstockian harmony that will actually bring about the world peace all of us hippies never managed to secure.
But I like to think we got the ball rolling.