Thursday, August 15, 2019

Woodstock Story in a Bottle: Another Defining Moment of 1969

Insignia that appeared on Yasgur Farms milk bottles.
That summer two men walked on the moon. And in August 400,000 people saw stars.

Just as a good movie is made of memorable scenes, so history is remembered by its defining moments. For Americans, the year "1968" brings Viet Nam, assassinations (Bobby, MLK, Jr), and riots to mind

In 1969, two very different images were impressed upon us, that "one giant leap" for mankind and that escapist utopian dream, Woodstock.  (It's convenient to keep Altamont off-camera when we want to feel good about this Woodstock music and love experience as a culmination of the Sixties.)

There were many ironic features of the event, one being this one: the song we've all associated with it, "By the time we got to Woodstock," was penned by someone who wasn't event there. Joni Mitchell was in New York City to be on TV that weekend.

Here's a second irony. As every Dylan fan knows, Woodstock's most famous resident-in-hibernation, who many considered the hippest cat on earth, was packing his bags to head to England for an Isle of Wight concert.

* * * *
I'm going down to Yasgur's Farm
Gonna join in a rock and roll band
Got to get back to the land and set my soul free

Yasgur's farm was actually 43 miles Southwest of Woodstock, in Bethel NY.
Photo courtesy Bill Pagel.
How many farmers can you think of, besides Old MacDonald, have been memorialized in song? Here's an excerpt from his Wikipedia account, by way of introduction.

Max Yasgur was born in New York City to Russian Jewish immigrants Samuel and Bella Yasgur. He was raised with his brother Isidore (1926-2010) on the family's farm (where his parents also ran a small hotel) and attended New York University, studying real estate law. By the late 1960s, he was the largest milk producer in Sullivan County, New York. His farm had 650 cows, mostly Guernseys. 

Though Yasgur was a conservative Republican, his conscience also told him that older folks need to do something to bridge the generation gap. He was motivated by his principles and did not yield to those who were pressuring him to call off the festival.

* * * *

When I saw this bottle from Yasgur's farm, I couldn't help but think of the Old Testament Psalm 56:8 in which the psalmist/poet writes, "You put my tears in Your bottle." I think of all the tears that were shed during the 60s, from JFK to all the grief and sadness caused by Viet Nam. And sadly, worse was yet to come.

My next thought was even stranger. What were bottles like 3,000 years ago? King David wrote this song when he was captured by the Philistines. Whatever shape they took, for the psalmist it was not a time of music and celebration.

* * * *
Photo by Francisco Moreno on Unsplash
Woodstock took place from August 15 to 18, 1969. The performers most of us remember most were the ones on the album and the film. Some were excluded due to contract issues.

Here are some stories that go deeper and provide more perspective than I have time to produce. If you have time, check them out.

A New York Times account of one of the iconic photos.

A good summing up of Woodstock by the NYTimes

Rolling Stone interview with Bob Weir, who was shocked. (Literally)

Time Magazine published this review of the latest Woodstock documentary

Here were a couple thought-provoking paragraphs from the above.

For those who were coldbloodedly watching numbers, even in 1969, Woodstock simply identified a big, promising segment of the youth market, ready for the commercial exploitation that would ensue almost immediately. “Woodstock Nation,” despite Abbie Hoffman’s hopes when he coined the term, turned out to be a demographic rather than a political force.

This one is also barbed.

But forget the nostalgia. Millennials have every right to point out how Woodstock represented baby boomer privilege in crystalline form. We got a free marathon all-star concert. (I don’t begrudge my $18.) We swarmed a previously unspoiled dairy farm and its surroundings. We absolutely thought we were the center of the universe. And afterward, someone else had to clean up the giant mess we left behind. Insert the global-warming analogy.

You can insert a number of alternative messes here.

Were you there? What was your story?

Related Links
For Carlos Santana, Woodstock was a Trip
Surviving Woodstock, a New Yorker story by Hua Hsu

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