Over the weekend I watched a most extraordinary documentary that brought me up against questions I have pondered for at least the last half century. The film is called Woodstock, and has been made to mark the 50th anniversary of the famed Woodstock festival, held in August of 1969. I remember, in the days following the festival, being taken aside by a friend who had been convinced by his young daughter that a whole new world, animated by a new set of values, had come in being on that vast muddy field in up-state New York. I confess he was working against my entrenched scepticism, and it is to explain this that I am devoting this issue of my Chronicles.
It goes back, I guess, to what I grew up believing. I was seven years of age in 1935 when the democratic socialist Labour Party government was elected to power for the first time in New Zealand. I grew up in a kind of transitional family, the youngest of six children of a small village carpenter who managed to scrape his way through the Depression by building farm gates and cow byres for the local cockies (which is what we called dairy farmers).
My older brothers had to leave school to go work for my dad for no pay, one of the desperate measures needed to see us through those hard times. One of my brothers proved to be such a capable man that at about the time of the change of government, he was persuading my dad to lift his horizons, to tender for larger projects, and he did this so successfully as to start our family on a path towards relative prosperity. As a very small child I remember my Dad inveighing against the wickedness of the previous Conservative government which tried to solve its problems by hiring the unemployed to dig ditches one day and fill them in the next. My Dad was a working-class man to whom this was totally offensive behaviour, demeaning, as it did, the dignity of labour.
At about his time, however, we moved to a nearby city of 26,000 people --- not a big city, it is true, but at the time the fifth largest in the whole country. My Dad’s first major contract was to build an extension to the city’s hospital --- and thus began the transition of my family from the working class into the class of small business people, whose more conservative ideas gradually began to take over the family values.
None of this much affected me: I was 18 years younger than my eldest brother, and, growing up in the city I was never drawn towards the carpentering trade. Although three of my brothers had to go to the war, which broke out when I was eleven, I was too young to be conscripted into the service. I entered secondary school in 1942 and spent the four most formative years of my life there. The war was over when I emerged from high school to take my place in the workforce.
Although most of my schoolboy energies were devoted to playing sports --- cricket, tennis. Rugby, track and field, all undertaken seriously, with any number of peripheral games, such as softball, fives, golf, thrown in from time to time --- these were also years in which my political opinions were formed. An assiduous reader of the country’s newspapers at our local public library, I soon became aware that not a single favourable article that I ever saw was written about our Labour government, and I can still recall the surprise I felt when reading copies of the New Statesman and Nation from Britain to find that coherent arguments in favour of socialism could appear in what seemed to be responsible journals of opinion.
This imbalance of opinion was so startling that as I grew into manhood, I developed a sort of us-against-them attitude, “us” being the ordinary working people, and “them” representing the establishment, always using their wealth to pull the wool over the eyes of people susceptible to their propaganda, and never hesitating to use the iron fist if forced into it in an extremity. I vowed then, and I have always respected this vow, that I would never vote for anyone representing this entrenched conservative interest.
Thus, my scepticism about the so-called social revolution that overtook the United States in the 1960s as the nation became ever more deeply enmeshed in the unjust Vietnam war. I never understood the enthusiasm engendered by the Woodstock festival, and I have always believed that the inability of the social revolutionaries to make one tittle of difference in the political balance within the United States, has justified my scepticism.
Having just seen this new film, I am now prepared to say it presents the best-case I have ever seen for the social value of this so-called revolution. The festival, as here presented, turns out to have been a gesture of goodwill and hope in the future of mankind, staged by a group of amateurish entrepreneurs who didn’t know much about the task they were undertaking, but who somehow managed to preserve their original intention of hope and goodwill, against almost inhuman odds. One member of this small group had some family money behind him, and they ran into another group who had in mind virtually the same thing, with the added objective of selling some records; between them, they set out to produce a music festival such as the world had never before seen.
First, they had to choose a place big enough, and open enough to handle a large crowd that could be as many as 25,000 or even more. They chose a large open field in a small town in upstate New York, began to import the electricity that such a festival would demand, and thus attracted the attention of the local council, who quickly decided they wanted nothing to do with such a festival and passed a resolution making such a gathering illegal within the boundaries of their municipality.
They had already signed up some bands and had begun to sell tickets so they did not feel they could cancel at this late stage. Looking around some more they finally came upon a large field of farmland whose owner, in the name of freedom of expression, was willing to have his quiet country life interrupted for a weekend, and agreed basic terms with the organizers. The proposal was for a three-day event at a charge of $6 a day. The ticket sales went so well that they quickly began to realize they would need more toilets than they had ever envisioned, and also that they would need to provide food, water, and other basic needs of a huge youthful crowd, of whose dimensions they had no serious idea.
They began to realize they would need some kind of security system, and they stumbled across a locally-installed cult called The Hog Farm, whose leader, a gap-toothed rube by the look of him, offered to take care of security. Instead of constituting themselves as “a peace force” they called themselves “a please force” which would never hesitate to ask people to please do this or that. The Hog Farm also offered food, cooked in their own non-commercial kitchens.
Three days before the festival was to begin, the organizers were surprised to find people already turning up, wandering along the approach roads, with their small tents or shelters, sleeping bags, and offering their tickets as the price of admission. The organizers began to realize if this continued there was no way they would be able to collect money or sell tickets because there were no fences around the property.
Before they knew where they were, they found the approach roads were already clogged with huge lines of traffic in which hopeful participants had arrived, parked their cars and wandered the final mile or so to the site. The organizers had managed, before the opening acts, to erect the necessary high electricity towers, and the stage from which bands would perform. When the show got under way, they were already marvelling at the crowd they had somehow managed to attract. Apparently people had arrived from all over the continent, and, hippie-like, had settled down to enjoy the music, toke up with whatever drug they had brought along or could buy from the drug-shops that opened like magic, and had begun to express their delight in the freedom of the event.
By the second day, the field was packed with people, cheek by jowl, as far as the eye could see: the estimated numbers so far exceeded expectations as make it quite clear that something had been called into being whose dimensions they could scarcely grapple with even when it lay before their eyes.
That it was a festival, not only of music, but of freedom --- freedom from clothing, freedom from inhibition, freedom of sex and love --- was clear throughout. And The Hog Farm’s eccentric security patrols worked magic enough to keep everything under control.
At the end of the second day, the organizers pleaded with participants to just lie down on whatever piece of land they could claim, and go to sleep, which they obediently did. On the third day even more people arrived along with the promised rain, in which the careless crowd stood dripping under cardboard sheets, blankets, anything to cover themselves, and those who were not covered took to the mud like children playing in the back yard.
The organizers had to appeal, urgently, for those who had climbed into the towers for a better vantage point, to come down immediately because the electric charge contained in these rain-soaked wires promised to be a killer, a threat that never eventuated, obviously more by good luck than by good management.
There were doctors on the site willing to minister to those --- and there were many of them --- suffering from drug overdoses, if only they could reach them. Eventually the organizers managed to hire some helicopters to ease the movement of these essential personnel around the field. When the dimensions of the crowd became obvious, the military authorities began to take an interest. They sent in some military helicopters, arousing lively fears in the crowd of possible consequences, fears that were stilled when the loudspeakers announced that ”they are on our side, they are doctors, they have come to help us.”
Various tributes are paid in the film to certain bands and singers ---Joan Baez, for example, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana apparently being among the headliners who delivered more than could have been expected of them.
The final act, one that is unforgettable, came with the little-known Jimmy Hendrix, who, seizing his guitar and playing it in a way that no one had ever heard a guitar played before, performed a terrifying rendition of the US national anthem, whether as promise or threat it would be hard to say.
In the end, they estimated the crowd that attended at 350,000, many of whom stayed on to pick up the garbage and deliver it to pickup trucks for removal from the field.
One of my sons, Thom, a veritable encyclopedia about popular culture, said when discussing with me the meaning of Woodstock, that it was a matter of intent, of its intention to celebrate human freedom in all its forms, an intention they managed not to waver from until the end. In that, it was distinct from the equally renowned, but less admired Altamont concert given four months later by the Rolling Stones. This too attracted an audience of more than 300,000 people, but ill-advisedly the band had hired the Hell’s Angels motor-cycle group to handle security. They were, apparently, suggested by the band The Grateful Dead, who were, themselves, during the concert, so intimidated by the atmosphere that developed under the leadership of the Hell’s Angels, that they left the site without playing. During the chaos that developed around the stage one young person was killed, an event that has become infamous in the history of rock and roll.
This melancholy event brought to an end the previous pretension that a new dawn had arrived for America during the “social revolution” of the 1960s. That was so far from being the case that three years later Richard Nixon was re-elected to the presidency with one of the largest landslides in history, in spite of the fact that all the details of the Watergate break-in had already been revealed, and he was held publicly accountable.
Having watched this new account of Woodstock, seen through the eyes of 50 years on, I feel confirmed in my scepticism about the real, political meaning of these so-called “social revolutions”, as they occur in the United States, always accompanied by a great hoo-ha, that blows itself out before long.
The revolution of the 1960s, whatever else it may have done, did not shake by one inch the control of the wealth-owners over American business, society or, yes over culture, as has since been proven by the continuing unshakable nature of this control, still being exercised to its maximum by the owners of wealth, who today are indisputably wealthier, stronger and more ruthless than ever before, and who have turned over management of the country to the most irresponsible narcissistic president in the nation’s history.
All that anybody has found to do about this so far is to shrug eloquently, and say, “wot the hell, wot the hell, toujours gai, toujours gai.”