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Getting Ourselves Back to the Garden : A look at the Woodstock phenomenon on the eve of its 25th anniversary

I ‘m going on down to Yasgur ‘s farm I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band I’m going to camp out on the land And try an’ get my soul free We are stardust We are golden And we’ve got to get ourselves Back to the garden.

Friday begins the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the “three days of peace and music” that became the legendary Woodstock concert. In California, some remember the day with a certain bemused detachment as a moment of East Coast madness. But those who were far enough east to hear the astounding hourly reports of the crowd’s growth remember something more electrifying. The peace movement that had begun with Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s primary challenge to President Lyndon B. Johnson had ended with the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and with the election of Richard Nixon. No one, even Nixon’s supporters, quite believed his campaign claim that he had a plan to end the war (seven more years of war lay ahead). The Establishment had won a great, come-from-behind victory. The peace movement seemed dead.

And then, for a moment, it came back to life. It is easy, indeed irresistible, to mock flower-child lyrics like those by Joni Mitchell quoted above. But, ironically, the vision was essentially conservative. The garden of the song was the America the Woodstock generation had grown up believing in, the America that went to war only when the moral justification was as overwhelming as it had been in World War II. Mere Realpolitik calculation--so much blood for so much credibility in the great game of the superpowers--fell far short of that ideal. As Martha Bayles shows in her recent book “Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music,” even much of the Woodstock music was an older American sound recovered--born-again blues, folk and close harmony, not acid rock.

The cliche is that the citizens of “Woodstock Nation” are all stockbrokers now. Some are, and more power to them. Others are quietly influential in other walks of life. But many of them still believe that, at a crucial juncture in their country’s history, their youthful opposition to an un-American war, expressed partly through the music they honored, was of major political importance.

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Perhaps they are wrong. Perhaps those who scoff at all talk of the “meaning” of Woodstock are right. And perhaps music had nothing to do with it in the first place. But there is a major, national difference of opinion on that point, and the difference, in the end, may be why Woodstock is worth remembering.


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