My friend, Kate Taylor, turned 60 on Saturday, and I went to Martha’s Vineyard to celebrate with her. She has a birthday that coincides with the anniversary of Woodstock. Kate was 20 at the time, but being a musician from a musical family, she was part and parcel of the time. We sat around the breakfast table this weekend discussing the meaning and legacy of Woodstock. Just in case you haven’t been listening to your local rock station this week, Aug. 15 was the 40th anniversary of the music festival.
Most of the Woodstock generation, also known as baby boomers, came from the generation known as the builders. The builders have been defined by two major events in their lives: The Depression and World War II. Our parents grew up with the ethic of a moral war and a government that aimed to take care of its own with Social Security, the Works Progress Administration and the G.I. bill. Women got out of the house and worked in factories and desk jobs for the war effort. Men came home, went to college and were able to purchase homes. We were a prosperous nation and extremely powerful. The boomers grew up hearing of our parents’ hardships, but also of their faith in our government to wage wars that were necessary and to take care of our citizens.
For many of us, the first chink in the full cup was the JFK assassination. Other than a rather odd kid in my class who was saying to all of our classmates that this was a conspiracy, we all bought the line for a few days until we witnessed Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. It was too odd, even if we believed the view of the day: the lone gunman theory. Then came the Warren report, and it was the beginning of the end of blind trust in our government for the boomers. The Vietnam War and the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King also defined the boomers and the tail end of the builder generation.
The builder leaders, such as Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, gave us hope and inspiration to sit at the lunch counters and to march. On the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Smithsonian had an exhibit of a lunch counter and signs of protest. Included were the protest signs from movements spurred by the racial rights protests of the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Vietnam and women’s, gay and disability rights. Juxtaposing the marches was Woodstock, another defining moment for our generation. It not only defined our generation, like the protest marches, it also gave America another push toward knitting together our rich diversity.
When the heavy rains came to Woodstock, the U.S. military helped out. For a group of young college students who flashed peace signs and said, “Peace baby, pigs off campus,” it gave a new respect for our country’s institutions. For the tea baggers of the current right wing, America learned that there was “power to the people” and that we now had the numbers of citizens to make that difference.
Television and radio were ubiquitous, as transistor radios made news easy to access. Television spread pictures of what was taking place with all these young people. When food ran low, Wavy Gravy delivered the famous, “What we had in mind was breakfast in bed for 400,000 people,” which became a mantra of what could happen when people cooperated in a spirit of peace and fun. The Woodstock generation also learned to “seize the power,” and young people began to think about running for office. Woodstock showed our generation’s strength. One of my friends said that for him it meant being outside of the Pentagon for a Vietnam protest and handing wet rags to protesting vets so that they could withstand the tear gas.
Woodstock changed America, all of America. Rock music moved people, and every Christian rock band has Woodstock to thank. Forty years ago, Woodstock reflected the spirit of our country, and it still does today.