Woodstock Monument

Woodstock 50 Years Later: An Eyewitness Account

Crossposted at The American Thinker

The 50th anniversary of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival prompts many to reminisce about the extraordinary gathering of musical talent and idealism associated with that event. It more than lived up to its promotional billing as “three days of peace and music.” Woodstock featured 32 of the most iconic artists in American music history, establishing a high point of outdoor concert music by assembling more talent in one place in front of more people than any prior or subsequent event.

I had driven over from Massachusetts with a good friend from high school to attend the festival, but traffic came to a standstill for hours on the single lane back-country road with 9 or 10 miles remaining to get to the concert site. Being youthful and adventurous, we decided the only shot we had to get there before it all started would be to tail a police car speeding to the event in the left lane passing all the cars on the right and forcing the occasional oncoming cars off the road.  A fearful but gleeful half-hour drive behind blue flashing lights, it worked like a charm. With no questions asked, we arrived at the festival site with time to spare to find a center mid-hillside spot to take it all in.  

In spite of the tumultuous times of social unrest associated with the Vietnam War at that time, what was remarkable about the huge diverse crowd of some 400,000 participants at Woodstock was the tolerance, kindness, and magnanimity of everyone towards each other. While pervasive pot smoking certainly helped in mellowing everyone out, the peace that prevailed over those three days, in which there were two live births, and only two recorded deaths (one from a drug overdose and another from a tractor accidentally running over a sleeping concertgoer), would not be possible today given our current levels of division, intolerance, and uncivility. 

Fifty years later, I see Woodstock as somewhat of a marker — an historical turning point in American idealism and culture. Well into the 1960s, the Judeo-Christian paradigm of idealism — rooted in the country’s founding, culture and the “greatest generation” residual — held firm. That idealism was partially captured in JFK’s recognition of the importance of a social contract and his invocation to all Americans “to ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

Up until the 1960s one couldn’t really separate America’s idealism from the ideas associated with the nation’s founding, which celebrated freedom and embraced a vision of progress and opportunity associated with lifting everyone up by building a prosperous and virtuous society — a City on a Hill that would be a shining example to other nations. And while many historians give America’s Christian heritage short shrift, the fact is that the founders were overwhelmingly Christian. They looked to the wisdom in the Bible and stood on the shoulders of courageous spiritual giants that included Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox and others.  

In addition to the Bible, the ideas of the English philosopher John Locke, a Christian, were central to the American Founding — shaping the attitudes of American colonists willing to fight for independence and providing the central ideas at the core of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Locke’s thinking and logic helped make the new nation the first in human history whose legitimacy came from the consent of the people and whose primary purpose was to protect people’s natural rights — life, liberty and property.  Additionally, Locke made the essential economic argument that it was man’s labor and effort that gave value to property. Thus, it could be said that Locke more than anyone else was America’s intellectual founding father.

While Locke provided the common philosophy to frame the relationship of the people and the state, the Founders at the Constitutional Convention largely designed and drafted the bulk of the legal blueprint for the new nation’s Constitution from the existing states’ constitutions and from William Blackstone and his exposition on British Common Law, which were all grounded in Judeo-Christian morality.  Jefferson drew on Blackstone for some of the terminology and phrases he used in writing the Declaration, and Blackstone’s contribution to the drafting and ratification of the Constitution was pervasive.

Montesquieu was more eclectic in his religious beliefs than either Locke or Blackstone, but he had moral clarity that it was only Christianity that provided the essential bulwark against tyranny. The founders had no illusions about the depravity of the human heart and they were particularly fearful that political power would foster abuse and corruption.  So Montesquieu’s doctrine of separation of powers was seen as the key to protecting peoples’ freedom from government corruption and abuse of power — “checking” and dividing power between executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. 

The early American idealism that prevailed into the 60s was largely based on two premises:  1) a general consensus that idealism starts with recognizing the flawed nature of man, which needs grafting into an independent and higher moral order and framework — most fully realized by the Biblical savior providing not only spiritual redemption, but also a family model, intergenerational continuity and social relational values that came out of transcendent truths and wisdom from ancient Jerusalem, Athens and Rome; and 2) a recognition that idealism was rooted in and contingent on a social contract established by the consent of the people whose rights and freedoms came from God, but which also entailed responsible behavior and effort to both maintain, but also to give back to society and create value.

With the wasted blood, treasure and mismanagement of the Vietnam War on top of the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK in the 1960s, there was a collapse of trust in traditional values and authority, rooted as they were in a Judeo-Christian moral idealism and framework. The Woodstock generation did not entirely reject morality, but sought liberation to find new a new approach — turning both outwardly toward nature and inwardly toward an inner voice to find truth and meaning. 

But with the passage of two generations, it appears that Woodstock’s liberation has been followed more by decline, dysfunction and social decay than any flowering of idealism.  Many in the Woodstock generation who embraced the idea that inner enlightenment could be achieved with mind-altering drugs, would painfully find out that the Woodstock “trip” was a mirage. Worse than a ride to nowhere, it contributed to the acceptance and broadening of drug use, increased the bondage of addiction and death tolls from overdose, and undermined the idea of the mind as a divine gift to be honored and developed in its natural rational and emotional connectivity and creativity.

Looking back, the journey to Woodstock was one of exhilarating anticipation.  My friend and I sat and cat-napped on our hillside spot in front of the stage for the entire three-day concert.  But it had rained in day two and into day three, so it was a real uncomfortable mess. By the end of day three most of the crowd had left, but we stayed through the very end to take in the performance of the all-time ultimate electric guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix.  His final number — a crazy rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” punctuated with crashing and diving crescendos — was actually very prescient.  Hendrix would die a little over a year later from a drug overdose, and here is the rest of the story of that star-spangled banner since Woodstock.

When I set out on that adventure, the core values of kindness, respect, restraint, neighborhood friendships, and marriage commitment were largely intact.   But 50 years later we have slipped further down the muddy hillside pasture of Max Yazgur’s farm that hosted the Woodstock festival.  The moral relativism of “if it feels good, do it” that was popularized then became a national wrecking ball in subsequent years — destroying boundaries everywhere, resulting in a rubble of moral decline where we have ended up with Weinsteins, Epsteins and Clintons being examples of “success” for all to see.

In giving fame and prestige to degenerates, we have lost both shame and courage and become a society of bystanders, illustrated by the heightened frequency of onlookers reaching for their cell phones to capture footage of crazed situations where typically the strong beat up on the weak because they can, rather than mustering the courage to jump in to challenge, restrain and stop the brutes and protect the weak.  And over the last few years, we have been willing to turn a blind eye to organized left-wing instigators of violence, such as Antifa — whose black masks, garb, goals and actions seem ominously parallel to those of the Nazi brownshirts.

We have not only robbed our youth of precious innocence, but also allowed leftists to pepper the educational establishment and poison their minds with distrust and hatred of their country.  Then we wonder why so many in the last two generations become adults who lack a sense of who they are and what they believe, or even become self-loathing antagonists and detractors from what is good in America. 

Polls indicate that nearly half the millennials born a generation after Woodstock think socialism is cool, in spite of its being the chief causal ideology associated with destitute poverty and 100 million deaths in the 20th century.  This may also account for the emergence and rise of juvenile and angry irrationality in Democrat Party members and leaders — now manifest in their embrace of open borders, the abolition of ICE, free Medicare and free college tuition for all. And then there’s the Democrat’s Green New Deal, that is estimated to cost between $51-93 trillion over ten years, a sum that is 2.5-4 times greater than our current national debt — a debt burden already widely recognized as dangerously large, and threatening to collapse the U.S. economy.  The Green New Deal is absolute insanity, not idealism.   

Beyond politics, fundamental commitments such as the loyalty of lasting unions, the bringing of the unborn into the world as miraculous gifts, which were prevalent for almost all prior generations, gave way after Woodstock in just two generations. We now find ourselves living in a moral, political, and cultural wasteland, largely bereft of basic etiquette, restraint, honesty, dignity or decency. Thoughtful people have to ask themselves how low our culture can go before the nation falls intractably into a vortex of hedonism and ultraviolence, the images of which we already recognize because we have been seeing them spewing from Hollywood in the form of “entertainment” for some time.

With many of the Woodstock generation becoming parents and grandparents and finding their way into positions of influence throughout all walks and professions, this ethos has entered farther into the mainstream, contributing to pervasive change in the culture and character of America.  And since politics is downstream from culture, it has been a short step for secular Democratic Party operatives to develop myriad ways of exploiting these changes for their political advantage with identity politics. After Obama it’s become Saul Alinsky “ends justify the means” on steroids.  It also turns out that “race and gender” have proven to be far more powerful battering rams to carry out personal destruction, divide people and destroy our sense of unity and national purpose than Marx’s theories pitting the poor proletariat against the rich bourgeoisie.

Gone are norms of fairness, balance and pursuit of truth by mainstream media.  Gone are norms of practicing restraint and respect for the rule of law by many — and particularly the powerful who count on a two-tiered justice system to protect them and their crimes — even seditious felonies.  In the last few years we’ve been living through an alternate reality of scorched earth politics, vilification, and hatred not only for a duly elected President, but also for nearly half the nation’s voters — who were not only relegated to being both “deplorable” and “irredeemable,” but whose votes were going to be rendered meaningless by a Deep State coup, engineered by leaders in the executive branch of the Obama administration, the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and entirely supported by the mainstream media.   

Senate Democrats create a circus out of their hearings to confirm Supreme Court justices, such Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh, absolutely savaging their characters and that of their families with abandon, and utterly destroying the dignity of the Senate—turning the presumption of innocence and due process of law on their head.

Now we have the spectacle of new freshmen U.S. Congresswomen making anti-Semitic statements in league with holocaust deniers and pushing bold-faced lies to destroy ICE and discredit the officers who risk their lives at the United States’ southern border. Then there are governors from the large and influential states of Virginia and New York shamelessly expanding the boundaries of abortion to include infanticide.  Can the gates of hell be far off?

What can be done to stop and reverse these trends of decline and destruction and restore recognition and respect for the worthiness of pursuing excellence in character, the sanctity of life and the virtue of national purpose and unity?

The American people have far more power to influence culture and society than they probably realize. First, there needs to be a mass awakening about how people can change their behavior — specifically in terms of spending their time and resources.  Second, just as Aristotle asserted that courage is the essential virtue because it protects all the others, there needs to be a revival of courage to go against the culture and “virtual” crowd, by making different choices and speaking up.  Third, people need to reject the encroachment of political correctness in education, news reporting, social media, professional sports, music, the arts and science.  That can mean a range of things, from getting involved with the local school board to withholding donations with letters of explanation to college alma maters, and simply turning off biased news, social media and not patronizing sports, music and arts venues that are politicized.

The solutions to America’s problems are found far more in spiritual than political answers. And if we get the former right, the latter will follow. Although today probably a good number of Americans might look askance at accepting a central role for Christianity, it is entirely logical and natural that Christianity be the driving force of spiritual revival in America. Just as it was the key force in the nation’s founding, Christianity was also the driving force that ended the scourge of slavery and child labor, established and built universities and hospitals and elevated the position of women in society. And when full emancipation was not realized because of Jim Crow laws and segregation, it was again Christians who led the civil rights movement in America. 

It is Christianity that uniquely stresses the importance of tolerance, which facilitated cooperation between representatives from the 13 states with diverse interests, and enabled them to miraculously come together and compromise on the principles that were at the heart of the Constitution. If America is to regain its heritage and culture of tolerance and civility, it must reject political correctness and rediscover the Christian imperatives of forbearance, forgiveness and respect for the competition of ideas. 

Spiritual revival today can take diverse forms in different parts of the U.S.  And it’s likely that this revival may take shape outside of church walls through people who simply follow the example of Christ, who showed the way long before any formalized Christian religion existed. Christ was first and foremost the friend of non-religious people.  He sought out and came alongside sinners and people in bad situations, not to judge them but to show God’s love and forgiveness, and in so doing convict them of their value and their inner yearning to be well and do good.  Apostle John reminds us that “God did not send his son Jesus into the world to condemn it, but to save it.”  

The people who can model the solutions to our problems are right in front and on every side of us across the United States. For we have an army of many tens of millions of Christians, who need only courage and modest training to be successful in serving, touching and transforming a few lives around them.  And if each of those could similarly touch and reach yet a few more, America would experience spiritual revival like never before — one that would elevate its moral climate and open the way for a profound social and cultural renaissance.

Scott S. Powell

Senior Fellow, Center on Wealth and Poverty
Scott Powell has enjoyed a career split between theory and practice with over 25 years of experience as an entrepreneur and rainmaker in several industries. He joins the Discovery Institute after having been a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution for six years and serving as a managing partner at a consulting firm, RemingtonRand. His research and writing has resulted in over 250 published articles on economics, business and regulation. Scott Powell graduated from the University of Chicago with honors (B.A. and M.A.) and received his Ph.D. in political and economic theory from Boston University in 1987, writing his dissertation on the determinants of entrepreneurial activity and economic growth.