Susan Reynolds

Looking Back

The Woodstock Phenomenon, Forty-Two Years Later

500,000 yearning children, as one, portrayed credibility, voice, and vision

Posted Jul 11, 2011

Forty-two years ago next month, I lay curled into fetal position on a soggy piece of cardboard, in a muddy field in upstate New York. Night had fallen, and, along with half a million others, I was damp, cold, hungry, thirsty, and weirdly euphoric. And, no, I had not taken any drugs, not the brown acid, or the orange acid, or even tokes from the endless stream of marijuana joints that were generously offered. 

My sister's boyfriend, my sister, my brother, and I had gone because we missed the concert that had taken place a few weeks prior in Atlantic City. We had our brother Roy to thank, as he was the one who spotted a small advertisement in Rolling Stone about an outdoor music and arts festival that would take place in Bethel. (The festival was named Woodstock because the producers' company was named Woodstock Ventures.) Roy thought an outdoor, camping-type, quaint little festival sounded, well, groovy. And yes, we knew some of the biggest bands were scheduled to appear, and we had gone to our share of concerts, but we were also young and naive. Besides, even the producer's projected no more than 200,000 would attend, spaced over the three days.

We had no idea how legendary that festival would become, or that we would end up marooned with half a million hippies and straights (it didn't mean heterosexual in those days), freaks and geeks (though we didn't call them that then, and there were more geeks than hippie freaks by about 500 to one). Like more than 200,000 others, we arrived with no tickets, no cooler filled with sandwiches and drinks, no bedding, no raincoats, no change of clothes, no water, no emergency supplies. 

Not long after we joined the long line of pilgrims, and soon thereafter scrambled over the discarded fence, we got separated. No one remembers why. Rozanne and Tom wormed their way to the very front, where Tom shot the one roll of film he brought, snapping close-ups of muddy feet, muddy blankets strewn over the wooden fence, and Santana, an unknown band at the time. Despite dropping acid minutes before he was asked to take the stage (because the scheduled acts couldn't navigate the roads) Carlos Santana electrified the audience. So Tom captured pictures of their torsos, the only thing visible above the fence, as they performed, and muddy feet. What Tom didn't do was turn around and train his lens on the sea of youth behind him, something he greatly regrets. 

Roy and I wedged ourselves into a spot much higher on the hill, and once we claimed turf slightly bigger than our bodies (when seated in lotus position), we stayed put. The joints came, as did scraps of hamburgers or potato chips, and later in the day shared water or warm soda. I declined almost everything, mostly because I was shy, and afraid to get high, even in the best of circumstances. We didn't see naked people (though Rozanne and Tom did, and up close) or Jimi Hendrix stumbling around drugged out of his mind (which he was) or people having sex (that was mostly taking place in tents and campers around the lake).

Once I surrendered to the experience I felt oddly safe, immersed in my generation's culture, one with the swelling crowd, and part of something so monumental, I couldn't form opinions about what it was for a long time afterward. I felt like an amoeba in a far larger organism, symbiotic and miniscule. The music bonded us; our humanity engulfed us; our sense of global significance embodied and empowered us as a swaggering band of youthful dreamers. The counterculture had a visual: 500,000 yearning children, as one, portrayed credibility, voice, adrenaline, and vision.  Our longings for peace, for change, for brilliant futures for ourselves as individuals, and for the human race as one were evident.  

What I Remember Most

Although others have disagreed, I definitely remembered an omnipresent anti-war sentiment. Half a million of our young men were fighting in Vietnam, and we had a mandatory draft, which meant approximately half of the people at Woodstock were eligible. When Country Joe issued his invitation to sing along to what became the quintessential anti-war chant, the response was electric. It was the first time this small-town girl palpably felt the power my generation really held. As government helicopters circled overhead one could feel the hint of paranoia and anger they generated. Was the government there to spy on us, threaten us, disband us, or gas us? I remember the cheers that arose when the announcer told us they were bringing us food, water, and medical supplies, and that someone on board had flashed a peace sign. 

I remember the joyful, heady atmosphere that followed, crawling up a muddy hillside by grabbing outstretched hands, standing in long lines to use the foul-smelling portable toilets. I remember hearing announcements about drug overdoses and the lack of food or water, and feeling like the outside observer I had already become, yet also feeling an emotional tide and feeling sustained by the group. Through it all, I remember the music and how it bound us together. One after another, musicians and groups played the songs that we already loved or would grow to love. They were our anthem, our identity, and the demarcation line from that of our parents. These were our troubadours, the truth-tellers, and the rebels we admired and emulated. 

I remember grumbling when my brother decided we should probably look for Rozanne and Tom, walking through the chilled night air at 3 a.m., retracing our steps until we reached the car and crawled inside to sleep. I remember the trip home; our tongues wagging; our recognition that we had all gone through something so extraordinary that going back to our everyday lives would not erase it. Our country was in turmoil, but half a million contemporaries came together to celebrate life, music, and joy and had the phenomenal experience of realizing that we were one. What I remember most is the sense that my generation could make a difference-that the world would soon become ours to ruin or to save.

How It Changed My Life

Prior to Woodstock, I had attended peace demonstrations and often stood warily on the sidelines, watching others raise signs, make speeches, chant slogans, and taunt society. After Woodstock, I moved more freely into the throngs, even planted myself on the floor of a local university library during a "sit in," and told my mother I was spending the weekend at a friend's house when, in actuality, a few weeks after four students were killed at Kent State, I piled into a broken-down Chevy Impala with seven other girls and drove to Washington, D. C., where I saw, for the first time in an up-close-and-personal way, soldiers lining the streets of Washington, their guns trained on us. Buoyed by the strength in our numbers and the memories of Woodstock, I gathered my generation's ideals to my heart and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with students shouting for an end to the Vietnam War.  

I was never a hippie-not even close-but I was an idealistic dreamer who went on to become a reporter, a field where ideals served me well. Rozanne and Roy became teachers, molding young souls in important ways. For years afterwards, whenever we got together, we gleefully reminisced about Woodstock. But it wasn't until I was living in Paris in 2003 that I had another "Woodstock moment." I had only been in Paris a few months and did not speak the language, but had a few Parisian friends who were attending the anti-war demonstration leading up to the invasion of Iraq. So there I stood, surrounded by several hundred thousand people whose language I did not speak. The air was electric, the mood jovial despite the reason we had gathered. 

As we waited for hours for the march to begin, new arrivals came in droves, inching ever closer, tightening our personal space to a few inches. The crowd swelled, the lines of police multiplied, and feelings intensified until someone put a huge speaker on the roof of his truck and blasted Sister Sledge singing We Are Family . . . and then it happened, my "Woodstock moment." Suddenly all barriers disappeared and the music brought the entire crowd together as one, and I felt just as I had felt thirty-four years earlier, in a muddy field on Max Yasgur's Farm. 

Where's the Fascination?

So what's the benefit from all this lovely nostalgia? It's not like I think about Woodstock often; in fact, until I suggested a 40th anniversary anthology to my publisher in 2008, I hadn't thought about it since that day in Paris. Still, those memories are not only woven into the American fabric, particularly the baby boomer fabric, and they are woven into the fabric that began as little Susan Reynolds from Albany, Georgia, and became someone who consistently chose adventure over stagnation, communal responsibility over greed, and advocacy over complacency. And when I think back to those days, I marvel a bit about who I was, and how far I've come. I've lived my life with high ideals, a strong preference for peace, love, and music or stories that inspire. I still believe that, working together, we can create a saner, more responsible, environmentally conscious, and benevolent world. I am decidedly anti-war and pro-green. Clearly, the Woodstock experience made an indelible impression on my soul, and that doesn't happen often in life.

There's nothing like being present at one of history's significant events to make you feel alive. In a generation that has affected the world in such monumental ways-positively and negatively-those of us who wound up on Max Yasgur's farm have gone through life with a unique feeling of brotherhood (and sisterhood). When the subject comes up, we are likely to be admired, particularly by younger generations, and apparently Europeans. While I was living abroad for a year, when younger people learned I had, indeed, gone to Woodstock, they treated me like a rock star. They hungered for details, which, frankly, puzzled me. Why would it still hold such fascination?

So that got me to thinking about the value of nostalgia beyond the deeply personal. When only half a million people can claim genuine connection to the experience of being there, why are so many others entranced by the legend? In compiling the story collection that would become Woodstock Revisited, I gave this a great deal of consideration, particularly as the contributors wrote about their experiences, carving detail out of distant memories, as if it happened yesterday rather than forty years ago (at the time of publication). Obviously, we all felt deeply impacted.

I believe the Woodstock fesitval became a meaningful, mythic event because it provided a visual, much like the first photographs of our planet from space, that affected the way many of us viewed the world and our place in it. The phenomenon of Woodstock is still remembered and revered because it created waves in world consciousness, and looking back to the event itself reminds us that we are one, that masses of youth can come together in peace and harmony (even in catastrophic conditions), that music is the language all humans understand because it bonds our hearts, souls, dreams, and identity. A phenomenon like Woodstock has the power to shape our personal and generational identity, and this one did, in spades, at least for me.

Its nostalgic value lies in the stirrings of empowerment for those of us who experienced it; and for those who yearn to hear our personal stories, it seems to be a desire to know, on some level, how that felt. Millions of young people are still yearning for a similarly empowering experience.

Oh, if we could rise again in solidarity and strength, we could once again transform the world. Old hippies and dreamers where can you be found?

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