Bookchin: Woodstock at 40

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(HOST) This weekend marks the fortieth anniversary of the Woodstock music festival.  Commentator Debbie Bookchin was only a teenager when she attended, but the hopes and aspirations of that time still resonate with her today.

(BOOKCHIN) One summer afternoon, forty years ago, I announced to my mom that I was leaving our New York City apartment and heading up to Woodstock for the three-day music and arts festival. I was 13 years old at the time.  I arrived a few days early, without a ticket, and was quickly put to work helping build the stage.  A few days later, I watched in wonder as the rolling pasture was transformed into a living, breathing sea of humanity. Like most people who attended Woodstock, I had my share of adventures: By the first day of the concert I’d lost my moccasins and went around barefoot the rest of the time; the second day I noticed an acquaintance, Alan Wilson from the band Canned Heat, walking across a bridge to the performers’ area. I let him drag me up the scaffolding – against the security guards pulling at my ankles – so that I could hang out in the backstage area, where one of my sweetest memories is of Country Joe, of the original Fish fame, planting a fatherly kiss on my forehead. Eventually I got tired of the mud and rain. I found a ride back to New York City and ended up in a political debate with Abbie Hoffman of the Yippies, whom we picked up hitchhiking on the New York State Thruway.

But most of all, what I remember about Woodstock was that, even though I was essentially alone – dressed only in a tee-shirt and a pair of jeans with a few dollars in my pocket – I never once felt afraid.  Tucked into my sleeping bag the first night, dozing off to the lullabye of Joan Baez’s soaring a cappella version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot, I felt as safe as if I were in my mother’s arms at home. Pretty much everywhere I looked, these really were my brothers and sisters, caring for each other, sharing what they had, without policing, without a lot of rules, instinctively placing mutual aid ahead of self-interest and doing what came so naturally to them: creating a community.
Recently my 15-year-old daughter was channel-surfing on the car radio when we heard the familiar opening notes of Jesse Colin Young’s version of the 1960s hit "Get Together."  After we’d listened to the famous refrain, "…smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now," my daughter said wistfully, "I wish I’d been at Woodstock." When I asked her why, she said, "Life seemed so creative and interesting back then."  Today it’s easy to focus on the excesses and failures of the 1960s, but Woodstock reminds us of our best utopian impulses: Despite the rain and lack of food and facilities, we enjoyed the music, peacefully, sharing, looking out for each other.  Briefly, we turned our political desires into reality – realizing our innate, deeply human longing for community, and experiencing what life might be like in a more egalitarian, creative, visionary society.  For a few moments, we lived a sensibility we had only dreamed of – and it felt good.


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