Misrepresenting Woodstock

The music festival at Woodstock 50 years ago was a big deal. There had never been anything quite like it in America before — not in terms of size or caliber of performers (though Monterrey Pop might not have been too far behind in terms of the latter).

But with the 50th anniversary approaching, it was inevitable that precincts of the mainstream media would make Woodstock out to be more than what it was. The heady combination of nostalgia and leftism would see to that.

That combination outdid itself in a PBS program called “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation.” I watched as much of it as I could take (about an hour) last night.

Rather than pick apart the content, I’ll just focus on the title. Woodstock did not “define a generation.” Not even close.

The PBS program tied Woodstock to the radical politics of the era. That’s fair. The festival celebrated the “counterculture,” of which radical leftism was a key element.

But radical leftism did not define “a generation” — at least not the generation of Woodstock. In the first presidential election after the festival, about half the members of that generation voted for Richard Nixon. As the Woodstock generation came into its own, it elected Ronald Reagan twice by landslides, and Reagan’s successor by a comfortable margin.

This was followed by two terms of a center-left president and two terms of a center-right one. Not until 2008, 39 years after Woodstock when that generation was on the wane, did America elect a president as far left as the one who had departed the year of the festival.

If I recall correctly, there was at least one reference to Reagan on the Woodstock stage. He was referred to as Ronald Ray-gun (maybe during Joan Baez’s segment). The Gipper also appears in the PBS retrospective. He is seen denouncing radicals during his time as governor.

So it’s ironic, I guess, that Ronald Reagan, not Woodstock, is the political legacy of the Woodstock generation.

Even at the time of the festival, its politics didn’t reflect the politics of young Americans. I’ve already noted Nixon’s standing in 1972.

The PBS program focuses on the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and, in particular, on resistance to the draft. The Vietnam War was, indeed, becoming unpopular among the cohort being called upon to fight it. But I don’t recall most members of the Woodstock generation resisting the draft. Nor did many draw radically anti-American inferences from our presence in Vietnam — the way those who speak in the PBS retrospective say they did.

Woodstock represented much more, of course, than a rejection of mainstream politics in a narrow sense. Above all, I think, it stood for a rejection of materialism and a celebration of communal living.

How did that work out? Communal living went nowhere with the Woodstock generation.

As for materialism, the Woodstock generation took it to heights far beyond those reached by their parents, who are reviled for this “sin” in the PBS program. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it destroys any claim that Woodstock “defined a generation.”

I would argue that feminism is the only world view associated with the Woodstock generation that carried major influence into the decades following the concert. Ironically, the PBS documentary shows scant evidence of feminism at Woodstock.

According to the documentary, all of the organizers were men. So were the vast majority of performers.

If Woodstock helped define a generation, that generation wasn’t the one at Woodstock. In the decades after the festival, radical holdouts gained control of America’s colleges and universities. The jury may still be out on the extent to which these misfits have helped define later generations, but arguably they have done so to a considerable degree.

Nothing I have said here should be viewed as attacking the Woodstock festival itself or as suggesting that it’s not worth commemorating up to a point. I recommend skipping the PBS documentary and watching, if you have the opportunity, the 1970 documentary film directed by Michael Wadleigh with help from Martin Scorsese.

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