It is incredible to think that exactly 50 years ago Woodstock took place.
Exactly 50 years ago this week we had an event that defined a generation. It was either three days of madness and chaos, or three days of heaven on earth, depending on your point of view. I refer of course to “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” on a summer weekend in upstate New York.
Readers of this piece who are younger may only know of it as some interesting bit of ancient history that you heard about somewhere along the way. But for us older folks, this was something we grew up with. And if you were part of the hippy scene back then – as I was – it will forever remain in our memories.
It was held on August 15–18, 1969 on Max Yasgur’s large dairy farm in Bethel, a little over an hour’s drive northwest of New York City. There had been other rock concerts before this, but this was certainly the biggest and most famous up to that point, with over 400,000 people attending.
It was supposed to be a money-making affair, but that failed to happen as crowd numbers went well beyond expectations. Ticket sales prior to the event led organisers to guestimate 50,000 or 100,000 people. But on the opening day it became clear this was not going to be.
Perimeter fencing was not even all up yet throughout, so the organisers soon had to announce that this would be a free concert. So it was a disaster in terms of being a sound business venture, but the 1970 documentary film Woodstock helped organisers to pay off their debts.
The concert itself turned small rural towns into crowded messes with miles’ long traffic jams that actually became parking lots. But the crowds kept on pouring in throughout the weekend. Many of the great rock acts of the time were there, including: Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Ten Years After, and Canned Heat. Acoustic performers included John Sebastian, Arlo Guthrie, Melanie, Richie Havens and Joan Baez.
It certainly is the stuff of memories. And there have been various anniversary concerts held over the decades including a 1994 25th anniversary concert that actually had more people in attendance. There was to have been a Woodstock 2019 concert in a few days’ time, but that was cancelled for various reasons.
In case you are wondering, no, I did not make it there to the 1969 concert – but more on that in a moment. But the significance of this festival for us hippies and rebels of the late 60s was overwhelming. The Vietnam War was in full swing at the time, and so many of us were protesting against the “system”: materialism, war, capitalism, middle-class values, the police, and all forms of authority.
Woodstock seemed to embody everything we wanted life to be: peace, love, and rock and roll. No violence, no cops, no restraints – just a half million people seemingly getting along just fine. So we really did see this as a religious experience: it was bringing about peace on earth.
Those who were there – and those of us who saw it from afar – really thought we could make the hippy revolution possible. Many said things like:
‘We must be in heaven man’
‘We can change the world’
‘It stopped the clock for three days’
‘We saw so many others who looked like us, talked like us, and thought like us’
‘This is the dawn of a new age’
But of course it was not to last. Indeed, just a few months later the dream came crashing down at another major rock event – Altamont in California, just east of San Francisco. In many ways the December 1969 concert ended the hippy dream once for all. Hells Angels, who were used as security guards, ended up beating a number of concert goers, and stabbing one of them to death.
That was such a downer compared to Woodstock. So many of us realised then that our dreams of building heaven on earth were just that – dreams, with little chance of succeeding. I have written about this in more detail here: billmuehlenberg.com/2014/11/07/the-rolling-stones-the-end-of-the-hippy-dream-and-my-story/
Obviously as a Christian, I must also think about the 50th anniversary of Woodstock from a spiritual point of view. Two years after the original Woodstock I became a Christian, so that was the end of my radical hippy days – more or less (see my testimony that I link to below).
Looking back at the gathering, and seeing things through biblical lenses, I can note several things. I can certainly reflect on two major biblical truths about humanity. First, we are all made in the image of God. Thus there is a greatness, a majesty, and a dignity found in all men and women.
That is why even as stoned-out hippies we could aspire for things – things of beauty, and peace and tranquillity. We could seek for a better world, and pine for times of harmony and brotherhood and peace. That in part explains why – at least for a few short days – one could find so much caring and sharing going on.
There was a real sense of community at Woodstock. People got into the spirit of things and shared food, clothing, dope, and so on. This was an imperfect reflection of humanity made in God’s image. But there is of course a second great biblical truth about humanity: the Fall.
Mankind’s fall into sin has resulted in a distortion of God’s image in all of us. Instead of being naturally caring, sharing and loving people, we are now selfish sinners who have a default setting to look after number one, and we use other people to further our own self-centred ends.
Thus something like Woodstock could never have lasted. Even small communes at best have great difficulties thriving and enduring. A willingness to pitch in and help others might be good for a very short-term basis, but it cannot be sustained over time.
And even though we had a lot of peace and rock and roll at Woodstock, what we really had was a whole lot of hedonism. It was all about personal peace and happiness, about getting high, about free sex, about pleasure of all sorts. Such hedonism cannot achieve any lasting social goods, and can only degenerate into carnal, fleshly and selfish lifestyles that are out of control.
That is not how you build a better world. That is not how you recreate mankind. That is not how you solve all the world’s problems. Indeed, unbridled selfishness and hedonism can only compound our problems. At the end of the day, Woodstock was just one gigantic exercise in humanism.
Sure, it was humanism mixed with spiritual and psychedelic overtones, but it was still humanism. This was man’s attempt to meet the divine – or at least to realise divinity on earth in utopian form. But setting up a peaceful paradise on earth without the Prince of Peace is ultimately an exercise in futility.
Man’s attempts at spirituality just do not compare to God’s chosen means of us getting right with him. But man-made religious exercises have been how we have been operating ever since the fall. False religious and counterfeit spiritualities are always far more appealing than coming to the One True God on his own terms.
Consider the lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock. She was invited to attend but had other engagements, so she penned this piece while watching the concert on television. Check out all the spiritual themes in her words:
I came upon a child of god
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ’n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
See her performing it here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRjQCvfcXn0
Or the Crosby, Stills, and Nash version here (including footage of Woodstock): www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKdsRWhyH30
And many may not realise it, but a religious speaker was one of the first to take the stage at Woodstock. The Indian Hindu guru Swami Satchidananda gave an opening ‘invocation’ at the Woodstock festival, calling music ”the celestial sound that controls the whole universe.”
Um, no, not quite. It is the celestial Word of God that holds the universe together, and it is that Word that we must align ourselves to. Jesus Christ once gave us a story about why man-made systems will always fail. In Matthew 7:24-27 he spoke about building a house upon the rock, and building on shifting sand.
He pointed out the obvious: when storms come, only one house will last. All others will come crashing down. That is as true of entire cultures as it is of individuals. Indeed, my own story testifies to this.
As mentioned, I did not make it to Woodstock – I was in too much of a state of being constantly stoned back then to even consider going. Indeed, it is surprising how many concerts I and my hippy friends did manage to get to back then, given our spaced-out condition.
For what it is worth, many of the rock groups featured at Woodstock I had seen or would see much closer to home. I recount some of these heady days in my personal testimony: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/06/27/coming-home-my-testimony-part-1/
And there actually was a Wisconsin Woodstock that I went to over a weekend in late June 1970. According to this report (which an ex-hippy friend just happened to send me hours ago) there were 85,000 of us at the festival: www.thecitypages.com/news-opinion/wisconsin%E2%80%99s-woodstock/
But just getting high and listening to music does not make for a satisfactory and worthwhile life. It certainly cannot bring about a better world. I and many of my friends were just spiralling out of control back then. I was depressed and suicidal, and it really is amazing that I made it.
It is only because of the grace of God that I am now able to reflect on this event of a half century ago. Sadly some of my hippy friends did not make it: they either died of drug overdoses or committed suicide. Their lives were cut far too short, while I have made it thus far. Thank you Lord.
And many of those who performed at Woodstock are now dead: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Joe Cocker, etc. I am aware of only one who came out later saying he had become a Christian: Carlos Santana. See a story on this here: www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2017/may/how-god-saved-rock-and-roll-legend-santana-from-7-suicide-attempts
Our individual lives were a microcosm of the bigger hippy scene. It was a short-lived experiment, one that had some high moments (Woodstock) but too many lows (including Altamont). It was a fixation on self, and was all about finding happiness on our own terms.
No wonder it all failed so spectacularly. It could not work, and I didn’t. Thankfully God broke through when I was a messed up 18-year-old and rescued me out of my dead-end lifestyle. Just when I was at the very end of my rope, he stepped in and changed my life forever.
That was 48 years ago now, and in two more years I will also have a 50-year anniversary. And it is not just me. So many hippies and counter-culturalists of the late 60s and early 70s came to know Christ as well. The Jesus Revolution was God’s antidote to the counterfeit revolution of the time.
And now we have a true universal brotherhood of harmony and peace, where people from all walks of life, all ages, all skin colours, and all cultures can find complete oneness in Christ. Everything Woodstock promised but could not deliver on is found when lost sinners (such as myself) lay down their arms and submit to the lordship of Christ in faith and repentance.
And if you thought Woodstock was an amazing time of unity and tranquillity, you ain’t seen nothing yet. One day multitudes from all times and all places will gather around the throne of God for the greatest festival ever. And it will run for a whole lot longer than just three days.