Saturday Single No. 145

Originally posted August 15, 2009

Fifteen years ago, I was covering sports and human interest stories in the affluent Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie. From that vantage point, I watched the national media and concert goers descending on upstate New York for Woodstock ’94, a music festival celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original Woodstock festival in 1969. That original festival, as we’ve had slathered on us increasingly thickly during the last week or so, took place forty years ago this weekend (not at Woodstock itself, but on Max Yasgur’s farm outside the small town of Bethel, N.Y.)

During that summer of 1994, always looking for a hook for a story, I asked around among my friends and contacts in the Eden Prairie schools and learned that one of the guidance counselors at the high school had been at the original Woodstock. He told some good tales, many of them familiar: the crowded roads; he and his friends abandoning their car somewhere short of Yasgur’s farm and walking on; the camaraderie among the multitudes at the festival; bathing in a lake; going hungry; his distance from the mammoth stage (which nevertheless didn’t keep him from hearing at least some of the music fairly well); and the utter and absolute mess left behind by the estimated 4000,000 people who were at the festival.

As familiar as they were, they were good tales, and what made them more interesting for my readers in Eden Prairie is that they were told by someone they knew. Connecting my readers to the people around them and to the events in the larger world is, to me, the goal of a community newspaper, whether it’s a weekly or a small daily. If just one reader looked at that story that week and was, first, intrigued by the fact that someone from their community had been at Woodstock and, second, came away from the story knowing a little more about either that community member or what it was like to be at Woodstock, then I did my job.

That’s the only time in my life, I think, I’ve ever written about Woodstock. I suppose I might have crafted a column about the festival in 1979, ten years after, but I don’t think I did. And I guess I’ve not written about it because I don’t have much to say unless I have a hook to hang it on, which is what the Eden Prairie guidance counselor provided in 1994. Over the years, I’ve read a few books about the original 1969 festival, I’ve seen the 1970 documentary film several times (and written about it at least once), and as each anniversary passes, I’ve seen and read memoirs and commentaries about what Woodstock meant to those who were there, about Woodstock as a cultural milestone and all that.

But as aware as I am of what happened on Yasgur’s farm forty years ago, and as intriguing as some of those memoirs and analyses sometimes are, I find myself not particularly interested in writing about those things. And I imagine that might seem odd. Readers might expect that to be an attractive pool for me to wade into. Why won’t I? Because Woodstock – and I mean all things Woodstock: the festival, the music, the generation, the myth – is like a cultural Rorschach test. Each of us will see something different in the happenings forty years ago this weekend, especially those of us who weren’t there.

Me? I see the lawnmower I was pushing around the side yard on the morning of August 18, 1969, the morning that Jimi Hendrix closed the festival. I’d seen news coverage of Woodstock on television over the weekend, and I was pondering what I’d seen, wondering what it had really been like, and wishing I could have been there to find out.

But I was fifteen, and wanting to be somewhere other than mowing the lawn was a pretty frequent state. The fact that it was Woodstock that I had in my mind as my alternate location is the only thing that’s kept that particular August morning present in my memory. So the only thing I truly know about Woodstock is that I thought it would have been more fun than mowing the lawn.

Here’s John Denver with “I Wish I Could Have Been There (Woodstock),” the best song I’ve ever heard about wanting to have been at Woodstock. It’s from his 1970 album Whose Garden Was This, and it’s your Saturday Single.

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