If there's anything I hate more than hippies, it's the overblown and dishonest nostalgia for the 60s that one finds in old hippies, some young hippies sober enough to have read a book, and any frat boy who's ever had an argument about "greatest guitarist of all time" (to my knowledge, this is all frat boys, but I don't want to be dogmatic). If there's anything worse than being a hippie, it's aggrandizing the hippie movement as if something were accomplished, or somehow the 60s were a better time.
But there's something about Woodstock, there's something about naivete in its pure form, there's something about ideals innocently followed, even without a hint of possible realization, there's something about that hope and faith and aspiration that just gets me.
As a cultural event, Woodstock is unique in so many ways, and this even the detractors must recognize. It was a planned event, that deviated radically from that plan (number of people, from commercial event to charity, lack of appropriate facilities, etc.), and this deviation was captured extensively by media (not least of which being the masterful documentary).
But unlike most deviations from plan (or like them?) the result was not catastrophe, but beautiful success. Where riots, starvation, and filth might have resulted, instead there was peace and beauty. And that isn't just propaganda, it's what the people who were there (even the straights) thought while it was happening. And surely thinking makes it so.
The most profound statement of this sentiment was recorded in the documentary when Max Yasgur himself, the farmer who provided the location for the festival, takes the mic. He graciously acknowledges the achievement of Woodstock as a demonstration to the world that "a half a million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music, and have nothing but fun and music, and I God bless you for it."
And this is indeed an accomplishment, one that subsequent Woodstocks, with their rapes and chaos failed to achieve.
But the accomplishment here is twofold: not just hoping that man can rise above, can be better than the morass that is well-familiar "human nature," which hope is in itself unique enough when expressed sincerely, but also the doing, the openness toward a brotherhood of man which, frankly, is lethal in most practical contexts. The essence of the spirit is captured in the absentee song-poem "Woodstock," stirringly rendered by Joni Mitchell at Big Sur:
In the words of the chorus, which she so touchingly emphasizes:
We are stardust,
We are golden,
and we got to get ourselves back to the garden.
The idea here, at the time, is not one of achievement, but of attention and attempt: we've got to get ourselves back to the garden, back to the innocence of Eden. Not that we are there, not that we can assume it, but that if we see what is within ourselves, then we can achieve.
Of course, hope and effort are better than the empty nostalgic complacency of the elderly hippie and Woodstock worshipper. But are they empty? Are these seeds really within us? And if so, is there any value in the efforts made by those at Woodstock, and keeping the memory alive, as in Mitchell's performance at Big Sur?
Perhaps what is so striking about Joni Mitchell's performance here is the sense of possibility, of earnestness - if only the audience can hear and understand (why else explicate the chorus beforehand?), then something can be achieved. And it was only at the start, as such attempts were made for the first time (at least as far as any participants were aware) that such earnestness could be sincere. After the crash of the 70s, and the violence of Altamont, the hope for a change in human consciousness based on the right combination of music, willpower, and drugs was demonstratively misguided.
A too little emphasized strategy for bringing about true radical social reform, and one unfortunately at which many hippies failed miserably, is the instillation of progressive values in one's children through attentive and careful rearing. Of course, any failure here on the part of the hippies is probably not due to a lack of good intentions, but more just a lack of skill and insight—to say nothing of the selfishness which comes from engaging in one's own consciousness expanding drug odyssey. The essence of the problem is perhaps captured by John Sebastian's touching performance at Woodstock. He clearly recognizes the importance of imparting the new values to the next generation, and his eyes are glassy with the beauty of childhood, but his lyrics clearly confuse the strategies for consciousness expansion appropriate to the self-conscious adult with appropriate strategies for effective child rearing.
Not to mention, of course, he's so out of his skull on something he can't even remember the words to his own song.