Woodstock wasn't the great cultural event people remember

Tuesday, September 8, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

Given that almost every life experience improves with the passage of time, making even Dogpatch look good through the rearview mirror, I suppose one cannot overly fault the baby boomers' nostalgic perception of Woodstock as a defining cultural moment. Nevertheless, after reading scores of editorial and letter commentary praising what was largely a three- to four-day period of sex, drugs and rock and roll as a monument to peace, love and music, I must diffuse this notion with a little gentle objectivity.

Admittedly, I did not attend Woodstock as I was otherwise occupied in those days and, in truth, would not have attended anyway — I was a grown-up. I have read differing opinions of the entertainment — that it was inspired, beautiful and some of the most wildly exuberant rock music ever seen. On the other hand, there were multiple complaints of equipment and electrical failures, musicians so strung out on drugs as to be incoherent and attempts by anarchists such as the Yippies’ Abbie Hoffman to inject their political flavor into the event.

Nevertheless, when one reflects upon what passes for music today, it probably is not too big a stretch to understand the affinity of a stoned audience with the efforts of equally stoned musicians amplifying their sounds to a crescendo where neither the beat nor the lyrics are intelligible. To many of us, among the saddest legacy of Generation Woodstock was that it signaled the end of music as we knew it — kicking up the sound enables a diluted work ethic and pride among musicians and lyricists alike. Play it loud enough and talent doesn't matter.

In all fairness, however, it is a matter of record that the celebration known as Woodstock caused few problems in the area adjacent to the dairy farm location. According to local merchants and police, the participants were, for the most part, polite and well-behaved — in the words of one merchant: “They were dirty but nice.” Primarily a middle-class college crowd, the attendees were products of their environment — they were taught manners and knew right from wrong.

The most destructive effect of this baby boomers' legendary epiphany was their almost total sacrifice of the notion of personal responsibility. Unlike the preceding generation, whose development was rooted in hard work and sacrifice during World War II and its aftermath, the boomers adopted the motto, “If it feels good, do it.” This shirking of responsibility manifested itself at the end of Woodstock — the hundreds of thousands of revelers departed, leaving a horrible, soggy mess for the locals and the state of New York to clean up.

Much has been made of the Woodstock experience awakening the youth of America to righteous causes such as protesting unjust war, poverty and injustice and petitioning for civil rights for everyone. Protest and dissent are sanctioned by our constitution and can create positive movements for change. But when protest becomes ugly and shameful, it provides a fertile soil for anarchists to sow seeds of destruction.

For example, a gathering to object to a war, a law or other government activity considered unjust is usually a healthy exercise of the right of assembly and free speech. But when that protest is expanded to show disrespect for and deliver physical threats against the members of our armed forces and the police, it is reprehensible. And when it escalates to bombing military recruiting offices and ROTC buildings, robbing armories and defacing/destroying public property, it becomes a form of sedition.

Among the most egregious conduct I have seen occurred in the late '60s during a visit to Hawaii by then-President Johnson. As few residents had ever been afforded the opportunity to see a president, thousands of families thronged to Hickam Air Force Base to see and hear him speak. Instead, the visit was disrupted by sign-waving morons chanting “Yay, yay, LBJ – How many kids did you kill today?” — a constitutionally protected but juvenile and uncalled for refrain.

To be sure, the several hundred thousand in attendance at Woodstock had a grand time — an equal number serving in Southeast Asia did not share in the fun; during those 4 days, 109 youngsters died serving their country in Vietnam (Remembering Woodstock 40 Years Later - AARP Bulletin Today). To me and certainly to many more, the enduring legacy of Woodstock is that most of those excited by its wild and woolly excesses outgrew the experience and rejoined the establishment. And the generation that followed has resisted the urge to follow pied pipers or tilt at imaginary windmills.

Finally, to those exhibiting horror and disbelief at conservatives' “unpatriotic and unruly” activities at tea parties and town hall meetings, please turn your clocks back 30 to 40 years. By comparison, the current discourse is reminiscent of Sunday School picnics.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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