There was a lot going on in the world in 1969, but few events that occurred 40 years ago continue to hold the place in the public consciousness occupied by, say, humans walking on the Moon, or a weekend music and arts festival known as Woodstock.
Landing men on the Moon is high concept: it's easy to understand the significance without having to think about it a lot. Understanding why Woodstock's 40th anniversary gets so much attention takes a bit more effort.
The first step on the path to appreciating what Woodstock was, is to realize what it was NOT.
WHAT WOODSTOCK WASN'T
It was NOT a model of how to stage a music festival. You have to hand it to the guys who put it together for having a great idea and pursuing it against considerable odds, but having a good idea doesn't guarantee that you can successfully execute it. They were scrambling up until the last minute to secure a location. They thought that, at the very most, 150-thousand people might attend, so food supplies and sanitary facilities were woefully inadequate for the 450,000 who showed up. They didn't think to set up ticket booths, so most people got in free. The festival didn't come close to break-even until it started seeing profits from the movie, Woodstock almost a year later.
It was NOT memorable for its music. Sure, the movie gave a huge boost to artists like Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens and CSNY. But several acts delivered sub-par performances, and several either broke up or drifted into obscurity after Woodstock. There were some memorable musical moments, but they represented a fairly small percentage of the 3+ days of performances.
It was NOT widely embraced by the world at large. Local residents tried to stop festival-goers from getting to the venue by standing in the middle of the only road to Max Yasgur's farm. Newspaper headlines like "Traffic Uptight At Hippiefest" (New York Daily News) and "Police, fearing a riot, ignore fest drug traffic" (Monticello NY Times Herald Record) reflected mainstream society's view of the event.
It was NOT a rock festival. Sure, there were plenty of bona fide rockers there (The Who, CCR, Jefferson Airplane, Mountain) but they shared the stage with folk singers (Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens) and pop artists (Melanie, Sha-Na-Na, John Sebastian) and artists (Grateful Dead, Ravi Shankar) who created their own genres.
WHAT IT WAS
The main thing you have to remember is that the '60s had been a pretty rough decade, marked by three assassinations (the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King,) thousands killed in the Viet Nam war (the purpose of which was a mystery to most) and a civil rights struggle marked by riots and other violence. The present was in turmoil, the future uncertain.
So, what Woodstock represented more than anything was escape. It was, both literally and symbolically, a way for all of us "hippies" (the term was applied more or less universally to anyone between the ages of 18 and 24) to get away, even if only for a weekend, from it all. It became the symbol of a generation giving voice to its worst fears and deepest concerns.
You might say that Woodstock also represented a peaceful rebellion against some of the worst aspects of late '60s America. African American artists opened (Richie Havens) and closed (Jimi Hendrix) an event that also prominently featured Latino artists (Santana) and even one (Ravi Shankar) from India. It was a poignant statement against the racial and cultural discrimination that marked the mainstream.
WHAT IT ISSo, why is Woodstock's 40th anniversary such a big deal? Just take a look at the ways in which the decade of the '00s looks like the decade of the '60s.
Thousands have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (the purpose of at least one of which is a mystery to most) and the world's economy is in tatters. While many racial barriers have been broken, we still live in a country where there are people (now a minority, thankfully) whose racial and cultural biases have been expanded to include immigrants and same sex couples. Add the memory of 9/11 is still shockingly vivid.
In short, it's time for another getaway. For the generation for whom Woodstock represented an escape from the worst things about the world as we knew it in 1969, the 40th anniversary provides a way to briefly escape again -- back to Yasgur's farm, back to the place where it didn't matter where you were born or who you were with or what color you were; back to the place where Hare Krishnas shared their orange slices with anyone who was hungry; back to the place where somebody made sure that everybody knew which of the available mind-altering drugs would produce a bad trip.
The 40th anniversary is also a time for those, like Woodstock attendee Iris Shaprio, to reflect on that original weekend escape, and in the process help put it in perspective for all of us.
"You never know which moment of life will be defining. The experience was so out of the norm for me that I often contemplate my normal, predictable life, and I realize each of us has the choice at any given moment to step out of the box and seize an opportunity. Besides, I have to say that it's still a thrill to say, 'Yeah, I was there. I was at Woodstock.'"