A Long Walk Back to the Garden: Woodstock Turns 50


Woodstock Music & Art Fair, 1969. Photograph by Woodstock Whisperer via Wikimedia Commons (cc).

by Gregory Leffel

Woodstock…Over your half-open name
rumors of life raised a curtain
where linger, limned by childhood memories,
the legacies of ancient ties
binding our tribe to the garden primeval.
Edgar Brau

It’s Woodstock’s fiftieth. Happy birthday! But which Woodstock shall we celebrate? I prefer the nostalgic “legacies of ancient ties binding our tribe to the garden primeval” version from Edgar Brau’s acclaimed poem “Woodstock.” But that’s just me, and it’s a long story.

There’s also the received popular media version, the historical event itself: half-a-million efflorescing, tie-dyed baby-boomers in full bloom at flood tide; three days in rock and roll heaven; three days of peace in a nation at war with itself. The Sixties, a decade by turns fractured, violent, deadly, righteous, subversive, creative and mythological got captured in a single image, as if one picture could distill the decade’s entire ordeal and make sense of it.

A massive, self-possessed generation fills the frame, notionally revolutionary, nodding toward radicalism, lifted for a weekend from the world’s gruesomeness to luxuriate in the liberated counterculture they themselves had made. “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive” – and the perfect media set-piece. Easy to memorialize, then to commercialize and, finally to trivialize in Madison Avenue’s “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” style.

But it’s Woodstock’s spiritual story – “binding our tribe to the garden primeval” – that buried the event in our souls. Woodstock was billed, after all, as an Aquarian exposition – the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the New Age, Woodstock Nation, the beloved community, the Millennium come upon us; Woodstock as “Be-In” with great music.

Whatever happened to that blissful dawn? I want it back.

The Sixties revolution was as much about consciousness as politics. Woodstock, remember, kicked off with Swami Satchidananda’s invocation, reinforced by Ravi Shankar’s grinding sitar. The festival’s infamous “brown acid” may not have been any good, but LSD and religious mysticism tied the Sixties’ cultural and political revolutions together in non-dualistic Oneness from which oceans of consciousness would wash us to the far shores of peace and harmony. From the beginning, as Todd Gitlin notes, beat gurus like “Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, believed devoutly in a confluence of politics (on behalf of the outside and the future) and psychedelia (on behalf of the inside and the present).”

A shimmering, luminous vision, Woodstock was a sure sign of the future taking shape around us, the Sixties as history’s hinge. “We are stardust/we are golden/and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” Joni Mitchell sang about Woodstock (though she never made it there herself). Millennial dreams of a mythic return to original innocence mesmerized my generation, but innocence was already dripping through our fingers before Country Joe McDonald, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and dozens more mounted Woodstock’s stage.

As the late-Sixties unrolled, the counterculture’s two arms – the quest for consciousness and the vision of radical politics – delaminated like a rotten kitchen counter, the pretty, colorful patterns of Formica curling and peeling away from the sagging, waterlogged cupboard underneath.

Political radicalism, once hopeful about democracy, turned revolutionary and blew itself up into fragments like the Weather Underground, the Black Panthers and yet smaller cells like the Symbionese Liberation Army, while radicals’ bombing sprees blew up our naïve “boomer” claim to virtue.

Radical politics retreated toward the small, the local, the authentically and personally manageable – to communes, co-ops and communities; to a politics too small to contend with the furious conservative counterrevolution that haunts us still. Making necessary exceptions for ongoing civil and identity rights struggles, longtime activist L.A. Kauffmanaptly captured the new mood in the title of her 1990s essay, “Small Change: Radical Politics Since the 1960s.”

What then of consciousness and its shimmering vision? Quickly discredited in the popular mind by hawkers of New Age crystals, horoscopes and religious cults, it left a superficial residue of Star Warsspirituality, recreational drugs, yoga classes to keep us fit, and mindfulness to help us check out once in a while from the stress of capitalism’s relentless wheel – hardly revolutionary stuff.

Maybe Woodstock’s dawning new age was stillborn, or just profoundly misunderstood. In our globalized present it’s hard to remember how parochial the world was when the surging crowd of hippies, freaks and fellow travelers found its way to Max Yasgur’s muddy pasture. Every nation’s version of Sixties’ radicalism was framed by its own political circumstances and cultural history. American radicals were as different from the French ’68ers as the French from Czechoslovakian radicals, and they from the Polish, the Mexican and the Japanese, despite commonly shared notions of liberation and rejection of the Establishment.

The same is true of time: America now is not the America of 1969. The meaning of getting your “consciousness raised” back then is not the same experience as getting “woke” today. And in that difference lies the paradox of celebrating Woodstock’s birthday while misunderstanding what it meant back then when Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” blasted from the speaker towers.

Woodstock Nation was at heart quintessentially American. Its dream fit the continuum of a radical vision rooted in America’s brand of social liberalism, whose apotheosis was Roosevelt’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society – the opposite of neo-liberal laissez faire.

This radical-liberal line began in the eighteenth-century American Enlightenment. It connects that century’s New England theologians working out the logic of England’s 1640s parliamentary revolution – the first people in the world to call themselves “liberals” – to political revolutionaries seeking liberty in 1776, and later, to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalist ‘liberty of the soul,’ to abolitionism and feminism, to the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Progressive movement and the social gospel, and to urban reformers and Pragmatists like William James, Jane Addams and John Dewey who celebrated the “religion of democracy,” in the perfection of which lies the perfection of justice.

America’s social liberalism and its lineage of American egalitarianism, democratic rights and liberal Protestantism was, of course, endlessly corrupted by its vast hypocrisies, which caused the left to reject this tradition by the end of the Sixties. But in spite of these hypocrisies, it also enjoyed a hard-won reputation as the well-spring of potentially revolutionary social reform.

Who filled the counterculture’s rank and file? To contemporary ears it sounds odd to hear that American social liberalism was on the rise as the ideology of radical reform in the early 1960s. By then it had caught fresh fire among college students studying Christian existentialist ethics, inspired by writers from Soren Kirkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Paul Tillich, and promoted by progressive clergy.

In The Politics of Authenticity, Doug Rossinow points out that this ethical spirit drove the commitment of early Civil Rights and student radicalism among young people, black and white, who, in the main, grew up in liberal churches and synagogues, its influence spreading among members of Students for a Democratic Society (the mainspring of college radicalism) everywhere except, perhaps, irreligious Greenwich Village and Berkeley.

To this spirit Martin Luther King appealed in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail;” from this spirit came the American New Left’s quest to perfect democracy and to find self-liberating authenticity at its core; inthis spirit philosopher Richard Rorty called such radicalism “achieving America,” the endless perfecting of our own original Revolution.

I say this to lay a grave marker on the Sixties’ founding radical consciousness that died before the decade ended. This generation – my generation – killed American social liberalism because, in our frustration, we found it insufficiently radical. Despite its distinctive Americanness, it’s revolutionary potential remains dead today, equally despised on the left and right.

Let it rest in peace for another day, and let’s look at the road we took instead through Woodstock and beyond – the road that split our consciousness in two, and that confuses us still.

What changed our minds about the sources of American radicalism? Globalization as it emerged after the Second World War, and growing doubts about the nation’s entire historical project, its very legitimacy, and its place in the world.

Somewhere between the beginning of the Cold War and the height of the Vietnam War, the United States became popularly identified with empire and the international malfeasance this implies. I don’t dispute this designation, but I worry that radicalized baby-boomers drew the wrong lesson from its meaning, twisting it into an impossible contradiction that deprived us of the power we needed to confront it.

Liberation from the all-prevailing consciousness of empire began in the 1960s with the Vietnamese and the new, emerging non-aligned nations. It spread to indigenous peoples everywhere, and in the US, to African Americans, women, and anyone else who was marginalized.

But freedom for all begged the question of who, exactly, the empire consisted of, and specifically, whether Woodstock Nation’s mostly white, middle-class, educated children (who benefitted most from US hegemony) could perform the necessary self-erasure required to escape the empire’s power.

We tried to style ourselves as marginalized ‘others,’ alienated from and victimized by said empire and its brutal, authoritarian ‘pigs.’ A contortionist can touch his head with his feet, but white, radical students can’t become the wretched of the earth however hard they try.

Admitting complicity in order to reform empire from within is hard and confusing work. More tempting, unfortunately, is to admit defeat and withdraw into a parallel world, a counterculture, to find freedom for ourselves and escape empire altogether.

As radical politics blew itself to pieces, it felt like withdrawal was the only option left. What was Richie Havens really saying at Woodstock when he sang, “Freedom, Freedom, Sometimes I feel like a motherless child?”

Freedom was something we craved in the real world, but it seemed was accessible only in an imagined, poetic one. Our hearts broke from the collapse of our politics ‘on behalf of the outside and the future,’ and our generation buried its pain in the hallucinations of ‘the inside and the present’ of self-enlightenment as the 1970s ‘me decade’ unspooled.

A second strategy to counter empire – one employed by late-Sixties leftists and the left ever after – was to ‘provincialize’ it, to make it small and ‘other’ on the world stage, to make it appear as only one more culture among many others with no right to push its ideology. In other words, we had to move our minds outside of the US and look back in to see it from the perspective of the exploited.

From this perspective, the mainframe of the empire’s social power could be reduced to its hypocritical and inauthentic core, as if the dominant society – we ourselves – had no meaningful culture of our own, just the need to learn a new one from outside. In the process we gutted our generation’s revolutionary potential. We denied the ‘center’ its credibility, called our own experience illegitimate, evacuated our self-confident sensibility of its energy, and filled it with the wisdom of the ‘margins’ – or so we thought.

As a result, American radicals turned their backs on America’s social liberal tradition. To fill the void, we embraced the well-founded complaints of post-colonial writers and revolutionaries, seeing French post-structuralist critical theory as a replacement for America’s democratizing, pragmatic philosophy, and welcoming exoticized religions be they First Nation, Eastern or from Europe’s pagan past. All of these were world views entirely foreign to most American minds.

We came to believe in anything but ourselves, and that only something from somewhere else could free us from our own imperial being. Any sense of our own broadly shared, self-produced, self-aware, collective progressive political agency died in the process, and we surrendered America to the conservative, neo-liberal counter-revolution.

As affirming as I am of the absolute requirement to listen and learn from the greater world – and to marginalized communities at home – I’ve decided that revolutionary consciousness movements can’t operate on outside ideas alone if they are going to last. They must build from the native materials close at hand, manufactured locally, and not be offshored to convenient locations elsewhere to relieve us of the burden to think for ourselves.

What then of Woodstock, signal of the New Age: a beautiful celebration of hope, a revolution of consciousness, a requiem for misplaced dreams or a wake-up call to recover our inner resources and start moving forward once again?

My God, America needs to be stripped to the wall studs and rebuilt! Our Revolution is yet to be achieved and the religion of democracy resuscitated. But it can only be recovered with a consciousness, in a language, and with resources that are rooted in the radical social liberalism that is America’s defining invention. “[F]reedom, and freedom’s land/the kingdom of God, and the Rights of Man” – that’s how James Taylor, who was uninvited to Woodstock, summed up Americanness. Remembering ourselves is as crucial as the latest iteration of critical theory.

The fractured, unfinished American liberal project remains now as it was in the Sixties: as simple as “Love your neighbor as yourself,” “All people are created equal,” and “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;” and as complicated as reverse-engineering our present neo-liberal establishment in the name of civic solidarity, equality, recognition, justice, and protection of the Earth. Tear gas and rubber bullets be damned, though we may yet face them. A vision of a democratic, socially-liberated ‘America achieved’ – the completion of the logic of our Revolution – may suffice to pull us through.

Sixties politics destroyed itself, despite its burgeoning ‘new age’ consciousness. Our current progressive politics are just as susceptible, and we don’t yet have a new consciousness to convince our interlocking generations and identity communities to abandon consumer capitalism and divided loyalties in favor of a society of equity, diversity and limited demands on the planet. I’m not judging – I’ve failed as much as anyone – just reporting the news.

That’s why, after all these years, we must remember Woodstock as a signpost to the human hope that we can liberate our world. We mustremember Woodstock, the bliss to be alive in that dawn, the “legacies of ancient ties binding our tribe to the garden primeval.” It was the last time in my lifetime that we tried to gather a generation as a tribe with some inchoate sensibility of a centering consciousness to unite us.

That’s why we remember it, why we appreciate it, and why we must dare ourselves not to forget it. Events like Woodstock create holy ground, a great awakening, to which we must return again and again and again to nourish our souls, and to remind ourselves how deeply we must dig to make our world thrive.

To return to Edgar Brau’s beautiful Woodstock poem:

Look now: behold we are leaving, behold
as our footsteps retrace those heady days.
And be careful: those who profane this ground, failing
to remember, will reap only shame.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

About the Author:

Gregory Leffel, Ph.D., is a missiologist working on collective action, social movements and theo-politics, and is director of One Horizon Institute in Lexington, Kentucky. He is author of Faith Seeking Action: Mission, Social Movements, and the Church in Motion; and is past president of the American Society of Missiology.