When Woodstock went Woo-woo and why

First Indian Nobel Prize for Literature Winner R. Tagore, visited Woodstock in the 1920s and pronounced “the entire village was filled with magical vapors...”

First Indian Nobel Prize for Literature Winner R. Tagore, visited Woodstock in the 1920s and pronounced “the entire village was filled with magical vapors…”

Part I

Author’s Note: Paralleling what the term hopes to describe, the exact origins of “woo-woo” remain forever mysterious. Certain etymologists believe it originated with the eerie sound made by a Theramin of science fiction and horror film fame. Also noteworthy: whenever Wonder Woman’s jumbo-sized side-kick, Etta Candy, joined her best friend in battle [circa the 1940’s], she would shout: “Woo-woo!” Admittedly, the hyphenated word carries a disparaging connotation within hard science circles, however, I hope to use it with — for the most part — a forgiving fondness.

Spirituality, like love, is a subjective experience protected by at least one of the Inalienable Rights of Man. So before the recent attempt to dissolve buffers between religion and government, Americans were guaranteed the right to worship (or not) more or less as they saw fit. What was generally frowned upon by the leaders of most faiths, however, was shameless church-hopping. Not irrelevant to which: immediately prior to the fall of Rome, its citizens took to participating in rival belief systems, in order to cover their bets with Eternity. And so it was most likely here, that Western Civilization first awakened to the fickle fundamentals of Woo.

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Now because “godless artists” invading the town in 1902, stretched the tolerances of Woodstock (particularly through pagan rites in The Maverick Festivals), our collection of six hamlets soon joined Greenwich Village, Provincetown, Taos, and several Southern Californian locations, in becoming another petri dish of artistic and — eventually — spiritual experimentation.

Then, after a die-off in the thirties and forties, those tolerances were again tested in the late 1960s, when an all-Republican town government passed an ordinance forbidding “Three Days of Peace and Love” otherwise known as The Woodstock Festival (the coat-tails of which we’ve ridden like a magic carpet, nonetheless bedeviling, ever since.) What the town fathers were unable to root-out, however, was a less-locatable insurrection manifest in the Earthly rites of Rock, and an aspiring to “higher consciousness” amidst the celestial dew of Woo. Of course, the two revolutions were joined at the hip by the psychedelic experience, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves. What Part I of this article will now explore, are the roots of Woodstock’s mysticism, long before Robert Zimmerman or John, Paul, George and Ringo were even born.

Yes, history acknowledges modern Woodstock began in 1902 with the grand opening of “Byrdcliffe,” the Arts and Crafts colony financed by Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, a student and friend of John Ruskin and William Morris. Pertinent, however, to a lesser known side of this founder, the papers of Woodstock historian Alf Evers contain a copy of a letter, sent by Whitehead to The American Society for Psychical Research in 1897, reminding us that he was also a member in good standing within that community. The two page letter, which argues against further inquiries into a family of supposed “sensitives,” attempts objectivity while discussing spirits, seances, and supernatural forces in general. Whitehead’s pseudo-scientific tone clearly shows him to have “a foot in either camp,” in so far as he politely debunks his subject, while evidencing a general sympathy towards the endeavor of contact with the dead. During this same period, of course, The Great Houdini, himself, most famously fulfilled this most ambivalent quest.

When Woodstock’s Godfather, Hervey White, first met Whitehead that same year of 1897 in Chicago, the poor, young American writer accompanied the wealthy Englishman’s assessment of several mediums — without memorable results. Yet more important to our inquiry, it was only four years earlier that Chicago’s Columbian Exposition’s “World Parliament of Religions” inspired Swami Vivekananda (an all but unknown follower of Ramakrisha in India) to mysteriously appear at this groundbreaking conference, where he immediately became its cause celebre. (Vivekananda’s lectures attracted the sincere admiration of no less a genius than Nikola Tesla, who “elsewhere” declared himself an aetheist.) This sage would die at the age of 39 in 1902 and yet, as the first such Indian guru to arrive on these shores, his impact was profound. Unlike many such “Swamis” to follow, Vivekananda discouraged worship of his own person and apparently remained immune from temptations fated to compromise the contribution of so many Eastern teachers to come. Of course, such “failings” are common to all religion’s priests. Take, for instance, the tallest tree in our nineteenth century’s Christian forest, Henry Ward Beecher, (called by Lincoln, “the most famous man in America”) who most memorably represents a prominent “sinner” among those assumed to be “sinless,” back before the entire genus of such would-be saints became notorious.

Equally as important to this inquiry as Mr. Whitehead’s spiritual tendencies, his wife, the Philadelphia heiress Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead (whose original middle name adjoined the second syllable of her husband’s “Radcliffe” to create “Byrdcliffe”), was known to sandpaper her fingertips in order to “more authentically feel” the essence of a fern. A friend recalls her snipping a rose at dawn and carefully carrying it more than a mile, to share the extraordinary splendor of a dew drop suspended between two petals. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that “Arcady,” their lesser California art colony and forerunner to Byrdcliffe, was first described by the Whiteheads as an “art convent.”

Mrs. W also testified to the astounding properties of some very strange diets, indeed. Actually, she quite obviously becomes Woodstock’s first Empress of Woo. A famous champion of tomatoe, carrot, and lemon juice, (probably Gayelord Hauser, himself) for instance, experienced enthusiastic sponsorship during his visit to the Whitehead’s Byrdcliffe home, “White Pines” (where, by the way, use of alcohol was greatly discouraged.) Until, that is, The Great Juicer was invited to the village below by Ben Webster (whose Byrdcliffe family home would eventually shelter Bob Dylan and family.) Well, Ben, who was far from a teetotaler, himself, soon introduced this all-vegetable-prognosticator to his own most recent favorite miracle elixir, otherwise known as “The Brandy Alexander.” Now according to an interview conducted by Jean Gaede many decades years ago, the vegetabalist so took to enthusiastically consuming Brandy Alexanders, that every establishment Mr. Webster and he visited was soon found to be “fresh outta’ crème.” Whereupon, The Great Juicer, himself, supremely juiced, was returned, a slovenly mess, to White Pines. The reputation of his miracle drink reduced to dish water, it was probably poor Peter Whitehead—the black-sheep son–who chauffeured this pale shadow of a shaman to the next train.

[Few contemporary Woodstockers are satisfied with any Byrdcliffe biography unless and until the Whiteheads are “outed” as raving anti-Semites, and so — though it has little or no bearing on this article — note that I’ve noted it.]

The only truly rotten apple in the Whitehead family, however, was the spoiled, sadist of an older son, Ralph Jr. — universally worshipped by both his parents — whose drowning with the sinking of the Vestris in 1928, likewise sank his father into a depression from which Ralph Sr. never recovered, and which precipitated his death the following year.

But prior to Byrdcliffe’s appearance on the shoulder of Mead’s Mountain, our hard-drinking little hamlet wasn’t exactly renowned for its piety, either. A plainly pagan attachment to superstition, the stubborn prevalence of ghosts, several well-known witches, and an “other-worldly” influence of Irish quarrymen in the surrounding the hills, all helped clear a carnival ground for the odditorium to come. Nor, as we see with the Whiteheads, did all “these godless artists” swelling the town from 1902 on, necessarily ignore “the spiritual,” although a majority didn’t attend church, it’s true.