Is the Woodstock Festival history yet? One apocryphal rule is that something becomes history when a historian writes a history about it. Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley will be the keynote speaker at a June 13 and 14 Marist College conference entitled “1969: When Woodstock Changed the World.”
Marist’s conference is being billed as the definitive — and perhaps only — academic conference on this anniversary. Sounds to me like the poor old festival is history, all right, and these folks are going to provide a context for it.
What did it mean? How did the 1960s change the world? All events at the two-day Marist gathering are open to the public, but registration is required. The conference fee of $50 includes some meals and an invite to the closing reception.
I don’t want to fake you out
Take or shake or forsake you out
I ain’t lookin’ for you to feel like me
See like me or be like me
All I really want to do
Is, baby, be friends with you.
— Lyrics from It Ain’t Me, Babe
in “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” 1964
In 1964, five years before the famous festival, American culture was still cautious, conformist and conservative. The world of LSD was a much smaller place then than it later became. But the times, they were a’changin’.
Many of the people I knew had more than a passing interest in all things psychedelic. We favored the less restrictive, more experiential way of being that seemed to us to be promising. My friends and I were listening at the time to Another Side of Bob Dylan, the album before Highway 61 Revisited. “Those are wonderful, wise lyrics,” I still remember my friend Belle Rodd telling me as she placed it on her record player at her apartment on lower Fifth Avenue. “But he sounds so unhappy.”
I’ve never before written about the weekend that year that I dropped acid with Timothy Leary at a notorious Millbrook commune. Since that accomplishment, such as it was, is safely part of history now, however, I may as well.
It was in the mid-1960s. I was living on Sullivan Street in the South Village and used to hang out with friends on sunny spring days at the chess tables in Washington Square Park. A couple of people in our group had taken LSD that came straight from Sandoz, its Swiss manufacturer. It was the real thing, not cut with speed or anything else. I took a few acid trips and sampled other psychedelia in various Greenwich Village apartments, and felt I gained a lot from the mind-bending experiences. The dark tales being circulated at that time about the evils of drugs were only one side of the story. My friends and I were pioneers, as I saw it, in the endless search for human self-discovery.
Belle knew Peggy Hitchcock, a very wealthy young woman who with her brother Billy owned this rambling old Millbrook estate being used as a commune. Timothy Leary of the League for Spiritual Discovery, defrocked Harvard professor and bête noire for Life Magazine and other mainstream publications, was living there. Did I want to go up there one weekend? Yes, I was interested.
We drove through the gate into a park-like setting up to the Big House. Three groups were in residence: the League folks surrounding Leary; the members of the New York Yoga Society, devotees of Dr. Ramamurti Mishra of Ananda Ashram; and a group of irregulars surrounding a guy named Bill Haines, an odd mix of drill sergeant and mother hen.
Some of the people were already tripping when we drove through the gate into a park-like setting up to the Big House. We joined them. I kept mostly to myself that night, watching the interactions among the score or so of people in the Big House and becoming absorbed in sights and sounds to which I felt I had never paid sufficient attention. Leary kept himself occupied with others.
In the morning a bunch of us in a station wagon including Leary and a gangling young man who was with him drove into the village and had breakfast at the Millbrook Diner. We drove toward the city and ended up taking a subway downtown from the Bronx. The sight of Leary and the young man with him sitting in a subway car chewing the meat off a massive T-bone steak brought with them from Millbrook was as surreal as anything I had experienced the previous evening. The other riders regarded the two meat-eaters with little interest. I got off at the Astor Place station and walked back to my apartment on Sullivan Street.
That was 55 years ago.
Like a worn-out shoe
You’re nothing new
Like a beat up car
No good for me
Like an old film star
Na na na na
— Shakespears Sister lyrics, 1989
“With the site of Woodstock essentially in our backyard, it is fitting for Marist to take the helm on an event like this,” said Marist president David Yellen in the press release announcing the June event. “This conference curates key historical milestones to fully examine the circumstances that culminated in the unprecedented three-day concert that was the Woodstock Music Festival.”
The Hudson River Valley Institute (HRVI) at Marist is the Marist lead organizer, working in collaboration with The Museum at Bethel Woods and the New York State Museum office of state history. “Looking at this historic event through the lens of social movements has allowed us to construct panels that explore the impact of that transformative decade, the 1960s, and its most memorable event, the Woodstock Music Festival,” noted Dr. Thomas Wermuth, director of HRVI.
“This is not strictly a scholarly endeavor,” explained Dr. James M. Johnson, a military historian and executive director of HRVI, in the same press release. “The events planned do offer something for everyone: those who attended Woodstock, those who want to learn more about the 1960s, and anyone with an interest in the social movements of that time and how they impact life and politics today.”
The conference will explore the social history of the tumultuous decade. Events will include a by-registration-only $30 field trip to Bethel Woods (where a special exhibit examines what the youth of 1969 wanted for the world, placed in the context of the societal impacts that followed), panel discussions on the Vietnam war, civil rights and feminism; the keynote lecture by Brinkley; and panels on 1960s music and communal living.
New York State historian Devin Lander is moderator and presenter at that last back-to-the-land session. Kate Daloz, who grew up in a geodesic dome in Vermont, and Sally Dwyer-McNulty, a Marist history professor with an interest in the Catholic Worker farm in Tivoli, are panelists. Lander has been doing research on and has written papers about the Millbrook commune.
I’m history, like a worn-out shoe.