In case you missed it, the Generation Gap is back with a vengeance. That term was first widely used by sociologists in the 1960s to describe the rejection by the Baby Boom generation of the values of their parents, who had grown up with the privations of the Great Depression and later gladly embraced the material comforts of a thriving postwar economy. Much of that rejection took the form of what we now remember, fondly or otherwise, as the Counterculture, which reached its moment of apotheosis at the Woodstock Festival, 50 years ago this summer.
Broadly speaking, the youth who went to Woodstock, or envied from afar those who actually got to go, were of a mind to change the world for the better – to “get ourselves back to the Garden,” as Joni Mitchell wrote in her song “Woodstock.” Opposition to the Vietnam War, in particular, fueled a great dissatisfaction with the status quo, made questioning authority acceptable and awakened interest in many other political causes: civil rights, the women’s movement, denuclearization, environmentalism, ending US support for Latin American dictatorships, advocating LGBTQ rights, disability rights and more.
Many of that generation elected to pursue careers based on what Buddhists call “right livelihood” rather than competitive salaries and benefits. Many others, however, found their enthusiasm for political activism waning once the danger of being drafted and sent to Nam went away.
In some significant ways, the world actually is a better place today than it was in 1969; compare photos of summer smog in Manhattan then and now, if you need proof. But many things are, undeniably, still awful. There are still far too many racists and xenophobes in America, though they’d deny those descriptions, and there are people in positions of high authority today who are no better than Alabama governor George Wallace was back then. The Pentagon still dominates the federal budget, and we’re always, always at war somewhere in the world. Climate change is at or near, or has perhaps even passed, a critical tipping point that will put many of our cities underwater within decades. The poor stay poor. And Millennials and their younger counterparts (apparently called Generation Z, though that term hasn’t quite stuck yet) are having great difficulty finding jobs that pay enough to live on their own, buy a house or raise a family – even with college degrees and in a supposedly robust economy.
Who’s at fault, in their eyes? Baby Boomers, who couldn’t or didn’t fix everything that was wrong with the world that they inherited. For the young who were not born into wealth, material success is a fantasy, not something that can be declined to make a sociopolitical statement. They see Boomers as privileged and smug and blind to advantages. Don’t even try to tell them that many of their elders also know what it was (or still is) to struggle financially. “Woke” Millennials and Gen-Zers are embracing ageism even as they reject every other -ism imaginable.
Some Boomers are taking the bait and engaging in silly “generation wars” rhetoric, accusing Millennials of ruining all sorts of cultural and technological phenomena about which we feel nostalgic. Others who believe we did the best we could with bad material, who would like those woke youth to find role models among us, simply feel stunned by the notion that the current state of the world sucks because we screwed up, or got too greedy. Once we were the youth culture; now the youth culture no longer recognizes us as allies. We have eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, forfeiting our long-cherished innocence, and now the Garden is kicking us out.
Maybe what we all need to facilitate intergenerational communication is to take some field trips together to the Museum at Bethel Woods. Younger visitors might benefit from the history lesson, the immersion in the politics of the day, on view in that institution’s permanent Main Exhibit, “Woodstock and the Sixties.” Veterans of that decade will be reminded of the ideals that we once held dear and hadn’t yet negotiated away bit by bit to cope with the demands of real life. According to its mission statement, the Museum “embodies the key ideals of the era we interpret: peace, respect, cooperation, creativity, engagement and a connection to the planet we live on and all the people who inhabit it.” Sounds like potential common ground, no?
Better yet, the Museum is marking the festival’s semicentennial year with a special exhibit titled “We Are Golden: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Woodstock Festival and Aspirations for a Peaceful Future.” The curators are describing it as “a very special exhibition that examines Woodstock and what the youth of 1969 wanted for the world, places the festival in the context of the positive societal changes it has spawned and asks today’s youth what they are asking the world to do now. Concert for Bangladesh, Live Aid, Farm Aid, We Are the World, Earth Day, the Peace Movement, Women’s Movement, LGBTQ Movement, #metoo, the Women’s March and student gun control movement all have their roots in the 1960s. This exhibition uses the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair as a metaphor for the tumult and human response of the entire decade of the Sixties in the hope that young people today may draw inspiration to articulate what it is that they want from their own world in their own time.”
Well, that sounds at least a little hopeful. Over in the Crossroads exhibit gallery, another 50th-anniversary special exhibit, “We Are Stardust,” will present objects and interpretation related to the Apollo 11 lunar landing, which took place in July 1969, just weeks before the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. It will interpret objects and history surrounding the Moon landing through the lens of American culture, examining the effect of the Cold War/space race, American space program, “Moon mania” and the eventual national success of putting the first man on the Moon on the lives of everyday Americans at the end of the tumultuous 1960s.
The Corridor Gallery Exhibit houses “Three Days of Peace & Music: The Musicians of the Woodstock Festival,” a new semi-permanent exhibit featuring vignettes on each of the 32 groups who performed at Woodstock, from Richie Havens to Jimi Hendrix. You can get a taste of the sometimes-obscure lore surrounding these performances in trustee Wade Lawrence’s blog on the museum’s website at https://bit.ly/31jcIPq.
But perhaps more urgently needed in this politically fraught time is “Election ’68: The Whole World Is Watching.” Crucial contextual events and movements like the Vietnam War, civil rights and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy provide a background for the tumultuous 1968 presidential election and its aftermath. “We felt that it was important to highlight this election, as there are many parallels that can be drawn between then and now, namely divisive political figures, strong social justice movements and the polarization of political belief throughout the country,” note the curators. “As we continue to navigate through choppy waters in our country today, perhaps we can look back on the events of the 1960s and ’70s and see ourselves reflected there. What lessons can we take from our political past?”
It might indeed be instructive today to compare the refusal of some disaffected Eugene McCarthy supporters to vote in the general election for the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey (who lost to Richard Nixon by only half a million votes), to the role of “Bernie-or-bust” voters who opted out or turned to Jill Stein in 2016, rather than support Hillary Clinton. (To be fair, in 1968 right-wing third-party candidate Wallace siphoned off another 10 million Dixiecrat votes, mostly from Nixon.) Boomers can have fun arguing with younger museumgoers about whether turning to a more purist, progressive nominee in 1972 was such a great idea, and whether that analogy still holds. And maybe everyone can come away from the discussion with a better sense of nuance instead of blaming one another.
Am I making a trip to Bethel Woods sound like a dose of castor oil, tonic but nasty-tasting? Let’s have a quick look at the fun stuff planned there for this milestone summer. The actual site of the original Woodstock festival has conceded the right to the official 50th-anniversary concert weekend, jam-packed with big-name contemporary musical acts and a handful of veterans from 1969, to Michael Lang; it’ll be held in Watkins Glen, even farther from Woodstock than Sullivan County. But the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts will still have its share of the musical action during what it’s calling Anniversary Week, from August 15 to 18, declaring its intent “to welcome all who wish to visit the historic site and museum, to hear music where history was made and to reflect and celebrate the legacy of this hallowed ground.”
Anniversary Week will include extended hours and docent tours, culminating with an outdoor screening on Thursday, August 15 of the documentary Woodstock: The Director’s Cut on the historic festival field itself. On Friday, August 16, Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band will headline a concert on the Pavilion Stage, along with original festival veterans Arlo Guthrie and Edgar Winter. On Saturday, August 17, Santana, who made their breakthrough performance here 50 years ago on this date, return to the Bethel Woods Pavilion Stage, to be joined this time by the Doobie Brothers. Another show, John Fogerty with the Tedeschi Trucks Band and Grace Potter, is in the works for Sunday, August 18.
Tickets for the film screening and the Santana show are already on sale at www.bethelwoodscenter.org, and are also available through Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com. Admission to the Museum at Bethel Woods is half-price for concert ticketholders three hours before showtime every evening Pavilion or Event Gallery concert day.