Lessons From Woodstock

By Jay Schneider, L.C.S.W.

“Good morning! What we have here is breakfast in bed for four hundred thousand.” Hugh Romney (Wavy Gravy).

The Woodstock Arts and Music Festival kicked off on August 15, 1969. On a 600 acre dairy farm in the small town of Bethel, New York, attendees came to see 32 of the best musical acts of that time over a three-day weekend. The Who, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joan Baez and Sly and the Family Stone were just a few of the greats scheduled to perform.

The festival promoters planned for about 100,000 people. What they got were 500,000 humans crammed together in a muddy field, without ample food, water, shelter or sanitary facilities. Traffic jams with 8 to 24 hour delays and numerous technical problems added to the stress. People who paid for their tickets were forced to share space with concert crashers.

At showtime the opening act, Sweetwater couldn’t be found.Most of the scheduled performers refused to open the show, intimidated by an audience that spanned farther than their eyes could see. The promoters grew concerned that the crowd could get restless.Finally at 5:00 pm, an hour after the concert was scheduled to begin, Richie Havens agreed to perform. He played for more than three hours. When he ran out of material he continued to play, improvising “Freedom,” which became his signature song. His generosity of spirit set the tone for the entire festival.
Statistically, at least 2-3 percent of the half million hungry, tired and intoxicated crowd should have acted out in violence or frustration. Concerts with much smaller crowds and more comfortable accommodations encountered problems with violence and hostility (Altamont). Instead, Woodstock exemplified three days of peace and music.  No riots or violence occurred (short of Pete Townshend kicking a drunk Abbie Hoffman off of the stage). The Woodstock Festival holds the record for the largest peaceful gathering of people of the 20th century.

“Despite delays, the danger of electrical shocks and general backstage anarchy, Woodstock pulled off the ultimate magic act of the 1960s: turning utter rain-soaked chaos into the greatest rock festival ever and the decade’s most famous and successful experiment in peace and community,” writes Rolling Stone.

Why did this poorly planned potential disaster turn into an event studied and celebrated for decades? Attendees and organizers exemplified six positive values that led to the concert’s surprising success:

  • Tolerance and open-mindedness: Attendees who paid for their tickets welcomed those who didn’t. The conservative town of Bethel valiantly worked together to provide needed supplies for the foreign mass of weirdly-dressed young people converging on their town.
  • Flexibility and social intelligence: When the concert promoters made the decision to accept gate crashers and make the concert free, they adapted skillfully and graciously, watching their profits melt in the mud. After rain turned the field into a dirty swamp, attendees made a game of slip and slide to pass the time. To prevent long periods of boredom between acts, attendees played guitars, participated in group yoga classes, and spontaneous games of Frisbee. John Sebastian, who wasn’t even scheduled to perform, agreed to play on a borrowed guitar while promoters scrambled to fix technical bugs. “I did not show up there with a road manager and a couple of guitars. I showed up with a change of clothes and a toothbrush,” he said.
  • Kindness and generosity: Promoters and attendees shared food and water, lean-to shelters, blankets and other supplies. With no cell phones, people assisted one another in finding lost friends and family, and helped others receive medical care.  Promoters chose comedian and political activist, Hugh Romney, as their main security force. He and members of the “hog farm” commune, promoted friendship and humor while handing out paper sheriff badges, appointing “please officers.” Promoters made frequent announcements about comfort and safety issues to support the attendees.

The excesses of the Woodstock Nation are well documented. Drug abuse and addiction, underachievement and reckless sexual behavior left their sorry mark. Still, we can learn from the example of those three days. When we commit to principles of tolerance, open-mindedness, flexibility, social intelligence, kindness and generosity, we can create a more peaceful world.