By Bill O'Brian
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 21, 2008
It's a glorious late-summer afternoon in Sullivan County, N.Y. Brian
Selmon and his wife, Barbara, are sitting on a rise overlooking the
sloping natural bowl that once was Max Yasgur's alfalfa field near
the hamlet of Bethel.
Nearly four decades ago, some 500,000 kids gathered here for the
Woodstock Music and Art Fair, and, in large measure, they defined the
baby boom generation. Brian was there then. Now, gazing at the
hillside that looks more like a golf course than the quagmire it was
on that weekend in mid-August 1969, he is trying to reorient himself.
The stage was there, he believes (correctly), pointing down to a
patch of gravel. He and his two buddies were sitting over there,
halfway up the slope, not far from the small sculpture memorializing
Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia that has been in the
field since the late '90s.
Barbara, who did not go to the festival, is explaining why she and
her husband of 31 years have made the 2 1/2 -hour trip here from
their home near Albany. Woodstock "is part of him," she says, "a big part."
Brian, now 57, is enumerating the sensations he feels sitting in this
spot today. "Youth . . . optimism . . . I remember the rain. I
remember . . . people having fun . . . living in the moment."
A wind gust deposits a scrap of paper 15 feet away, on the grass next
to the stone monument that marks the site. Brian walks over and
pockets the refuse. "No sense littering hallowed ground," he says.
Brian Selmon may have been there. But I wasn't, and neither were my
three traveling companions, all of us 50-something. By the time we
got to Woodstock, they were half a million gone. And the place was a
museum, the Museum at Bethel Woods. It's part of a 2,000-acre, $100
million complex that hosts concerts and other community events,
including numerous festivals this fall. The enterprise is largely the
brainchild of Sullivan County native Alan Gerry, a cable TV pioneer.
The museum became a political lightning rod last year when New York's
Democratic senators, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, sought a $1
million earmark for it and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) objected. The
museum opened, without that federal funding, this summer.
From the outside, the museum has the look of a mega-church. Inside,
its exhibition space, designed by Bethesda-based Gallagher &
Associates, features 20 films, 164 artifacts, some 300 photographic
murals and a 132-seat high-definition theater in which a 21-minute
film, "Woodstock: The Music," is shown every half-hour. The gallery's
self-guided interactive display is divided into four segments.
The first, titled "The Sixties," is an ode to that decade. A visitor
is reminded of, or introduced to, the touchstones of the era: "Father
Knows Best"; the seemingly unlimited promise of post-World War II
suburbia; JFK, MLK, RFK; the civil rights movement; the Cold War,
Vietnam, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali; the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the
Supremes; the American journey to the moon; the 1967 "summer of
love"; and the fashion of the era: go-go boots, bell-bottoms,
dashikis, miniskirts, suede Stars and Stripes jackets.
The second segment is called "The Woodstock Festival Is Born." Its
archival documentation is what makes the museum a museum, and what
makes a visit entirely worthwhile. Here, a visitor learns about the
founding fathers of the festival, four entrepreneurs who wanted to
hold a concert in the town of Woodstock, basically to promote their
prospective recording studio. About how they had to change the venue
of the "Aquarian exposition" three times, eventually landing 50 miles
southwest to Bethel. About how inept the foursome was. About how
construction of the stage did not begin until July 22, 1969, less
than month before showtime. About the appearance fee Jimi Hendrix
commanded ($30,000) and why the Doors and Joni Mitchell declined invitations.
The third segment, "Three Days of Peace and Music," takes a visitor
to the event itself. To Country Joe McDonald's signature rendition of
his signature song ("And it's one, two, three,/What are we fighting
for?/Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,/Next stop is Vietnam"). To a
psychedelic magic bus, complete with love beads in its windows. To
scenes of Hog Farm Commune members chopping up vegetables and serving
them out of trash cans to the famished masses.
The title of the final segment is a question. Perhaps the question of
the baby boom era: "The Sixties and Woodstock -- What Do They Mean
Now?" A video presents interviews with both fans and naysayers of the
counterculture. Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Oprah Winfrey weigh
in on the question. So do, among others, Pat Buchanan, Ed Meese and
Woodstock attendee Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).
What it all means is up for debate. But there are at least three
things we can all agree on:
That, as local resident Leni Binder says in the video, the festival
made Woodstock "a universal word."
That, today, nobody in America is writing or singing antiwar songs as
direct, sarcastic and unambiguous as Country Joe McDonald's rag.
And that, in hyper-sterile and hyper-litigious 2008, there is no way
any health department or any Woodstock-generation parents or
grandparents would tolerate a festival where chopped vegetables are
served to kids from trash cans.