Sam knows nothing of Richie Havens’ frenetic acoustic strumming, Country Joe McDonald’s “Gimme an F!” chant, or Hendrix’s electrified Star-Spangled Banner. She knows nothing of the bad “brown acid” or how a festival with an unexpected mass of 500,000 people ran out of food and how the miles and miles of standstill traffic closed the New York State Thruway. But Sam does know mud, about playing in it. She’s slopped around in our backyard after a few days of rain. Maybe not like a naked teenager on a dairy farm in New York State, but she does like getting dirty. On the walk on one of the days marking the anniversary of Woodstock, Sam is pulling on her leash, tugging me off the sidewalk toward a big pile of dug-up earth where crews have been working to restore a street drainage system. It’s not rain-soaked, but it is dirt. And Sam likes dirt.
Woodstock is all around me today—on the radio, in the newspaper, listed on my “Morning Briefing” email from the New York Times. It’s been forty-nine years since Woodstock. Forty-nine years? How can that be? I was 12-years old in the summer of August 1969. I knew there was something going on. The festival, with all those the crazy kids was being played out on TV with Walter Cronkite, the nightly news my parents never missed. But it didn’t really register. Even though I owned a Sly and the Family Stone album and a Credence Clearwater Revival record, the idea of going to a concert hundreds of miles from my home in Pennsylvania to see these bands and others, attending any rock concert of any kind, was not yet part of my life. This would come years later, of course. I did, however, buy the Woodstock album that came out nearly a year later, played it until the grooves hissed from wear, listening to it with my eyes closed, dreaming how it might have been to have been there.
Sam knows nothing of this dream, not until today when I tell her all about it.
“If I had been a few years older, Sam, I would have been there, you know?” I tell her as she sniffs the dirt mound in the parkway just around the bend from the house. “Got in a car with a bunch of friend and stared driving,” I continue. “And that dirt you’re on? That would have been hill of sloppy mud. You would have slid down it while Joe Cocker belted out in the distance.”
There’s freedom in the dirt. Those kids at Woodstock believed in the recklessness of play, of making the moment better in the mess of it all. When it rained and rained some more, the freaks let it fly, they turned the mud into face paint and the brown splatter into joy. Sam is only sniffing her little hill of dirt, but yet she’s fascinated by the raw grunginess of it. I wait her out, let her take in what she has discovered. She paws at it and sniffs some more. Sam does not know Woodstock, but it’s in her spirit, somehow.
We head east and then north, and from Crazy Guy’s house I hear music coming from an open upstairs window.
“That’s Canned Heat, Sam,” I say.
A radio station is remembering the day with music.
“Goin’ up the country,” I sing, “baby, don’t you wanna go?”
Certainly we remember the songs. They still resonate, much of the music remaining not nostalgic but forever embedded in so many songs that came afterward.
Sam looks toward the house and the window, she’s curious, but I’m not sure why. Is it the music? Is it the volume? Either way, Sam prances a bit when she hears it.
“Yeah, it does make you want to move,” I say. “But it’s more than that, Sam.”
So many have come to know Woodstock only as a cliché, as some hippie monument from “back in the day.” That’s sad. Too often the significance is diminished by those who see nothing but tie-dyed shirts and stoned teenagers. The true story of Woodstock is much bigger, much deeper. Yes, it was a true mess—poor planning, all that rain, all those people invading a small rural town. But it also was a generational benchmark, a vision of something better.
“There were hardly any arrests, Sam. All those people, and no violence.” That is mostly, if not entirely true, and all with no visible security. A few cops, ones who could get trough the traffic disaster were there. But not enough to truly do anything if real trouble had broken out. The gigantic crowd, in essence, policed itself. The Woodstockers shared food, and fresh clothes, shelter from the awful weather, and drugs. “Peace and music for three days, Sam,” I say, feeling self-conscious for a second after repeating a romanticized quote from one of the many overly sentimentalized online feature stories that had surfaced recently about those days in a hay field on Max Yasgur’s farm.
“But yet,” I tell Sam. “We just couldn’t keep all that goodness, that beautiful thing going.” Woodstock turned out to be a lightning strike, a utopian flash. The real Woodstock could not have been anticipated. How could it have been? It was far more than the music. It was the perfect counter-culture storm. It was magical. But it was not sustainable. That kind of spirit has a short shelf life in the real world, a sad reality of the human condition.
At the intersection, Sam and I pause. Left or right? One more loop around or head home? It had been a short walk, just a quick stretch for both of us. The plan was to keep it brief. But I got caught up in the moment, the remembering. Maybe Sam was enjoying my stories of Woodstock, or maybe not. Either way, she stands beside me uncertain as I, and now. unsure of what’s next, she sits and looks at me. Sam would have loved Woodstock—all that freedom, all those happy people to pet her on the head or a tickle her under her ear, and all that dirt, that mud to sniff and run through. The beauty of Woodstock was not to be prolonged after that wet weekend in August of 1969. The ugliness of the era soon resurfaced, the war raged, Watergate was not far away, and the world’s rotten side, what remained then, remains today, hiding under the shaky spirit of a touchstone moment. In many ways the ugliness is not hiding at all. It’s right out in the open, staring back at us.
So, Sam and I are at a crossroads and I take a breath, knowing now what I’m going to do.
“Let’s go a little longer, Sam,” I say. “Let’s make it last a bit. Woodstock deserves at least one more block.”
Sam snaps up and stands on all fours; her ears perk, for maybe she understands. We cross the street, turn right and take the next street to head south for another few tenths of a mile, and over the tops of the houses, from that open window at Crazy Guy’s house less than a block away, I think I hear Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” We are stardust. We are golden. Or maybe I just want to hear it; long to hear it. Maybe it’s not there at all. Maybe that’s me singing those words to myself, in my own head, just for me.