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40 Years Later, Woodstock’s Spiritual Vibes Still Resonate

posted by nsymmonds

Organizers of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair planned for a crowd of 50,000 at their August gathering 40 years ago in rural New York. Instead, nearly 500,000 people showed up to hear Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Who, transforming the festival into an iconic — and some say spiritual — event that still resonates in America.
“A community grew out of Woodstock,” says organizer Michael Lang in his new book, “The Road to Woodstock.” “A sense of possibility and hope was born and spread around the globe.”
Rock historian Pete Fornatale goes further. “I wanted to make the case that Woodstock was a spiritual experience,” says the author of “Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock.”
Fornatale is no religious zealot. “I’m not a believer. I’m not a nonbeliever. I’m a wanna-believer,” he says. But he’s clearly on a crusade to explore the spiritual dimensions of the festival, which organizers moved from the town of Woodstock to a farm near Bethel, which means “House of God” in Hebrew.
“Spirituality may not be the first thing people associate with Woodstock,” says Fornatale, who recently talked about his book at the Museum at Bethel Woods, located on the site of the festival. “But young people were searching for an identity and for a meaning that they found there that weekend.”
Fornatale sees the festival as a massive communion ceremony featuring drugs as sacramental substances, hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” performed by Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez, sermons by musical prophets like Sylvester Stewart of Sly and the Family Stone, and a modern-day re-enactment of Jesus’ miracle of the loaves and fishes exhibited in the communal ethos of festival-goers who shared food with “brothers and sisters” who were hungry.
Not all historians share Fornatale’s reading of Woodstock, but most agree that the Woodstock generation transformed American religious and spiritual life.
“The counterculture became the culture,” says Mark Oppenheimer, who examined changes among Protestant, Catholic and Jewish believers in “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture.”
Oppenheimer says the era’s main religious changes were “aesthetic, not theological.” As he explains, “Woodstock, wasn’t about a lot of intellectual content, or sophisticated arguments. Instead, there was an extraordinary artistic, musical, social happening. And that’s what the era was for religion.”
During the 1960s, Southern Baptist seminary students had to fight for their right to wear long hair or sandals. By the ’70s, Oppenheimer says religious leaders realized there was “no virtue in being buttoned-down and square.”
Now, the unbuttoned look is the norm for megachurch pastors like Rick Warren. “No one questions that a burly fellow who stands up front with a beard and a Hawaiian shirt can speak prophetically about the Gospel message,” said Oppenheimer. “That’s not something that would have happened in the 1950s or 1960s.”
San Francisco writer Don Lattin, who has written three books about ’60s spirituality, said a key to the transformations of that decade can be found at the Esalen Institute, a retreat center in California often seen as the birthplace of the human potential movement.
“There was a pervasive shift from the theological to the therapeutic,” said Lattin, author of “Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today.” “It was all about feeling good rather than being good. It was about stress reduction, not salvation.”
Today, the legacy of Esalen can be found at “seeker-sensitive” churches that market to congregants based on their felt needs and Catholic retreat centers that offer sessions on yoga, meditation and the Enneagram.
Lattin’s forthcoming book, “The Harvard Psychedelic Club,” will focus on Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and other ’60s figures who popularized psychedelic drugs.
“LSD changed the way millions of Americans see reality,” said Lattin. “So many people had glimpses — often terrifying glimpses — of the mystical connection between self and the rest of the universe. This changed the ways Americans looked at body, mind and spirit and ushered in a lot of what was later called New Age.”
And while members of the Woodstock generation were mostly opposed to the Vietnam War, many embraced the computer technology created by the military- industrial complex, said Stanford University professor Fred Turner, author of “From Counterculture to Cyberculture.”
“The communalists of the 1960s had faith in the ability of individuals to use small-scale technologies of communication to create communities of consciousness,” said Turner, who believes this ethos helped shape today’s Internet.
While these authors don’t neglect the dark side of the ’60s, including the breakdown of the family, they argue we are still following in the footsteps of the Woodstock generation.
“These values have spread out into the culture so much we don’t even see them anymore,” says Lattin.
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • Henrietta22

    What I remember of Woodstock, NY in 1969 was chaos, drugs, nudity, blasting music, dirt, mess, pot, and young people in their 20’s and 30’s leading the young teen-agers to follow them, and they did. We had a 15 yr. old daughter, and a 13 yr. old son, none of their friends even wanted to go to any of this, excuse me, crap. We had a niece 16, who lived in one of the Valleys down in L.A. and escaped out her BR window to go to it’s sister “Flower Children” celebration in San Francisco. She was mixed-up for yrs.! So what good did all this do? First it left the fields full of junk they discarded during their spiritual awakening to drugs, sex, and they did as they pleased by kicking the establishment out of their lives. Oh, I forgot it helped preachers like Warren to stand with his collar open, and others to wear Hawaiian Shirts preaching. I really think society could have found their way to do this without Pot, and Pyschedelic drugs. Twenty yrs. before in Woodstock I was there and a teenager, too. I remember beautiful fields, a quaint Artist’s villege, men fly fishing in streams throughout the woods. I never felt I was sacrificing my individuality and longed to do then what they did twenty yrs. later. Can’t remember any kids in 1969 in the town that we lived in in Santa Barbara County who joined this drugged out scene. If you read this article and not have lived at that time it pictures a romatic happening, it wasn’t.

  • jestrfyl

    I am such a nebbishy, nerdy, nerf-herder — I was a the Boy Scout National Jamboree in Idaho the same summer as Woodstock. What a difference! When I got back to school in September, a couple of the older kids were talking about Woodstock, and I (and my scout colleagues) kept our summer adventures quietly to ourselves. Of course, I am pretty sure I remember more of what I did than the folks at Woodstock do.
    As a fascinating aside – the couple that who were photographed wrapped in a blanket together are still together. They became part of the iconography for the event. Contrast that with the sailor kissing the nurse after VJ Day – who never met again. It is an ironic twist on the generations. We now have a much larger than life statue of the VJ Day Kiss as a part of our Sarasota seaside statuary (not everyone is thrilled with that being emblematic of our community). Perhaps we should also have a larger than life statue of the embracing Woodstock couple – symbolic of enduring love.

  • pagansister

    I was a one of the establishment in 1969, married and with a small baby. Still married, and have 2 grown children. Some good things came out of that generation…and some of the greatest singers…Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie….to name a couple who are still around. No, I’m sure a lot were wasted, but some weren’t I expect. It was certainly “a happening” from what one reads.

  • Henrietta22

    The kiss was because of pure happiness and excitement that the 2nd WW was at last over! was just that, and everyone was kissing strangers all over NYC, L.I., and NJ. It was the most unsexual kiss of the century, jestrfyl. Wrapping yourself in a blanket cannot be compared, and I am sure that many found good futures after the great music gatherings in Woodstock and San Francisco, but having watched it and experienced it with relatives and what entered their lives this article more than annoyed me. There is nothing aesthetic about long hair reeking of pot and incense.

  • cknuck

    H22 just how old are you? I was there at Woodstock and I agree not so spiritual more about sex, drugs, a little rock but more sex and drugs. with the free love (sex) we were lucky there was not HIV back then.

  • jestrfyl

    O for crying out loud — am I the youngest of our little band of commentators? Yikes.
    You were THERE? Or were you simply part of the generation that was there. You have piqued my curiosity.
    I appreciate the ebullience and enthusiasm of the moment that led to The Kiss. But I guess the juxtaposition of the WW2 generation complaining about free love and yet they identify with The Kiss; compared with the “free love’ of Woodstock and the enduring relationship of the people from that iconic photo just seems amusing and ironic.
    Part of my cynicism about The Kiss is simply some folks want that to be a symbol for our community – even though it represents a generation that is no longer a dominant part of our community. But some of them have the discretionary income and political clout to make it so despite the requests for reconsideration by many – many – of the younger citizens. They would not be so tolerant if someone wanted to commission a statue of the Woodstock couple and place it right next to The Kiss.
    Life is simply full of amusing twists – especially in the summer news.

  • cknuck

    Yes there on the farm jest I was a little wild in my youth

  • Henrietta22

    So Cknuck you agree with my description of 1969 in the fields of Woodstock, and San Francisco. I’m 102 yrs. old, but look far younger, thanks for asking. ;). I would wonder about the intelligence of anyone who would compare “The Kiss” to Happy, drugged screaming crowds of people in 1969. It wouldn’t bother me though, I wasn’t a part of the adult generation, I was a child who watched the War, it’s battles, it’s deaths, the adults anxiety caused by it and an upside down economy. I paid more attention to the society our children would be joining in ’69.

  • nnmns

    102! Congratulations Henrietta! May you live and post many more happy and productive years.

  • pagansister

    cknuck…I’ve never “met” anyone who was actually “on the farm” in 1969….and look how you finally turned out! A solid citizen…that I sometimes disagree with, but enjoy “sparing” with.

  • Henrietta22

    Nnmns thanks for your wishes!

  • Your Name

    I was there and can remember about the first 24 hours, but I enjoyed every bit of it. I was in the Army at the time and told not to attend, but did anyhow and glad that I did. I had just returned from Nam and was ona 45 day leave.

  • RFWoodstock

    WOODSTOCK LIVES ONLINE!!!! Listen to RADIO WOODSTOCK 69 which features only music from the original Woodstock era (1967-1971) and RADIO WOODSTOCK with music from the original Woodstock era to today’s artists who reflect the spirit of Woodstock. Win a Woodstock special limited edition white Stratocaster guitar and Collector’s Edition Woodstock DVD. Go to for details.
    Peace, love, music,

  • GodsCountry

    Assassination, racial hatred, the Draft, thousands being slaughtered in Viet Nam, rivers that caught fire, the very air around us unhealthy to breathe. Sure, there were many cultural breakthroughs in art, politics and society in general – but – our country lay in turmoil while some partied in Woodstock.
    My school was riven with racial violence. The FBI allegedly assassinated a leader from my community and my school was again a killing field.
    The surrounding towns and cities were subject to protests that spawned “wilding” before that word existed. Kent state was a horrible, grave mistake, but the stage was set by those protesters and by so many who went wild before them.
    How many people died or fried because of drug use? Committed suicide because they were hopelessly hooked?
    Rioting burned down huge portions of neighborhoods – some have not been rebuilt.
    I remember the drugs, sex and rock and roll, peace and love.
    I remember the reality, too.

  • cknuck

    GC you are so rigth and I remember also all of those things it was a time in our history in which we could have did so much more. We missed it while we partied.

  • jestrfyl

    My appreciation for you has deepened.
    Yeah, a lot of bad and nasty foolishness transpired in the 60’s. I remember a lot of it – we had “current events” and topical discussions all the way through high school. But a lot of good came from that same era. This is true with all history.
    It was 40 years ago and that is interesting in an historic trivia kind of way. But this is a different time and trying to recreate it or even recapture it is foolish.

  • cknuck

    Thanks jest and I agree with YN I remembered very little outside of the wild sex and enormous drug use. Although I was cognitive enough to remember Hendrix and Country Joe McDonald my two favs I can’t remember much more of the musical presentation.

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