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Woodstock ©

Will Jones was at Woodstock

woodstockBy the time we got to Woodstock,
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration

– “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell

Crosby, Still and Nash recently played a concert in San Luis Obispo, California, where I live.  While I didn’t attend, friends who did raved about it. Turns out the concert was filmed in HD and  it started airing on TV in late July. My wife and I watched it one evening and by the time it was over we agreed that we’d missed a great performance by a legendary group that reached a high it hadn’t reached in a long time, particularly on an astonishing rendition of “Suite Judy Blue Eyes.”

While not exactly déjà vu, the experience took me back to the summer of 1969. I was in the early days of a first marriage, living on an island in the Susquehanna River about 30 miles north of Harrisburg. It was that time in American history when everything seemed to be happening at once, including the continuing ascendance of rock music as my generation’s anthem and daily soundtrack. My wife and I were thrilled when her brother gave us tickets to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair as a wedding present, not realizing at that point that it would turn out to be one of the most significant cultural events of the 20th century.

woodstockAlong with my fifteen-year-old brother and another of my wife’s brothers and his girlfriend, we drove to the festival on August 15th, having no idea what to expect when we arrived. We had our tickets, our camping equipment and enough food to last the weekend. After a few hours negotiating Pennsylvania and New York back roads, we approached the festival site on a two lane blacktop, fell into a long line of cars, and when it was clear we were going no closer, we pulled into a field and made camp, along with thousands of other eager pilgrims.

We soon learned that we were about a mile from the staging area, a walk that we made several times over the next couple of days. I still remember the thrill of seeing the vast hippie army spread out over the hills in every imaginable style of shelter, music playing, flags waving, smoke rising, intoxicating aromas filling the air.

It would take more space than I have here to describe in any detail the experience of the next three days. Highlights? Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Country Joe, Janis Joplin, and the incredible level of calm and cooperation demonstrated by several hundred thousand young Americans. Lowlights? Rain, mud and not staying to hear Jimi Hendrix. Bummer!

Tickets for Woodstock were not collected after Friday. I carried my Saturday and Sunday stubs in my wallet for many years, and eventually kept them in a safer place, pulling them out to show friends, and, when I started teaching, slack jawed students: “Mr. Jones, you went to Woodstock?!” Forty-three years later, nothing has replaced Woodstock as one my life’s greatest transformational experiences.

About a decade ago my wife embedded my old tickets in a window at the bottom of a framed Woodstock poster. It hung on the wall behind my desk during my nine years as a high school principal. On especially tough days I could look at that poster, remember Joni’s lyrics and smile:

I’m going on down to Yasgur’s Farm
I’m gonna join in a rock and roll band
I’m gonna camp out on the land
I’m gonna set my soul free..

photo by will jones, art by ame jo hughes

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