“3 DAYS OF PEACE & MUSIC”
Homily for Pentecost 10, August 16, 2009
Where were you in August of 1969? This weekend is the 40th anniversary of Woodstock (August 15—18 of 1969). I can hardly believe 40 years have gone by that quickly! I was 15 in 1969 – old enough to appreciate the music and the spirit of the age – too young to actually go there on my own!
There’s a famous quote that says, “If you can remember the 60’s then you weren’t there.” Nevertheless, I remember. It’s not like you ever stop growing and being transformed, but we do speak of certain stages of life as our “formative years.” I remember 1969 as a time when I was becoming politically and socially conscious – a time of starting to notice what was going on and growing up. I was saying to Sue the other day that I don’t know most of the celebrities that appear in the gossip mags now – and I don’t care. But ask me about someone from 1969, and I will probably remember, even though it’s 40 years ago!
Woodstock was a critical moment in history. It was not just a massive musical and counter-cultural event which drew a huge number of young people to Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York. It reflected and crystallized an era when young people were really searching for something – a connection – expanded consciousness – a new way of being. Significantly, that huge crowd, estimated at being at least 500,000 people, co-existed peacefully for the entire weekend, despite heavy rain and problems with food and water supplies.
Rob Kirkpatrick wrote a book called 1969: The Year Everything Changed. Clearly, many people saw it as a significant moment. It was a new age – movies like midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, and Bob and Carol, Ted and Alice, were playing in the theatres; Neil Armstrong walked on the moon; Pierre Trudeau was our Prime Minister; and Richard Nixon, was inaugurated as President of the United States, and that year began withdrawing U.S. troops from Viet Nam. Star Trek, Mission Impossible and Laugh-In were hit TV shows.
For my parents’ generation, the big things shaping their lives were the Great Depression and the Second World War. But for “my generation,” (as the Who called it), Woodstock was momentous. For some years, since the 1950’s, a significant cultural shift was happening: from an attitude of duty and obedience to one of freedom and autonomy; from wanting to avoid getting in trouble to actively causing trouble; from a positive view of the great wars to an anti-war attitude and a demand for an end to nuclear build-up. The peace sign, which was the “flip-side” of the “V for Victory” sign associated with the Second World War, was maybe the most memorable sign of the Woodstock generation. And there was hair – people grew their hair partly to reject the strait-laced conformity of the 1950’s, partly to allow a more natural, free-flowing expression of who they were.
It was a time when young people were idealistic, and from street protests against the Viet Nam war to demands for equal rights for African-Americans, to growing concerns about the impact on the environment of our affluent/effluent North American lifestyle, young people really thought we could change the world.
It was the beginning of a new age – the Age of Aquarius – and for many, it was a “magic carpet ride” with the psychedelic, transcendental potential to transport a generation to a new place. Everyone was speaking hopefully about love and peace. The Jesus movement was a major influence among hippies, spawning a wave of contemporary Christian music (like the Prayer of St. Francis). “Jesus freaks” carried copies of Good News for Modern Man, the first translation of the Bible in everyday English, and encouraged people to connect with Jesus in a very direct, down-to-earth manner. The popular music of that era was full of social comment, and appeals to justice and honesty, and sprinkled with references from the Gospels and the Bible in general: “Turn, Turn, Turn;” “Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man from Galilee;” O Happy Day; “Dominique;” “Spirit in the Sky” and “Morning Has Broken.” Not many remember that, at Woodstock, Arlo Guthrie sang “Amazing Grace” and Joan Baez sang, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
In songs like “Everyday People” we appealed to each other for a common vision, a sense of civility and community and racial equality and fellowship. The Youngbloods sang: C’mon people, now,
smile on your brother, ev’ry-body get together, try to love one another right now.”
As well as musicians, there were poets, activists, philosophers and idea people, artists, clowns and hippies. It was an age of a kind of naivete, or faith, you might say, and there was an innocent sense of trust. But, in a sense of common spirit, young people all over the world had a shared sense of “We were there, man!” — there in spirit, able to share in that experience, and be caught up in that vision.
And to prove it, some of the most famous words of that era, words which became the anthem for Woodstock, were written by a young woman from Saskatoon, of all places, who like me, did not even attend the concert. In her song Woodstock, made famous by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell wrote:
I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me:
I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock n roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
and try and get my soul free.
We are stardust, we are golden,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
Trying to get to the centre, or the edge, that sense of re-connecting at the level of spirit, of getting back to a place, a source, a wellspring of life, and that aim of recovering some lost innocence and purity, is what drove that generation – that was its soul, you might say.
It was a time when people would believe in dreams and visions, a time when a man with a vision could say “I have a dream!” and millions would respond; it was a time when people actually believed that “all you need is love.” And so, in that era before computers, cell phones and credit cards, thousands of young people hitchhiked across the land with nothing more than a backpack; they formed communes; they “turned on, tuned in, and they dropped out.”
Woodstock conveyed to young people a different sense of who they were – a sense of their significance. Thousands if not millions embraced that sense that there is something worthwhile to strive for, and that people not only have the power to make it happen – we have the responsibility to make it happen. It was in many ways the influence of a Christian ethic and spirituality.
It’s important to remember and recognize our roots, our influences, and give thanks – that’s partly what we’re doing in the Eucharist every Sunday. The spirit of Woodstock is not gone, but some would say it’s distorted or darkened. I know you really can’t go back, but there is much to learn from that significant time. So, 40 years after, what is the long-term effect? What has been the long-term influence of flower power, the summer of love, the hippie movement, the peace sign, and Woodstock? The cynic in me notes that the term “Jesus freak” is now a negative term for obnoxious evangelicals, and the peace sign is now being used by the Shell Corporation to flog an ad campaign in which the peace sign is tied to a new type of gasoline additive – giving a sad new meaning to the hippie slogan “It’s a gas, man!”
Woodstock represents a moment when the traditional churches lost connection with youth, and young people started looking elsewhere for answers; in turn that obliged the Church to begin a process of renewal and rejuvenation, and of recovering the heart and soul of what we are about. Woodstock represents a moment when sexuality came out of the closet and was given new expression; no longer would young people just go along because “father knows best” — conformity was rejected; formalism and formality went out the window; government was automatically questioned instead of automatically obeyed; war and racial discrimination became morally unacceptable. Simplicity of lifestyle – a questioning of materialism and the consumer culture – and a larger awareness of needing to re-connect with the land – with mother nature – was another significant theme, and thank God, some people actually started making some changes. Many hippies did more – striving to practise what they preached, many chose to live communally, and their simple, earthy lives were an inspiration and a light, if only because they revealed there was another option or choice. There was something truly global about what was going on – another sign of a new age breaking in.
There was a famous saying from that era: “Never trust anyone over 30.” Richard Nixon seemed to prove the wisdom of that attitude. Richard Nixon became the public face of that society that was so offensive to youth — a tragic representative of a traditional authoritarian culture that had become corrupt and confused. His pathetic double peace sign, as he waved farewell to the White House after the Watergate scandal, was neither a victory sign nor a message of peace. Exactly what he was trying to express nobody knows.
Probably many of the kids at Woodstock didn’t know exactly what they were doing either. Young people are enormously impressionable – the good news is that they can be inspired to seek the truth, to live by ideals, to change the world. Everyone there was caught up in something that was larger than life – and I think it’s important to remember the idealism, the sense of promise, which influenced not just that concert but that whole generation – the hippies, the peace movement, the Jesus freaks – the whole thing.
I remember that sense of hope – the real sense that things were going to change – and that the people had the power to make it happen. It was a rejection of external authority and a shift toward finding an authentic internal authority – a shift from religion, which was associated with institutionalism and things external, toward spirituality, connecting with our inner self – our spirit – and allowing ourselves to be caught up by the Spirit. That spirit encouraged and enabled me to engage my own spiritual journey, and was a significant part of me discovering the person of Jesus and the Christian way. So many things about that era continue to inspire and enable me to continue being a Jesus “freak.”
Two young men, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, who themselves might be considered prophets, wrote:
“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls, whispered in the sounds of silence …”
So in the spirit of that age we might ask: What is the soul of this generation trying to say and where and how is that being expressed? It’s important to listen, I think. But we might also ask what we might do to encourage and inspire young people to engage the journey and to explore their calling – so that they too might make their way toward peace and love and freedom.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers