August 18, 2009 at 12:11 pm #32062
40 YEARS LATER, WOODSTOCK’S SPIRITUAL VIBES STILL RESONATE
By Steve Rabey
August 6, 2009
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
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, situated on the site of the festival. But young people were
searching for an identity and for a meaning that they found there that
Fornatale sees the festival as a massive communion ceremony featuring hymns
like Amazing Grace and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot performed by Arlo Guthrie
and Joan Baez, sermons by musical prophets the likes of 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 hungry brothers and sisters.
Not all historians share Fornatale’s reading of Woodstock, but most agree
that the Woodstock generation transformed American religious and spiritual
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
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
Now the unbuttoned look is the norm for megachurch pastors such as 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.
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.
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