Going Down to Yasgur's Farm, Almost 40 Years Later

The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a 2,000-acre complex that hosts concerts and other community events, includes a museum that marks the 1969 Woodstock festival.
The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a 2,000-acre complex that hosts concerts and other community events, includes a museum that marks the 1969 Woodstock festival. (By Nick Zungoli)
By Bill O'Brian
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 21, 2008

It's a glorious late-summer afternoon in Sullivan County, N.Y. Brian Selmon and his wife, Barbara, are sitting on a rise overlooking the sloping natural bowl that once was Max Yasgur's alfalfa field near the hamlet of Bethel.

Nearly four decades ago, some 500,000 kids gathered here for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, and, in large measure, they defined the baby boom generation. Brian was there then. Now, gazing at the hillside that looks more like a golf course than the quagmire it was on that weekend in mid-August 1969, he is trying to reorient himself. The stage was there, he believes (correctly), pointing down to a patch of gravel. He and his two buddies were sitting over there, halfway up the slope, not far from the small sculpture memorializing Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia that has been in the field since the late '90s.

Barbara, who did not go to the festival, is explaining why she and her husband of 31 years have made the 2 1/2 -hour trip here from their home near Albany. Woodstock "is part of him," she says, "a big part."

Brian, now 57, is enumerating the sensations he feels sitting in this spot today. "Youth . . . optimism . . . I remember the rain. I remember . . . people having fun . . . living in the moment."

A wind gust deposits a scrap of paper 15 feet away, on the grass next to the stone monument that marks the site. Brian walks over and pockets the refuse. "No sense littering hallowed ground," he says.

Brian Selmon may have been there. But I wasn't, and neither were my three traveling companions, all of us 50-something. By the time we got to Woodstock, they were half a million gone. And the place was a museum, the Museum at Bethel Woods. It's part of a 2,000-acre, $100 million complex that hosts concerts and other community events, including numerous festivals this fall. The enterprise is largely the brainchild of Sullivan County native Alan Gerry, a cable TV pioneer. The museum became a political lightning rod last year when New York's Democratic senators, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, sought a $1 million earmark for it and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) objected. The museum opened, without that federal funding, this summer.

From the outside, the museum has the look of a mega-church. Inside, its exhibition space, designed by Bethesda-based Gallagher & Associates, features 20 films, 164 artifacts, some 300 photographic murals and a 132-seat high-definition theater in which a 21-minute film, "Woodstock: The Music," is shown every half-hour. The gallery's self-guided interactive display is divided into four segments.

The first, titled "The Sixties," is an ode to that decade. A visitor is reminded of, or introduced to, the touchstones of the era: "Father Knows Best"; the seemingly unlimited promise of post-World War II suburbia; JFK, MLK, RFK; the civil rights movement; the Cold War, Vietnam, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali; the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Supremes; the American journey to the moon; the 1967 "summer of love"; and the fashion of the era: go-go boots, bell-bottoms, dashikis, miniskirts, suede Stars and Stripes jackets.

The second segment is called "The Woodstock Festival Is Born." Its archival documentation is what makes the museum a museum, and what makes a visit entirely worthwhile. Here, a visitor learns about the founding fathers of the festival, four entrepreneurs who wanted to hold a concert in the town of Woodstock, basically to promote their prospective recording studio. About how they had to change the venue of the "Aquarian exposition" three times, eventually landing 50 miles southwest to Bethel. About how inept the foursome was. About how construction of the stage did not begin until July 22, 1969, less than month before showtime. About the appearance fee Jimi Hendrix commanded ($30,000) and why the Doors and Joni Mitchell declined invitations.

The third segment, "Three Days of Peace and Music," takes a visitor to the event itself. To Country Joe McDonald's signature rendition of his signature song ("And it's one, two, three,/What are we fighting for?/Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,/Next stop is Vietnam"). To a psychedelic magic bus, complete with love beads in its windows. To scenes of Hog Farm Commune members chopping up vegetables and serving them out of trash cans to the famished masses.

The title of the final segment is a question. Perhaps the question of the baby boom era: "The Sixties and Woodstock -- What Do They Mean Now?" A video presents interviews with both fans and naysayers of the counterculture. Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Oprah Winfrey weigh in on the question. So do, among others, Pat Buchanan, Ed Meese and Woodstock attendee Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).

What it all means is up for debate. But there are at least three things we can all agree on:

That, as local resident Leni Binder says in the video, the festival made Woodstock "a universal word."

That, today, nobody in America is writing or singing antiwar songs as direct, sarcastic and unambiguous as Country Joe McDonald's rag.

And that, in hyper-sterile and hyper-litigious 2008, there is no way any health department or any Woodstock-generation parents or grandparents would tolerate a festival where chopped vegetables are served to kids from trash cans.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company