I turned 15 in 1969, the year of the moon landing, the Bed-in-for-Peace, and the Woodstock festival. My family had moved to Memphis from New Orleans the year before, and the music of the time helped define who I am today. I can still vividly remember the day we left New Orleans --I was sad beyond consolation, and as I dangled my legs through the balcony railing outside the apartment door, the sad sounds of Mick Jagger singing "Ruby Tuesday" drove home how miserable I was. The song still takes me back to that balcony.
The music of the era was a real mixed bag, especially the music I heard on the radio in Memphis -- a stew of Elvis and the other pioneers of rock, Stax R&B and soul, blues, British Invasion, psychedelic, folk-rock, and progressive rock. This exciting, eclectic mix became the soundtrack of my youth and helped shaped my view of the world. The music was about politics, freedom, and self-expression, and the counterculture ideas, hairstyles, and attitudes were a part of it.
In mid-August, 1969, a pop festival, advertised as "an Aquarian Exposition," took place in the rural town of Bethel, New York that would encapsulate the freedom and self-expression of that era. I wanted to jump on that bandwagon, but as I have said, I was 15, and Memphis is a long, long way from upstate New York.
I did not attend the Woodstock Music and Art Fair that summer. I didn't even bother to ask my parents-- I knew what their answer would have been, and I would not have dreamed of going behind their backs. Instead, I lived the event through the media, watching the television reports and reading about it for months in Life, Look, Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone. When the Woodstock movie was released, I sat in wonder at Michael Shrieve's drum solo (and his hair) during Santana's performance of "Soul Sacrifice" and cheered along with Country Joe McDonald when he shouted,"Gimme an F!" I wore out my first copy of the 3-record movie soundtrack and quickly purchased a replacement.
I even went as far as co-opting the Woodstock logo and name for a Junior Achievement company I ran a year after the festival. I still laugh when I think of selling silly ceramic frogs at the shopping center, with the movie soundtrack blaring music from behind the table.
For the better part of the '70s and '80s, like millions of other young Americans, I also co-opted the trappings of the counterculture. I grew my hair long, wore ragged bell bottom jeans, and adopted a mistrust for anything our parents believed in. I drove my VW to California for a year and floated in and out of college academics.
I landed in the museum field quite by accident, when a professor recommended a graduate program in Early American Culture. That began a 22-year career in museums, as curator and administrator, primarily in historic house museums and historical societies, with a specialty in decorative arts (think "Antiques Roadshow"). This was a long way from the aspiring "free spirit" I had thought I would be. When my phone rang two years ago and a voice at the other end asked if I would be interested in heading up a new museum set to open at the site of the Woodstock festival, I did not have to think twice.
The Museum at Bethel Woods is built atop the hill that overlooks the famous field where half a million young people created their own counterculture society for "3 days of love and music." (It's important to note that the festival did not actually take place in Woodstock; it was held 65 miles south, in Bethel, New York). The museum opened a little more than a year ago and commemorates that famous event, but it is so much more. This history museum uses cutting-edge technology to present 20 films, six interactive experiences, inspiring artifacts, and hundreds of personal stories to place Woodstock in the larger context of the entire decade of the 1960s.
I couldn't be happier-- not only am I immersed in an era that has great emotional meaning to me, but every day I meet people with their own stories of the festival or growing up in the '60s. Like the Woodstock festival itself, the museum brings people together in a celebration of the music and the ideals of the era. I am also encouraged by the response from younger visitors, for whom 1969 is a distant memory or ancient history. For many of them, the heartfelt soul of the music resonates, the message of peace is important, and the belief that we can affect change in the world is real. I think they're right.
Wade Lawrence is the director of the Museum at Bethel Woods, located at the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival. Visitors are invited to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair this summer at the museum. Visit bethelwoodscenter.org for details about the museum and the summer concert series.