Visions of Aquarius: Organizing Woodstock

“For most of America’s youth of the 1960s, the search for personal identity that varied from the traditional values and aspirations of our parents was the priority of the day,” recalls Don Aters, famed rock music photographer and historian from New Albany, Indiana.

“The sixties saw the golden age of rock and roll, the advent of psychedelica, and the turmoil of the most violent times in American history. The migration to Woodstock was a gathering of ‘Rainbow Warriors.’ We were communal, culturally diverse, and in search of universal peace through the music that defined our generation. With Vietnam raging and shown daily on television as well as the front page of every newspaper, it seemed to us that cultural acceptance was imminent, and that music would be the universal elixir.”

Following his discharge from the military, the sights and sounds of the West Coast and the allure of “hippiedom” seemed more viable to Aters than the death and destruction in Southeast Asia. “I was 21 years old, and earlier that year I was indirectly implicated in a civil rights riot in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. I was struck in the face with a heavy pipe, spent 14 days in a coma, and given a poor prognosis for full recovery. A few months later I was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to join the assumed 25,000 participants expected at the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival. The lengthy sojourn seemed more of an excursion to a tropical rain forest, and when we arrived, the burgeoning crowd was overflowing from Yasgur’s farm. We — nearly 500,000 ‘flower children’ — became a beacon in a sea of despair for a world that seemed at odds with everything, including peace and love. During those few days in August of ’69, the youth of America brought the world to its knees in a humbling display of confusion as to how a gathering of this magnitude could exist without any of the typical confrontations expected from the ‘mainstream.’

“Critics of the counterculture, the cultural revolution, the inhabitants of Haight-Ashbury, and those who attended this historical event are also those who adopted the phrase, ‘Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints.’ For those of us who experienced those damp and cloudy days long ago, we represent the majority of today’s population, and we remain as a community of collective souls who embrace our past and look towards the future.”

As in all events, it is the media that holds the power to shape how history is remembered and perceived — making more out of what was less, and, conversely, making less out of what was more. Nowhere is this truer than with Woodstock. In researching Woodstock, Peace, Music and Memories, a consistent theme emerged from those who recollected a time in their youth some 40 years ago: pride in the accomplishments of a generation of displaced youth, briefly showing the world how things could be if they were in charge. And a disappointment in how the media, charged with a mission to reduce the event to “reckless sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll,” irresponsible hedonism, held Woodstock as proof against a youth culture that was questioning authority and threatening the conservative status quo. A symbol of 1960s excess. Unfortunately, as do many historic victims of the media, Woodstock, too, has maintained its well-spun misperception as something more infamous than significant.

As those once youthful witnessess to this event become the more senior members of our culture, it’s time to set the record straight.

“For all those naysayers who know little about what we represented so long ago, we are the Woodstock generation,” says Aters. “The memories remain, as do most of us, and so do our ideals. Now 40 years later, a toast to the

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