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Did Woodstock change America?

Think Tank Transcripts:Did Woodstock Change America?

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello. I'm Ben Wattenberg. In the summer of 1969,hundreds of thousands of young Americans converged on a farm inupstate New York for the now legendary Woodstock Music and Arts Fair.Did Woodstock mark the end of the '60s, as some say, or was it thebeginning of a countercultural revolution that is still playingitself out in American society?

Joining us to sort through the conflict and consensus are:

Kurt Vonnegut, novelist and social critic and author of more thana score of books, including 'Slaughterhouse Five,' 'Cat's Cradle,'and 'Breakfast of Champions'; Martha Bayles, author of 'Hole in ourSoul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music,' andan editorial consultant for our program; Morris Dickstein, professorof English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New Yorkand author of 'The Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties';and Jim Miller, professor of political science at the New School forSocial Research and author of 'Democracy Is In The Streets: From PortHuron Through The Siege Of Chicago.'

The question before this house: Did Woodstock change America? Thisweek on 'Think Tank.'

In 1969, close to a half a million self-described hippies, flowerchildren and Aquarians made a pilgrimage to Woodstock in upstate NewYork. The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival was called an Aquarianexposition and hailed as three days of peace and music. And it waspeaceful.

But the times were not. America seemed to be dividing. The war inVietnam went on and on. More American boys were still being sent toSoutheast Asia by newly elected President Nixon. The increasinglyunpopular war intensified a campus protest movement. Burning draftcards and peace marches became daily fare on the evening news.

And not all the demonstrations were peaceful. The previous summerafter Martin Luther King was assassinated, riots broke out in 125cities. And at the Democratic convention in Chicago, the antiwarmovement tore the Democratic Party in two.

Both critics and fans concede that Woodstock has become part ofthe mythology of the 1960s, even if the actual event didn'tnecessarily represent the musical or political taste of most youngAmericans at the time. Some say it symbolized the freedom andidealism of the 1960s. Critics argue that Woodstock represented muchof what was wrong with the '60s: a glorification of drugs, aloosening of sexual morality and a socially corrosive disrespect forauthority.

Twenty-five years later, the debate still rages about the meaningof Woodstock, and more importantly, about the legacy of those whoattended it in person or in spirit.

Martha Bayles, welcome -- welcome to you all. What happened atWoodstock? Is Woodstock a legitimate symbol of the '60s, of thecounterculture?

MS. BAYLES: I think Woodstock is laden with a lot of symbolicmeaning, and that's why we're arguing about it and we still talkabout it. But the meanings are numerous; Woodstock was a mixed bag.

To the hardcore left in 1969, Woodstock was nothing but a rockconcert. It wasn't a demonstration, and a lot of people criticized iton that basis.

Nowadays when Woodstock is being compared to the highlycommercialized Woodstock '94, it's seen as a sort of pure,spontaneous in-gathering of free spirits practicing peace and love,when in fact it was a commercial venture, it was a rock concert, andwithout the profit motive and the presence of popular recordingstars, it probably wouldn't have happened anyway. But there were somevery positive things at Woodstock, things that are positive about the'60s, and some negative things.

MR. WATTENBERG: We're going to come back to that. Jim Miller, whatabout the Woodstock concert? Was that the apogee of something? Was itthe beginning of a slide?

MR. MILLER: Well, the way I think that myths get hatched in theUnited States is always a strange mixture of reality and imagination.As a concert per se, I don't even -- it wasn't that important interms of the large-scale of history of rock and roll. I think thatthe fact that it happened in New York City [sic], that the media wereclose to it, magnified it out of all proportion. And once it had beenso magnified, it became a symbol for all kinds of people.

It became an image in the minds of people who weren't there of away that you could experience music as a cultural lifestyle. Itbecame a further emblem to the music industry that there was a marketthat they had yet to fully tap. And in the immediate sequel toWoodstock, there were numerous attempts to capture that market.

MR. WATTENBERG: You have both stressed a certain commercial aspectto this.

MR. MILLER: Yes. And the third thing I would say is that in thelong haul, it has become a convenient symbol for people who arehostile to what the spirit of the '60s -- whatever that represents--it's become a convenient symbol for them and a target

MR. WATTENBERG: You mean for conservatives, to be againstWoodstock?


MR. WATTENBERG: Morris Dickstein.

MR. DICKSTEIN: Well, Woodstock was commercial, but after all itwas a commercial disaster that was only recouped by the movie. Andit's the movie that -- as well as some media coverage, but mainly themovie, I think, that turned Woodstock into the enduring myth that itlater became. So many people think they were at Woodstock, but theyreally only saw the movie. And

MR. WATTENBERG: That's like that famous story of how many peopleclaim they saw Babe Ruth point to hitting the home run

MR. MILLER: And how few people voted for Richard Nixon.

MR. WATTENBERG: And how few people voted for -- right.

MR. DICKSTEIN: But it didn't really represent all of the '60s. Itrepresented those strands of the counterculture rather than thepolitical side of the '60s, but it had its own politics because, asyour introductory piece said, it took place in the context of thewar, so all those days of peace and love amid chaos anddisorganization really was a way of acting out a kind of lifestyleprotest against the wars, assassinations and the whole violent sideof the '60s that tends to get stressed more in media stereotypes.

MR. WATTENBERG: Kurt Vonnegut, you were one of the cultural iconsat that time -- like it or not.

MR. VONNEGUT: I never showed myself to my people. [Laughter.]

I had four kids who were the proper age to go to Woodstock, andthey simply were not interested, although they were pacifists andoutraged at the government and so forth. They were attracted to peacemarches, to sit-ins, to teach-ins and political demonstrations.

And we were talking just in the Green Room about how much I missAbbie Hoffman. He was a great man, he was a useful man for focusingattention on the outrages, many outrages, many injustices andnuttinesses in our society. And Woodstock did none of that, I guess.As you said, it was politically useless.

MS. BAYLES: Well, one of the reasons why there's this flowery,lovely myth about Woodstock is because it was, compared to some ofthe other things that were going on in 1969, rather benign. In 1969,SDS had split into the Weathermen faction

MR. WATTENBERG: The Students for a Democratic Society, which wasthe hard left of the student movement. MS. BAYLES: It was the studentpolitical organization. It split into the Weathermen faction, whichwas rather -- the kind of terrorist wannabes at that point. I meanthey were very hung up on the idea of whether they could commitviolence, I think partly because they knew people their own age werefighting and dying in Vietnam and that was a problem for them; and itwas partly because of black movement, which they very much werecopying and emulating, was very much out of its nonviolent and intoits violent stage.

So Woodstock was a -- a lot of kids were not into that kind ofpolitics, and as a result, they weren't into politics especially atall.

MR. DICKSTEIN: I think one problem was that those benign images Ithink angered a lot of people in Middle America more than even theimages of protest. I think there were some people inspired by imagesof all this sex and love and free -- especially the peacefulatmosphere of Woodstock, the idea of childlike innocence, I thinkinspired some people with the desire to kill, you know, inspired atleast other people with -- I think it probably is the ancestor of ourculture wars today, because what we think of as the move towardsfundamentalism, the New Right family values, really did emerge as areaction to that countercultural ethos in the '60s.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, one of the things I think that comes up whenyou look at the -- it's interesting -- at the public opinion pollstoday is that the American people are afraid -- many of the Americanpeople are afraid that Bill and Hillary Clinton sort of represent,quotes, 'The Sixties,' or that part of

MR. DICKSTEIN: But Bill Clinton was the guy running for classpresident then. He was not the guy

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, but he was also allegedly dodging the draftand doing a few other -- not inhaling and a few other things. I mean,you know, it's a complex story, obviously.

MS. BAYLES: This brings up the third thing that Woodstock was. Itwas a rock concert; it was not a political demonstration. What itreally was, though, on another level, was that it was somethingthat's deeply in the American grain -- it was kind of a revivalmeeting. And there was a quality about Woodstock that smacked of theoutdoor camp meeting, a Methodist camp meeting.

MR. WATTENBERG: But why has this hung on as a symbol? Is that howthings work? I mean times get sort of attached to a specific eventand

MR. VONNEGUT: I think it represents a very primitive need in allof us which is seldom acknowledged. I think at our peril we dowithout vitamin C, for instance. At our peril we do without a tribe,without a support system. The nuclear family is not a support system.It's hideously vulnerable. And so we again and again join gangs. Formost of the 7 million years there have been human beings, we havelived in families of 50 or a hundred. Now, the people who talk aboutfamily values -- Dan Quayle, for instance, who's from my hometown, hehas an extended family. He might as well be an Ibo in Nigeria. He haslawyers, cousins, National Guardsmen generals

MS. BAYLES: You mean that as a compliment.

MR. VONNEGUT: Yes. No, everybody should have what he has.

MS. BAYLES: We should all be so fortunate.

MR. VONNEGUT: And when somebody like Quayle talks about familyvalues, yeah, we'd like to have families, too. Most of us don't, buthe's got one.

MR. WATTENBERG: And in fact, it was called -- I mean the wholething was called 'the movement,' and that was an extended family.

MR. DICKSTEIN: The funny thing about that period, though, is thereare so many events that mark the period where not just an extendedfamily, but 3 [hundred thousand], 4 [hundred thousand], 500,000people got together, and no matter what happened, whether it was themusic being played that very few people could hear because of the badsound system or whether it was the political demonstration inWashington where nobody listened to the speeches, but just beingthere was the thing, there was a sense of a larger community.

We may think of it as a very thin idea of community, but it was asense of an alienated part of the culture, a youth culture that hadbeen building at least since 'Catcher in the Rye' 20 years earlier,getting together and asserting itself with its various generationalanthems. And that was a key element in creating that sense of asupport system that Kurt just mentioned.

MR. MILLER: It strikes me that there's another dark side of this

MS. BAYLES: Yes. MR. MILLER: -- that's worth bringing into thepicture here, which is just a few days before Woodstock, it's worthremembering 'the family' that murdered Sharon Tate, and that CharlieManson was a version of what could come out of this kind ofpseudo-tribalism in a drug-addled atmosphere.

MS. BAYLES: Exactly.

MR. MILLER: And that there's a way in which Woodstock -- I wonderhow the media would have played it if they had known at the time,which they didn't, that Manson was in his own way as legitimate ahippie as anybody who went to Woodstock.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me ask Kurt a question. I sort of come out ofthe political arena, and in fact I had -- during that Vietnam war, Ihad worked on President Johnson's staff, so we come from ratherdifferent backgrounds.

How representative of American young people were the people atWoodstock or even the Woodstock nation? I mean I'll just cite acouple of poll results from the time that I recall, which was thatyoung people were more pro the Vietnam war than adults were; youngpeople were more pro George Wallace than adults were; and in 1972, inthat general era, a majority of young people voted against GeorgeMcGovern and for Richard Nixon.

So was this typical America, or are we talking about a thin elitefringe that got the media attention?

MR. VONNEGUT: This is a function of education. It's ignorantpeople who

MR. WATTENBERG: Like me, right? [Laughter.]

MR. VONNEGUT: -- who were for the war and so forth. [Laughs.] No,these were educated people. They were middle class, so I think itcould be attacked on class grounds probably as to who they were.

MR. DICKSTEIN: But the counterculture were middle class also. Imean there's book called 'Woodstock Nation' that shows that 93percent of the counterculture were middle class.

I think the fallacy there is the numbers game. I mean there arealways a lot of people who are living the way their parents lived andthe way their grandparents lived. It's just that I think a fairlylarge part of that generation, that boomer generation, representedsome form of alienation, whether radical or mild and so on, reallyrepresented a sense of having different values from their parents,who were the World War II generation, or the '40s and '50sgeneration. And it's that generation that tried to assert itself atWoodstock.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let's try to move on now from the event ofWoodstock to the consequences of Woodstock. And let me see if I cantry it out in a provocative way. What we saw at Woodstock and fromthe '60s, among other things, was the drug culture, was sexualpromiscuity, and --we could argue about this -- was pacifism, and Iwould say that if we had remained a -- or became a pacifist nation,we would not have won the Cold War, much to the dismay of peoplearound the world.

So what are the consequences of Woodstock?

MS. BAYLES: I think it was a failed project because a lot of youngpeople believed in peace and love, but they didn't have a very goodguide as to what peaceful or loving actions really were. And it wasvery much about personal liberation and not very much about how totreat other people. How to treat other people became a very confusedand chaotic issue for a lot of young people. Even if they weren't atWoodstock or they weren't at the extremes, there was a lot of moralconfusion. And by moral confusion, I mean how to treat other people.

And if you add in the toxic emotions that are brought about bydrug abuse, you have a recipe for real disaster. And people who feltmistreated by their friends and their lovers and so forth in the '60swere always accused of having middle-class hangups, you know. Hey,you know, what's your problem? Why do you object to what I just didto you? You know, you're just hung up on middle-class morality.

And that affected a lot of people. I don't know how the pollswould measure that, but that affected a lot of people.

MR. WATTENBERG: Kurt, are we a better country because of the '60stoday?

MR. VONNEGUT: Yes, I think so. The '60s taught us that we canbuild an extended family and unify ourselves with music. Feminism didnot come out of the '60s. I've talked to any number of women who werethe right age to be involved, who were treated abominably, as slaves,as gofers while the men

MS. BAYLES: Well, I sum it up this way. In the '60s, men liberatedthemselves from the demands made on them traditionally by women. Inthe '70s, women liberated themselves from the demands traditionallymade by men. And the

MR. DICKSTEIN: On the same model that the men had used and theblacks had used, and so on.

MS. BAYLES: And the tragedy is that they both liberated themselvesfrom the demands made by children.

MR. VONNEGUT: I would say that the big split is between the peoplewith senses of humor and people who are humorless. [Laughter.] As youknow MS. BAYLES: That's always a problem.

MR. VONNEGUT: Yes. It all has to go on this way, you know, andit's real world politicking. And we have this example of a countrybeing able to go absolutely nuts in Germany. And so we could startthat way with these military adventures and

MR. WATTENBERG: Are you talking about now?

MR. VONNEGUT: No. No, no. I'm talking about the Vietnam war, whichwas finally -- it had to be brought to an end somehow.

MR. DICKSTEIN: I would describe it a little differently. Woodstockrepresented a failed utopianism that very easily got commercializedand I think very easily got turned into style. You know, whathappened -- I mean the people who were in their own way protestingthe war and other things at Woodstock were acting out a criticism notby going to the ballot box, but by the way they dressed, the clothesthey wore, various kinds of mores that got the label 'lifestyle'later on. And the counterculture -- unlike the New Left, thecounterculture was very amenable to being turned into something thatcould easily be commercialized.

MR. MILLER: I think I really disagree with you. I think actually Iwould put it almost the other way around, that the New Left, whichI've written a book about, I think ultimately isn't that importantpolitically, and it didn't have that great an impact, exceptindirectly by sparking a middle class peace movement.

The counterculture, precisely because it was picked up and shovedinto the marketplace, spread the ethos of the '60s in the early '70s,and in the process of what you're, I think, denigrating as style orfashion, actually changed the culture and changed it in ways

MR. WATTENBERG: Changed, for example, our sexual mores.

MR. MILLER: It changed sexual mores, it changed attitudes towardsauthority, it changed a sense of what was permissible to experimentwith, what limits could be toyed with. What drove them home inAmerican culture was the marketing through rock and roll, among otherthings, through film, of a certain fantasy of freedom that to me hasconnections, say, with Randolph Borne [phonetic], early progressiveBohemians. But it becomes a mass artifact.

MR. WATTENBERG: Martha, what did it do to our music?

MS. BAYLES: Well, I think -- I agree with Jim -- I think that ourcommercial system has the ability to amplify, magnify and multiplyand popularize any cultural change, and this does make thecounterculture different from previous forms of Bohemianism. Itbecause a mass phenomenon, which Morris has written about also.

MR. DICKSTEIN: But it's not just the marketing. I think whathappened is that -- it's in that original reaction to Woodstock andthe counterculture -- Middle America looked at that with acombination of hostility and envy.

MS. BAYLES: Not young Middle America.

MR. DICKSTEIN: Well, no, I think they did. I think that in onesense that traditional values were threatened by the new moresrepresented by the counterculture; in another sense they thought,God, I wish I were young now, or I wish I were involved in this.There was a kind of a deep sexual fantasy and fantasy of freedominvolved. That was part of the marketing and so on.

And what happened is that gradually this was shorn of anypolitical context it might have had and entirely personalized andturned into the kind of transformation of cultural mores that youdescribe.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me return to that political context for amoment. The component parts of 'the movement' -- one could say itstarted with civil rights and that it accumulated feminism andenvironmentalism and consumerism and

MS. BAYLES: No. The Vietnam war would be the

MR. WATTENBERG: And the peace movement. Who would accept here theidea that there was some good in each one of those movements

MS. BAYLES: I would.

MR. DICKSTEIN: We all would.

MR. WATTENBERG: Wait a minute, wait a minute -- but they each wenttoo far?

MR. DICKSTEIN: Everything that makes an impact goes too far. Inother words, things that are moderate and easy and so on do notreally make an impact. What happens is that there's sometransformational push and eventually a lot of it drops away anddoesn't really have its effect, but some of it sticks and becomespart of this permanent cultural change that Jim was describing. Ithink every one of those movements that you described had thateffect.

MR. WATTENBERG: Kurt, did it go too far? Did these movements gotoo far?

MR. VONNEGUT: No. I would like to see them all, so many of them gomuch farther --environmentalism, for instance, which you mentioned.

And so I think you're right, a movement is a failure, really, ifit doesn't go too far. [Laughs.]

MS. BAYLES: If I look back on what I think is good about the '60sfrom my own perspective, that of a white person with a privilegedbackground, okay, one of the nice things about the '60s and positivethings about the '60s was it encouraged you to pay serious attentionto what life was like for the people on the other side of the tracks.

The way it went too far was that a lot of the radical politicalpart of the movement had fantasies about those people and neverreally understood them very well. And particularly with blacks, thisincredible fantasy of blacks as violent and super-alienated, thisPanther fantasy that the left had, I think has been extremelydestructive.

MR. WATTENBERG: Try to sum up for us and for our audience, what doyou all agree upon and what do you disagree upon?

MR. DICKSTEIN: I think everything that we look back to the '60sand think about, including the counterculture, has its up side, itspositive side in terms of the liberation, the easing, the relaxing ofAmerican mores that many of us grew up with in the 1950s, and alsohad its side in which it went too far, in other words, the sense thatit unleashed all sorts of demons that we see today in the culturewars.

MR. WATTENBERG: Kurt, what do we agree upon, what do we disagreeupon?

MR. VONNEGUT: Well, I think that probably an important movementwas going on invisibly in the universities, in the coffee houses,among intelligent people prepared to do political work. And soconcerts really had nothing to do with it.

But it seems after the fact, an awful lot of important, devotedthinking has come out of the '60s relative to rescuing the planet, toquestioning authority on military adventures, and so forth. And so we

MR. WATTENBERG: As we prepare to invade Haiti.

MR. VONNEGUT: Yes. I'm ready, I'm going.

MR. DICKSTEIN: There is a skepticism that can't be put aside.

MR. VONNEGUT: Yeah, but the -- I think it happened in the souls ofmany of us, and of course those are invisible.


MR. MILLER: Above all else, an experiment in living that wasshared and collective -- not shared by everybody. Like a realexperiment, we learn through mistakes, but to speak just for myself,I would do it all over again.

MR. WATTENBERG: Martha, you've got the last shot.

MS. BAYLES: I think we agree there were angels at Woodstock andalso devils. And we may not -- we may disagree somewhat about whichwas which. MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Thank you, Martha Bayles, JimMiller, Morris Dickstein, and Kurt Vonnegut. And thank you. We arevery happy to hear from our viewers. Please send any comments orquestions to the address on the screen. For 'Think Tank,' I'm BenWattenberg. END

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