Get My Soul Free

by David Glenn Cox

“I came upon a child of god
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an get my soul free”

How

can you describe the fires of Vesuvius or a sunny day in a Roman market

square? History leaves us only pale shadows and dirty windows of the

past to peek into. Even with celluloid how can it be described? Many

would like to view Woodstock in the context of a rosy-days-gone-by

scenario, but for those of you who didn’t grow up in that generation,

it was a time of conflict and of friction.

My father’s closet

was filled with blue suits, gray suits and brown suits. His shirts were

all white and his ties were all thin with muted primary colors. When I

went to the barbershop there were three hair cuts available, the buzz

cut, the crew cut and the “Regular” boys hair cut. If you deviated from

those three people would ask, “What in the hell is wrong with that boy?”



For

girls it wasn’t much different, dresses and nylons, with sensible shoes

and a bouffant hairdo. Blue jeans could be worn around the house or

while doing housework but never on a date or to a social event. To do

so would bring the same question, “What in the world is wrong with that

girl?”

This was the pinnacle of American prosperity, and it was

believed that with enough white business shirts and blue suits any boy

could be a success. It was a time when if a woman was pretty enough and

talented enough she could snag herself a husband with a good job who

would take care of her and provide a house in the suburbs.

My

sister went to law school and my aunt used to brag proudly, “Janice is

going to college. She’s going to be a legal secretary, don’t you know!”

The very concept of a female lawyer was unfathomable. It was a time

locked into laws, myths and stereotypes.

This enforced

conformity began to break up with the Civil Rights Movement, the Beat

Generation, the folk movement and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. The Civil

Rights Movement made white Americans look at the society we proclaimed

to be a model for the rest of the world and found that it wasn’t so

perfect after all.

The Beats and the folk artists gave us

alternative answers to the questions that we once thought were settled.

There was Kerouac, Ginsburg, Kesey and Kurt Vonnegut. And who could

forget Bob Dylan? This generation lived with the threat of nuclear

annihilation and we were trained from elementary school to duck and

cover and to stay away from windows. But as we studied about death from

above they also told us about American history and all the concepts of

Americanism.

I was a child so it was hard for me to reconcile

what they told me at school with what I was seeing on the news. Angry

mobs of white people cursing and ranting with picket signs by the

hundreds trying to stop black children from integrating a public

school. When Kennedy issued his executive order banning segregation in

public facilities, the city of Montgomery filled in its public pools

and paved them over.

It was a time of high tension, punctuated

by the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert

Kennedy. There were spectacles unmatched in American annals where

people openly wept in the streets. When businesses shut down because

they just couldn’t handle being at work right now. It was a time when

people mumbled under their breath, “If they can kill the President,

what is truly left of our democracy?” The muffled drums, the scenes of

black caissons and the widows and their children, left America wounded

and unsure.

The two sides became more polarized, with

politicians like Ronald Reagan and George Wallace making young people

their target of opportunity, claiming hippies to be ungrateful,

unappreciative and unwashed. Just political rhetoric but it was

rhetoric with clout. In those days trouble with the law could earn you

a two-year sentence in the US Army. Where the judge would look down and

say, “Son, you can do one year in this here county jail or you can go

join the army and maybe make something of yourself.”

Again the

clashing of two realities; the greatest generation telling the rising

generation what was the correct path to follow. But Vietnam wasn’t

Hitler and the Nazis; it was a stinking civil war in the backwaters of

Asia to be fought to the death by young American boys because someone

in the Pentagon thought that it was a good idea. Where

eighteen-year-old boys expelled from high school would soon be wearing

the green. When we lived in fear of, “We interrupt this program to

bring you an special announcement.”

To grow your hair long was a

mark of rebellion, and it wasn’t just an angry rebellion but an

intellectual rebellion. Conversations were about books and ideas. I

carried around “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People” by Lenny Bruce

for a month after finishing it in a week. I thought I was cool. I had a

small mirror pin of Karl Marx on my blue jean jacket, but a lot of

people just thought it was the ZigZag man.

I was hitchhiking

one day, yes, you could hitchhike back then, and if you had long hair

and blue jeans you were probably cool and other cool people would pick

you up and give you a ride because you were us and not them. So, I’m

going about five miles to a friend’s house and get picked up by a

carload of freaks. They pass me the pipe and ask, “How far you going?”

As I explained they said. “We’re going to California, man!”

“Really? Right now? That’s far out!”

“Hey, you want to come with us man? We got plenty of dope but we need some more gas money.”

I

tried to explain, while keeping my cool persona, that I didn’t have

much cash with me, and my clothes were still at the house. Being all of

fifteen I thought better of a two thousand-mile road trip and politely

passed. They let me out at the red light but it was nice to have been

asked. We had landed men on the moon, which made us believe that

anything was possible. That emotion was tempered by landing thousands

of men in Vietnam and the generational breakdown it fostered.

To

the old it appeared as if the world had turned over and had spilled out

heresy. To the young it appeared that all the world was new and that

your path was not to be dictated to you but left for you to decide, for

each to decide. And what was wrong with that?

You could be a

vegan or a Buddhist, a pacifist or a Marxist, and that was cool; as the

expression went, “It’s your trip, man!” I had a friend in high school

that was into martial arts and he broke up the family dinner by

announcing that he was going to use his college money to go to Korea

and study under the masters. Another was a minister’s son who grew

tired of the rules and haircuts. He borrowed his father’s car and made

that two thousand-mile trip to California to join a commune. Another

went to Vietnam and became a spot on a tree.

So, as we look back

lovingly at Woodstock, remember that there was a reason that it was the

way it was. There was a rebellion going on that said, “We can be

peaceful because you don’t believe we can. And we can assemble 500,000

and be peaceful because we know that you can’t.”

It was a

generation raised in nuclear conflict and the Cold War, with

assassinations and political and social upheavals. It was a time of

great prosperity, when the coin of the realm held value. A time when

people began to ask if there wasn’t more than one way and were willing

to accept others’ answers. From Richie Havens singing “Freedom” to Jimi

Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner,” it was all about freedom.

What

began as a counter-culture art and music festival became the highest

exponent of what American freedom was supposed to be about. It was an

alignment of the stars and a raising of the tribes. A moment in time,

inescapable and unfathomable, magical and illusionary. Illusionary in

that you didn’t have to have been there to understand it and even today

we can feel the vibe through the videos on You Tube. But it is all gone

now and what we see and hear are the echoes of the past and the

paintings on cave walls. A story about when the sons and daughters of

the greatest generation shook the world loose from conventional

thinking.

Then they went into investment banking and raided

their fathers’ pension plans. They voted for Reagan twice and wore

their Vietnam veterans’ patches and waved the flag with patriotic

fervor, forgetting who it was that put those patches on their jacket in

the first place. They supported the troops with yellow ribbons while

they forget about the black ribbons and the spots on trees.

Woodstock

was a time when a generation took the weekend off to go up in the

country and find their center and found something almost frightening to

most humans, Peace.

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation
We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
(Joni Mitchell)

Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.