LEARNING FROM THE HEART OF MAX YASGUR
JAMES N KRAUT, PSY.D.
It’s difficult to imagine a world with no Woodstock. The iconic three-day music festival, which took place in the summer of 1969, drew nearly a half million young people and 50 years later still stands as one of the most significant, profound and positive countercultural events of the 20th Century. Considering all the confounding variables involved, it is amazing that they actually pulled it off.
First consideration: the number of attendees was many times greater than what the organizers had prepared for. As a result, serious, life threatening problems kept emerging – completely running out of food and water, a fierce summer storm with no shelter, and their inability to finish creating a fence around the festival, thus making it a free concert, to which anyone who wished to was able to enter. But perhaps the biggest challenge of all was to drop all those people into that relentlessly precarious situation and see them get through it with no lasting damage.
What makes the lesson of Woodstock so important? From my perspective, the answer lies in two words: respect and acceptance. Life got really hard for those who were there. No one knew at the time that all those problems would ultimately be overcome. Furthermore, other rock festivals followed, but none pulled it off like Woodstock did. Those who were there peacefully dealt with and accepted the things that happened to them.
The festival was originally to take place in a town called Wallkill, in Ulster County, about 50 miles north of New York City. The conservative people of Wallkill decided, however, that they did not want all those hippies and canceled the event by passed a law forbidding the congregation of more than 5,000 people in one place. Wallkill nixed the festival on July 15, 1969, leaving the promoters and organizers exactly one month to come up with and pull off Plan B. They were then introduced to a man with a 600-acre dairy farm.
Max Yasgur, a 49-year-old farmer from Bethel, NY, was reportedly thinking about hosting Woodstock before he was approached. It has been said that Yasgur was monetarily driven that year to seek some alternative income because of an unusually wet season that he predicted would have an adverse effect on his farming profits. Like the folks in Wallkill, however, Max was a traditional, conservative man. And like the residents of Wallkill, he was aggressively approached and threatened by numerous people who objected to the idea of “all those hippies” and the drugs that would accompany them.
But the more resistance he encountered, the more firm became his integrity and commitment. Max Yasgur became more wedded to his principles when confronted, not less. When he heard, after the festival had run out of water, that some of his neighbors were charging for water, he became furious and erected a large sign in front of his barn advertising free water. He told his children, according to son, Sam, to give away all the dairy products that they had on the farm. But of most significance, he was able to keep his subjective response to the idea of hippies from interfering with his awareness of what doing the right thing was. Listening to him talk at the festival, it is evident that Max had a clear, enlightened sense of the dignity of the human beings attending Woodstock, despite how different he was from them with respect to lifestyle. When he spoke to the crowd during the second day, looking every inch the reportedly Republican businessman he was, Max Yasgur broke out into a wide grin and raised his left hand into a peace sign. The crowd loved him. (Google it; it’s a very sweet moment.)
Max Yasgur suffered from heart disease and died at the young age of 53 in Marathon, Florida, where he had retired. “If I had a job where I could work with those kids on a national level — gratis — I’d do it,” Yasgur told the Village Voice. The music festival had been an opportunity for him to realize his spiritual potential, of which he took full advantage.
It has been wondered why Woodstock, as unexpectedly large and unprecedented as it was, ran so relatively smoothly. I suggest, as mentioned above, that it was the acceptance and respect that the attendees were greeted with. In addition to their fortune of having found Max Yasgur, Woodstock’s organizers added more stability to the mix by hiring the Hog Farm, the longest running hippie commune in the United States, to run security for the event. This choice was vehemently second guessed at the time because the Hog Farm is far more outrageous than authoritarian. But they ended up providing compassionate, sensible infrastructure, helping with drug related problems, solving food issues and acting as a “Please Force,” asking nicely, never demanding. And it all worked beautifully.
The reason why I chose to write about this, after having watched documentary footage on Woodstock, is because I believe we need to learn from Max Yasgur. We have to acknowledge our subjective approaches to our world, but consider the sanctity and dignity of life itself as more important than the particulars and perspectives of the people we encounter. Most of those in Upstate New York thought the idea of Woodstock was unacceptable and offensive. All it took, however, was one Max Yasgur.
Dr. James Kraut
2855 N University Dr #200
Coral Springs, FL 33065