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Eating With Hippies

Updated On: Jul 20, 2009

1969's Woodstock still resonates today
Jul 18, 2009
by Simon Tay xtra@mediacorp.com.sg

THE town of Woodstock sits in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, in upstate New York. Only about two hours' drive from the skyscrapers of Manhattan, it seems a world away. There are just two main streets, with a mix of art and handicraft galleries, grocery and hardware stores.

But this small village connects to the world.

The most obvious sign of this is a store with a life-sized cardboard cutout of Jimi Hendrix at the door. Inside, there are tie-dye T shirts and old records from the 1960s, when this quiet village gave its name to a world famous music festival.

Held in August 1969, Woodstock attracted Hendrix and leading performers of the time, like Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie. Huge crowds came, to the point where the state highways were jammed and radio stations pleaded for others to stay away. Woodstock captured the spirit of the era, and reverberated across the world.

To visit now, almost exactly 40 years after, you find few signs of this legacy. Other than that store with the Hendrix cutout, aimed at tourists, there is another across the road with a sign, "real hippies at work" and a mish-mash of handmade stuff and junk. In the middle of town, there are two old guys with long straggly hair, strumming guitars.

Woodstock has more art-and-craft shops than average. But this, according to the town's official website, reflects a tradition dating back to the 19th century, not 1969. A concert is planned to mark the 40th anniversary of the original festival, but there has been uncertainty over money and who will play, with many of the stars of the original concert now dead or disbanded.

Even if it is, the event would be held at Bethel, some 40-plus miles (64-plus kilometres) south of Woodstock. Yes, while Woodstock gave the name to the concert, it was actually held elsewhere.

Yet Woodstock and its era have left a lasting legacy. Not all who turned up were hippies who just lazed around, "tripping out" on drugs.

The '60s were a pivotal time in American culture, both politically and culturally, and this has impacted the world.

The winds of change

Woodstock drew from events leading up to it, including the election and then the assassination of John F Kennedy, the war in Vietnam, the movements for civil rights and women's rights. That American generation evolved to question the authority of parents and of governments.

The generation also held out certain ideals and practices. Political activism and peace movements combined with spirituality, environmentalism, organic food and alternative health.

Many of these practices still echo in America today. The Barack Obama campaign tapped into a rich vein of idealism and activism in American society. The United States is involved in controversial foreign wars as it was in the '60s with Vietnam. At home, there is no civil rights movement, but the ongoing crisis brings into question jobs, livelihoods and the American way of life and consumption.

Change is in the air in America. Which way it will go is not clear. Looking back to the '60s suggests that changes can be more widespread than we at first think.

What seemed to be fringe ideas and practices of the '60s are now in the mainstream.

Some are big and epochal - like President Obama envisioning a world without nuclear weapons, as every peace activist hopes. Others are smaller and everyday, like yoga - there are yoga studios just about everywhere in Manhattan, and even in Woodstock and small towns. Or organic and locally-grown food - how demand for them has surged.

Some of these may be fads. But a lot of it is rational. Demand for healthier food has, for instance, been fuelled by scares about the safety of mass-produced, "industrial" food as well as concerns with climate change and the carbon footprint of transporting food across vast distances.

Many more are concerned with eating healthier in this land that invented fast food. Books, like Michael Pollan's In Defence of Food, have raised it to the level of a national debate.

And from the United States, such fashions, ideals and practices - from questioning authority to yoga to healthier food - have spread to many countries, including those in Asia. Even if some governments - such as that of Singapore - actively rejected hippie culture, its legacies have spread. Woodstock was, in this sense, an early version of global citizenry.

On a summer day in Woodstock, I eat lunch in a garden cafe. The meal is vegetarian. Tempeh and tofu are on the menu, together with brown rice, nuts, beets and other vegetables.

Most of it, the chef tells us, is grown in the area or in states next door. Much of it is organic. My salad is fresh and delicious, the leaves tender and almost sweet. I am usually a meat eater, and I also love my hawker centre dishes. Yet I am eating with hippies, and it doesn't taste at all bad.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society New York for 2009.

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