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For most college kids today, Woodstock evokes images of long-haired hippies frolicking in a haze of marijuana smoke. While this is somewhat accurate, few events have resonated more strongly through American culture. Woodstock’s greater legacy — that of youth briefly finding a collective voice — remains deeply relevant, as it was during the course of President Obama’s historic campaign. Even 40 years later, it’s a legacy that bears examining ­— and a festival that deserves remembering.

It is not easy to define the phenomenon that was Woodstock. A three-day “Aquarian Exposition of Peace & Music,” the festival encompassed nearly 500,000 souls, briefly registering as the third largest city in New York. Highways were jammed and roads shut down, and musical acts had to be ferried back and forth by helicopter.

As the tide of humanity swelled, music enthusiasts met druggies met anti-war protesters. Commercial greats like The Who performed on the same stage as then-unknowns Joan Baez and Jimi Hendrix. Thousands stripped naked to swim in nearby lakes and streams, while hundreds of others paid visits to “freak-out tents” scattered across Woodstock’s grassy fields. Among all the drug use and promiscuity, there was no hint of violence save for a pervasive hatred of the Vietnam War. The Woodstock Festival had become its own unique entity, and one that captured a movement like nothing before or after it.

Realized by four ambitious twenty-somethings — prominent among them John Roberts, a then-recent Penn grad and heir to a large trust fund — Woodstock was the festival that almost didn’t happen. Roberts and a partner bought an advertisement in the Wall Street Journal billing themselves as “young men with unlimited capital” eagerly in search of original business ideas. Among a flood of almost 500 respondents, Roberts’ interest was piqued by the pitch of two young music producers. After a long odyssey, this pitch would evolve into the Woodstock Music Festival.

The festival was engineered as a money-making venture, but it certainly didn’t end as one. Intending to turn a smart profit from ticket sales, the sponsors were forced to scratch their plan only hours into the first day as barrier fences collapsed and gatecrashers streamed in by the tens of thousands. By declaring Woodstock “free for everyone,” they had fundamentally altered the tenor of the festival. No longer about profit, Woodstock became a moment when a generation alienated by conservative America could take a collective breath — and look ahead to a time when they, and not their parents, would be the inheritors of their nation.

Testimony to the lasting effects of Woodstock continues to pervade our culture. In a recent New York Times article, Times music critic and Woodstock attendee Jon Pareles wrote, “I had the feeling that the crowd was more than just an audience at a show, that something major was at stake, that Woodstock would prove something to the world … 40 years later the sensation lingers.”

My father, another of the 500,000 who briefly called the festival his home, considers it one of the turning points of his life. In his words, “Divisions like wealth, race, and even length of hair suddenly meant very little, and we were united by feelings of love and peace. We had long wanted to change the world around us, and — for the first time — we felt like we could.”

While our own generation remains tied to Woodstock only through the memories of Boomers, the empowering message of that festival remains as relevant as ever. Although the effect never lasts long, its importance lies in its ability to rally and unite those who might otherwise stay divided. It was this message that rebuked an unpopular president in 2008 and gave rise to the most robust youth movement in recent American electoral history. It was the message that confided strength in the present and hope for the future — a message that we owe, more than anywhere else, to the grassy fields of Woodstock some 40 years ago.

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