It didn’t matter whether you were there or not. Those who were tuned in to the largest tribal community perhaps America has ever known felt the power of it deep down in their cells even before many fully understood why.
It was a civil revolution, a war of generations, deeply personal, highly polarizing. It was not ambiguous. The line was clear. The commitment on both sides was absolute. The pain was real, the paranoia was justified. The growing fear that our own parents, teachers, even schoolmates might support answering our idealism with violence, might kill if we didn’t conform, was then a surreal dawning reality which would culminate in less than two years at Kent State http://alancanfora.com/. Fathers kicked sons out on the street for having long hair; called their daughters communist for listening to rock music, for promoting peace, for smoking pot, for giving the “peace sign.” Police organized to entrap and harass freaks more zealously than today they counter terrorism, busting music bars and arresting everyone inside for no reason, stopping longhairs without probable cause. They’d plant undercover agents inside peaceful demonstrations and have the agent act out violently in order to justify a physical attack on the demonstrators. “Love it or leave it,” the old guard would prounounce self-righteously. We heard it so often that we actually began to question whether this was our country anymore, whether we had a right to break away and live under our newfound edicts.
It’s not like all of us were conscious of the fact that our rights were guaranteed under the Constitution at the time. In our bones, we knew we were right and felt deep violation at the oppression that was exercised against us, but it took some time to realize we were also right under the law and that the actions against us were, indeed, grievous and unConstitutional. We were, many of us, sad and disenfranchised by society at large, and few of us were in the seminal west coast locations which spawned the movement and had a large supporting community and the benefit of scholarly leaders and the insulation of numbers. Many were scattered in small clusters in largely conservative bergs around America, clinging to each other and to the small bits of news that got through. In Oklahoma, we didn’t hear about Woodstock until it was all over. The news rarely covered anything about music anyway, and if it weren’t for the fact that Woodstock scared a lot of the old guard prematurely gray by its sheer numbers, we wouldn’t have heard of it afterwards either. But there it was, all over the news, the greatest tribe of modern times, and overnight our sad little clusters of rebel idealists became part of an enormous national network, and began to feel once again that maybe we did belong, we did have the right to our opinions, our lifestyle.
And that’s why when Jimi Hendrix picked up his guitar, cranked it up to 11, and played his roaring, groaning, wailing, train-wheels-screeching, bomb-bursting sacramental thundering-gods war cry version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it was the greatest political statement of the ’60s. It was a loud and mighty reclamation of America. This is our America too, it said. We are America. It’s not what you had in mind, but we have every bit as much right to our beliefs as you to yours. You can’t cast us out. It was the “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” of hippiedom. And I can’t listen to it even today without it bringing tears to my eyes and a proud smile to my lips.