Kelley Freund | July 9, 2019
On a Saturday afternoon in late April, the only sound in the grassy bowl behind the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in Bethel, New York, is the occasional passing car. Sometimes one stops, and a few people get out to walk up a short slope, stare down at the field and read a plaque. But 50 years ago, on the weekend of August 15, 1969, the scene was different. For one thing, it was muddier, but most important was the noise. Voices sang, drums pounded, guitars riffed (and one was smashed), applause roared, laughter rolled. And on that Saturday afternoon, a man named Country Joe McDonald came to a stage near the edge of that field and shouted into a mic.
“Gimme an F!”
The audience shouted back. “F!”
“Gimme a U!”
What followed was a brief spelling lesson on one of the most liberating expressions of emphasis in the English language. The weightiness of this particular word makes it applicable to many situations, from elation to pain to frustration. For the estimated 400,000-plus people sitting in the grass that day — 400,000 who wanted to fight against the grain but not in the Vietnam War, 400,000 who wanted to be understood, who wanted to yell, who just wanted to rock — the word meant the freedom to do that.
“What’s that spell?”
Five times Country Joe asked the question, and five times the crowd sent its response rumbling back across the field. A young man seated a couple hundred yards from the stage, headed into his sophomore year at the University of Notre Dame, felt his ears pound with each word, as the exhalation of almost half a million rock music fans moved the air and carried the obscenity over the hills of Sullivan County. Those gathered for The Woodstock Music and Art Fair had something to say, and they wanted the world to know it.
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