Wednesday, August 17, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: Max Yasgur (1919-1973)

Max Yasgur (1919-1973)

Max Yasgur was 49 years old, a thin man with a heart condition, when he heard that concert organizers had been tossed off the site of a three-day outdoor concert they were trying to organize which they were calling "Woodstock" near Bethel, New York. They were in trouble, they had just 30 days before the concert date to find a new venue. Max approached the four young organizers with an offer; he had a dairy farm nearby, he had land, he wanted to help. And Max Yasgur became an American counterculture icon, a part of history, his name will live forever. For what? For standing up for the rights of "hippies," for the "others," for the rights of people he didn't know, for the rights of people with whom he had almost nothing in common. Although the short hairs in his community reviled him for it, and threatened him anonymously, he was a champion for the rights of Americans to assemble, and their rights of free speech. For hippies.

And that's why Max Yasgur was a great American, a courageous man, and my hero. He stood for the rights and the dignity of others, at a time when intolerance and bigotry and hatred were tearing his nation apart. You know, like today.

When his neighbors found out that Yasgur was planning to lease land to the Woodstock organizers, they did all they could to stop him. His wife Miriam described later how they put up a sign along the road that said "Don't buy Yasgur's milk - he loves the hippies." When Max and Miriam drove by the sign, she said later, "I thought, 'You don't know Max. Now it's going to happen. The sign did it. When Max saw that, I knew darned well he was going to let them have their festival. You didn't do that to Max. He just turned to me and said, 'Is it alright with you?' ... I knew he was not going to get past this sign, so I said, 'I guess we're gonna have a festival." And he said, 'Yup, we're gonna have a festival.' And that was it."

At a town meeting, Yasgur addressed the entire assembly saying: "So the only objection to having a festival here is to keep longhairs out of town? Well, you can all go pound salt up your ass, because come August 15, we're going to have a festival!"

And that's what happened.

On the afternoon of the final scheduled day of the festival, Sunday August 17, 1969, just before Joe Cocker took the stage, Max Yasgur addressed a crowd of half a million people. Max said:
I'm a farmer, I don't know how to speak to twenty people at one time, let alone a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something to the world - that a half a million kids - and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you are - a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I God Bless You for it!

Max Yazgur, Woodstock, early afternoon, August 17, 1969 (just before Joe Cocker performed)
Video of the "I'm a farmer" speech (it's short, 2 minutes long)
Less than four years later, on 9 February 1973, after having retiring to his winter home in Marathon, Florida, Max Yasgur died. He was only 53 years old.

Thank you, Max.
___
Charles Aulds
August 17, 2016