In a few days we’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Though I was not there in person, I was there in spirit. Growing up in Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain in the former Soviet bloc, I was separated from my peers in the West by minefields and barbed wire. But I followed the event with enthusiasm, curiosity and envy through the airwaves of Radio Free Europe, Voice of America and Radio Luxembourg.
We knew all the bands, all their songs: Johnny Winter, Santana, John Sebastian and Country Joe, Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, The Who, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Band, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and, of course, Jimi Hendrix. My friends and I would imagine being there with half a million young Americans. We made plans to organize our own Woodstock, even though we knew that would not be allowed.
While hardly a major political demonstration (we did not at the time understand Country Joe’s lyrics), Woodstock cast a spell of freedom that made us more confident about the direction we Hungarians wanted to take. We were fed up with the force-fed Marxist ideology, with the shabbiness of life and, first and foremost, with our isolation from the free world. We looked to America and American youths for the model we wanted our nation to follow. We wanted to be a country of innovation, creativity and audacity; a country of openness and courage. We wanted to be free of foreign domination and internal suppression.
In our minds, Woodstock stood for all that.
Not that we were naïve about America. Of course we knew about the Vietnam War, about the draft (with some effort we deciphered “Hair,” the musical), about the Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy murders. We knew about segregation. But Woodstock conveyed the powerful image of an America we wanted to see as our beacon of hope — the bold nation, the America of rock and roll, that had conquered the world. This was our antidote to the poison of Russian occupation and oppression. Our dreams were about the United States with its skyscrapers, open roads of “Easy Rider” and, in the musical world, Fender electric guitars.
Woodstock, perhaps, signaled the end of an era in America, the moment when rock music lost its innocence. But in Eastern Europe, it was just the beginning of the rock revolution. To us behind the “curtain,” rock-and-roll was never just entertainment. It always had a heavy message — an expression of freedom, revolt and resistance. Our role models were never just entertainers; they were generals in the “Army of Rock,” in a battle for a better future.
Our peers in the West likely did not know that rock music, for us, represented resistance against communist dictatorship. We appropriated the form, made it our own and turned it into our formidable weapon of choice in our efforts to bring about change.
Hungarian, Polish or Czechoslovakian rock music was at its best in the1970s and ’80s, when bands flourished. Their words got increasingly political; their shows, more powerful and courageous. Amplifiers projected the music loudly and our lyrics sent a strong message. Our bands tested the limits of the system and pushed those limits, even in the face of possible harsh punishments. Rock-and-roll was the organizer, the common platform. It was our “internet” of the time, if you will.
Of course, the communist bosses in Moscow, Prague, Warsaw and Budapest were alarmed by the growing influence of Western culture. They had reason to be worried: the ideological stranglehold of communism on the youths of Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and even the Soviet Union was smashed by western influences such as rock music, Levi jeans and Coca-Cola. The inspiration of Woodstock never went away during the years that followed, culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Iron Curtain would come down.
The world today badly needs a “Woodstock” for the 21st century, an inspirational event that will have an impact for decades to come. Such an event must be powerful, yet innocent and spontaneous. We are in need of a message that gives hope to the millions who still suffer under oppression, hope that resonates with generations to come. We need a reminder that our own freedom is fragile and vulnerable.
Andras Simonyi is a former Hungarian ambassador to the United States, who now lives in the U.S. He is the author of “Rocking Toward a Free World: When the Stratocaster Beat the Kalashnikov” (2019).