Book Review: Woodstock before Woodstock


“He writes with witty turns of phrases and endearing details that create a charming picture of youth, and innocence lost.”

Woodstock before Woodstock, And a Brief Military History from the selective memory of David Malcolm Rose

Today Woodstock, NY, is a tourist destination as much for the nostalgia of the psychedelic sixties as for the artists’ colony that came before it. It is a community of primarily second home owners escaping the reality of metropolitan New York each weekend for the privilege of complaining about the left-over and wannabe hippies who clog the traffic-light free main drag. It is a collection of artsy boutiques and galleries geared to the hordes of tourists, where what few locals that are left would never and could never afford to shop. Woodstock is.

Before the festival, which bore the Woodstock name but occurred 60 miles away, instigated the decline that led to today’s Woodstock, it was a charming, working class, rural community of craftsmen, farmers and struggling artists. The upheaval caused by the artist’s influx at the turn of the century had morphed into a live-and-let-live peaceful coexistence, and the community was richer for it. A Whitehead still resided in the largely unrecognized Arts and Crafts Colony of Byrdcliff and the Maverick Colony was nearly halfway through the centenary they celebrated last year. Life was good in 1950’s upstate New York.

It was into this bucolia the author was born, into a family of craftsmen generations deep and well-known in the area. With loving parents and grandparents, and a disarming penchant for underachievement, the artistic child had a refreshingly normal youth. This book is mostly a series of vignettes from his selective memory of that dusty time of one-room schools, when cars replaced horses and the first TVs delivered the world of Superman and Howdy Dooty into a small child’s living room.

He writes of learning the song “Teddy Bear’s Picnic” from his grandparents and believing that the party took place in the narrow strip of “wild” woods he bravely crossed everyday to visit them. And of favorite TV shows like Diver Dan, Beanie and Cecil and Howdy Dooty, the freckle-faced marionette of Buffalo Bob Smith and Clarabell the clown. And of the “duck and cover” atomic war safety drill practiced in school, and the joys of little league – it’s all here with witty turns of phrases and endearing details that create a charming picture of youth, and innocence lost.

The author did not outgrow his youthful ability to outsmart his teachers, and the lessons he learned served him well when drafted into the Vietnam War-era army. The final brief reminiscences of his “Military History” are as engagingly written as the earlier section, but more laugh-out-loud funny then the earlier nostalgia. Anyone who has ever endured the “catch-22” absurdity of military life will find the stories of his war years on Okinawa familiar and amusing.

All told, author David Malcolm Rose’s dead-on wit is wielded in one hand while the other uses a fuzzy gauze to soften the punctuated blows the wry words are intended to deliver. Woodstock before Woodstock is an engaging read. The author comes across as a likable and good storyteller with a keen ear and a memory for absurd details. I liked it. I grew up in that time and place and I recognize the truths of a life similarly led and fairly told. If you did too, you’ll enjoy his book as much as I did. If you grew up in a different age or a more urban setting, you’ll enjoy reading this account of how life used to be in Woodstock, before it was Woodstock.

Buy this book


About richardfrisbie

I'm a professional baker, reader, bookseller, publisher, columnist, photographer, cook, hiker, kayaker, freelance writer, and workaholic who likes to garden
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