Long live, the spirit of Woodstock! A look back at the landmark music festival of 1969
It’s time to celebrate 50 Years of Woodstock — the music festival that shook the world back in 1969. Despite ill-fame over substance abuse and legal issues lately, the spirit of the original Woodstock remains firmly implanted in our minds.
It was the August of ’69. And, the history of Western popular music saw the addition of a brand new chapter with a festival held in the White Lake area of Bethel, New York, which is surrounded by the Catskill Mountains.
The plot of land that served as the venue belonged to Max Yasgur, a 49-year-old hardworking dairy farmer, who had rented it out to the organisers. The show was called The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, and it would soon be known the world over as Woodstock.
Half a century has gone by since Woodstock shook the world from August 15th to 18th, back in 1969. The festival was marked by songs and substance, pouring rain and mudslides, some nudity and even a few reported births apart from at least two fatalities — one from insulin misuse and the other because of a tractor running over a sleeping attendee. What unfolded during those four days was, in every sense, crazy.
The young 20-something organisers — Michael Lang, Artie Kornfield, John P Roberts and Joel Rosenman — had relatively modest ambitions when they first started making plans. Around 400,000 attendees surpassed their guesstimate by a long distance. Hippies could be seen wherever the eyes went.
The overwhelming majority was united by a changing attitude towards substance and promiscuity,
and growing anger over the Vietnam War.
The rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival became the first major act to sign up for the gig, followed by 31 others. Indeed, it is because of the acts that performed that Woodstock became an unrivalled, star-studded celebration of peace and music.
Among the names who were there were Richie Havens who opened the event, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Ravi Shankar, Country Joe and the Fish, Santana, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin with The Kozmic Blues Band, Sly and the Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Joe Cocker and The Grease Band, Ten Years After, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Jimi Hendrix, whose performance ended the festival.
Watching the surreal magic unfold at the venue was a trek in trance. Rains played spoilsport, causing untold delays.
Classics rained on the stage, with Santana, who still wasn’t well-known beyond the San Fransisco Bay area; Cocker, who was new to American music lovers; Ten Years After, Baez and Hendrix mesmerising the audiences with their soul-stirring performances.
The attendees, who put up with inconveniences such as shortage of food and toilets, couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Many acts performed at Woodstock. And many were missing in action. Scene-stealing acts like Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Moody Blues, Frank Zappa (who was then with The Mothers of Invention), Joni Mitchell, The Doors and Jethro Tull were among those who did not make appearances. So much was on offer, however, that few missed them.
Interestingly, Jethro Tull refused to participate because the band’s frontman Ian Anderson resented hippies and didn’t wish to be associated with a show that involved nudity, substance and alcohol.
Sea of madness
Most attendees didn’t have to shell out a pie to watch Woodstock. Some of them, who had walked for miles to reach the venue, enjoyed a free festival. That wasn’t how it was meant to be though. The organisers had incurred expenses, and they were expecting to make a profit from ticket sales.
Right of admission for a day cost $ 7, while that for three days, which stretched into the fourth because of delays, cost $ 18. People started turning up in Bethel days before the show, and asking them to go away was not a practical option.
So, the organisers decided to make it a free event for those who had not bought one of the 100,000 tickets that had been already sold.
So high was the attendance and such was the atmosphere that there was no guarantee that the days would go by peacefully.
Martin Scorsese, one of the editors of the groundbreaking Michael Wadleigh-helmed documentary Woodstock, noted in his foreword to the book, Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked The World: “To some, it may be a mystery why, from beginning to end, Woodstock remained a peaceful gathering. I mean, anything could have gone wrong at any second. Sometimes I’d glance back and wonder, “What if something goes crazy? What if one of the d*ugs doesn’t work, or works too well, and they (attendees) decide to charge the stage.”
Just as Woodstock is spoken of in the context of d*ugs, booze and music, it is also referred to as a mega-event that was not tainted by violence.
Simple songs of freedom
Many commentators shared their reflections on the show in the media. Perhaps, the wisest words came from Yasgur, who had rented out his land for the occasion.
Addressing the audience on the third day, he said: “…You’ve proven something to the world… the important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids, and I call you kids because I have children who are older than you are, a half a million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music and God bless you for it.”
Not everybody liked Woodstock for what it was. Speaking of the consequences of staging the festival, an editorial in a prominent US daily aspired for objectivity in a cynical tone: “What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess? One youth dead and at least three others in hospitals from overdoses of d*ugs; another dead from a mishap while sleeping in an open field. The highways for twenty miles around made completely impassable, not only for maddened youths but for local residents and ordinary travellers.”
The editorial in question, and several other articles in the mainstream press were critical, which is possibly understandable since they didn’t wish to endorse d*ugs and hippies, both synonymous with Woodstock.
Rock music journalist and author Barney Hoskyns watched the Wadleigh documentary and observed in his book Small Town Talk: “Woodstock was where the overheated rhetoric and psychoactive disturbance of the sixties hit critical mass. Watching Michael Wadleigh’s great documentary Woodstock is like watching footage from a war zone: helicopters and medical tents, young men dazed and confused, muddy chaos.” Hoskyns didn’t resent the music, but he didn’t like the sight of what he saw.
Birthday of the sun
Woodstock enjoyed adulation. It also received criticism. Festivals to commemorate the anniversaries of this spectacular show were probably inevitable. Woodstock ’79 took place in Madison Square Garden, New York, on the tenth anniversary of the festival.
The show had jam sessions with Richie Havens, Country Joe and the Fish, Taj Mahal and Canned Heat, among others.
Woodstock ’89 was performed at the original site of the festival. Even amateur musicians without distinguishing skills were invited to perform in this spontaneous celebration of the 20th anniversary.
The concert, for obvious reasons, is also known as The Forgotten Woodstock.
Promoted as ‘2 more days of peace and music’, Woodstock ’94 held in Winston Farm in Saugerties, New York, commemorated the 25th anniversary.
Although 164,000 tickets were sold, around 550,000 people turned up. Among those who performed were Del Amitri, Collective Soul, Joe Cocker, Blind Melon, Melissa Etheridge, Nine Inch Nails, The Cranberries, Metallica, Aerosmith, Country Joe McDonald, Spin Doctors, Green Day and Santana featuring Eric Gales.
Woodstock ’99, also known as Woodstock 1999, was an attempt to create an experience that matched the original. Among acts seen in the show were Creed, Red Hot Chilli Papers and Korn.
No band from the original Woodstock participated in the show, although Mickey Hart, drummer of The Grateful Dead, played with his band Planet Drum.
Likewise, John Entwistle of The Who performed a solo set. The event was marred by violence, and the police investigated allegations of rape during the concert. The original Woodstock had promised peace and delivered.
Woodstock 50 that will commemorate the 50th anniversary is scheduled to be held on August 16-18 at Merriweather Post Pavilion, a 40-acre lot of land in Columbia, Maryland.
It has run into numerous troubles with Jay Z, John Fogerty and Dead & Company pulling out of the event. It has lost a financial partner, has also had to deal with permit denials, and tickets have still not gone on sale with the concert a few days away.
Woodstock 50 might still end up being a terrific concert if all is well from now on. Should you talk to any music lover, however, don’t be surprised if you are told that those four days in August 1969 will never repeat themselves. They gave us brilliant music with legends unveiling their gifts for those who were there, and those who weren’t.
Nobody in modern times can do it better than the best, which we have already heard.