As historical events go, Woodstock, (or as it is more formally known, “The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival.”) is a bit of an enigma. For example:
- It wasn’t really held in Woodstock, New York. Instead its actual location was Bethel, New York, almost 60 miles from Woodstock.
- It was supposed to cost six dollars per day, (Approximately 38 dollars in 2019 value) but it ended up being largely free. (Bernie Sanders still says it was too expensive.)
- The promoters were expecting approximately anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 attendees. They were short by approximately 250,000, or perhaps more.
- The song which celebrates the concert and event, Woodstock, was penned by Joni Mitchell, who didn’t even attend as a performer or as a guest. She wrote it from a hotel room in New York City.
- Many of the acts, particularly some of the most famous performers at that time, and of all time, did not appear in the subsequent album or movie, including Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Band, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Neil Young is heard, but is not seen, and refused to appear on film.
Despite all of these myths, misnomers, and misconceptions, Woodstock has lived on in our collective psyches as the culmination and fulfillment of the idealism of the 1960s. You could find the entire megillah that made up the 1960s at Woodstock including the concepts of peace, love, and dope. What was it about this three-day quagmire that still resonates with so many in our society, particularly those who attended. (And the millions more who have claimed to have been in attendance.) Was it the legendary lineup of bands and performers? Perhaps it was the rainy/muddy conditions? (It actually only rained on the last day.) Was it the fact that despite all of the shortages of toilets, facilities, food, and water, the townspeople as well as the throngs of young hippies and free-spirits exchanged nary a discouraging word, or engaged in any utterances of ill will, without I might also add, any kind of violence or conflict with the police, local authorities, or the army?
In order to understand the grip that Woodstock holds on the collective minds of so many Americans, it’s important to understand the era that was the 1960s. America of 1966 bore almost no resemblance to the nation by 1969. The intervening two years that took place between 1966 and 1969 would change American culture forever. 1967 had witnessed the so-called “Summer of Love,” as well as the genesis of the mega-concert with the legendary Monterey Pop Festival where the world was exposed to the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and Scott McKenzie. (Google him) Young people had discovered long hair, androgynous clothing styles, marijuana, LSD, and psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll. 1966 could have passed for 1956 in most corners of the nation, but by ’67, the nation’s culture had suffered an irreversible upheaval. The goodwill propagated by the “Summer of Love” in 1967 however, would be turned on its ear by the end of 1968.
Some have referred to 1968 as the worst year in American history. A sitting president announced he would not be a candidate for reelection due to the fact that he had divided the nation that he thought would be thanking him for all that he had done for the poor as well as people of color, the war in Vietnam which the American people had been told for four years that they were winning, turned out to be an inescapable death trap, and the only two people in American society who seemed capable of talking to races outside of their own in a way that they would actually listen, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, were both assassinated. 1969 couldn’t arrive soon enough.
1969 wouldn’t exactly start out as a panacea for all that was wrong with America during this turbulent time. Vietnam was not only still raging, but the new president, a paranoid and petty politician by the name of Richard Nixon, hardly seemed like the type of leader who was interested in pulling together the fractured nation, especially when he was planning to expand the war as opposed to ending it, and carried around with him a list of enemies, both real and imagined, a mile long. However the summer of ’69 began with hope. Man’s ultimate achievement, making it to the moon, and returning safely was realized by the United States of America in July of that year. John Kennedy’s challenge to the nation during his brief presidency had been accomplished. America had proven to the world what our ingenuity and hard work could produce.
The goals of the promoters who were hoping to put on the event that came to be known as Woodstock were far more modest. The original plan had been to have the show in either Woodstock, New York, or nearby Saugerties. This proved far more difficult than they had imagined, and it was clear that they were going to have to find a new venue. However, Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, Joel Rosenman, and John P. Roberts would not be deterred. Lang in particular had visions of staging the concert in a pastoral and serene setting. He sought out a parcel of land that would sit in a bowl shaped area where concert goers could look at art, stroll in the gentle fields, and listen to the greatest music of its time. This was the idea as imagined by Lang. The promoters would find such a place not in Woodstock, New York, but in Bethel, New York on a piece of land owned by dairy farmer, who as fate would have it, was a conservative Republican by the name of Max Yasgur.
Yasgur was no fan of the music or the hippies that flocked to his land, but found himself won over by the peaceful and cooperative nature of the kids who camped out on his farm. As he famously said to them from the stage, “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 — not only to the Town of Bethel, or Sullivan County, or New York State; you’ve proven something to the world. This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place. We have had no idea that there would be this size group, and because of that you’ve had quite a few inconveniences as far as water, food, and so forth. Your producers have done a mammoth job to see that you’re taken care of… they’d enjoy a vote of thanks. But above that, 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 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!”
Yasgur didn’t make many friends amongst the townsfolk of Bethel for inviting the concert to take place on his property, but his acceptance of the young people who had assembled lies in distinct contrast compared to how far we’ve retreated from civility and understanding in today’s social media driven world of fear and anger. Here’s a man who made no pretense over the idea that he did not agree with the lifestyle choices or the politics of most of the young people who were camped out on his property, but after witnessing the event with his own eyes, as opposed to reading about it let’s say from those who were tweeting about the event, he came to an understanding, if not necessarily an alliance with those whom perhaps he would have ordinarily dismissed out of hand.
Max Yasgur suffered from heart disease, and would pass away by 1973, however the people who run the Woodstock Museum in Bethel have in my opinion captured the perfect way to pay tribute to this kind and understanding dairy farmer:
The event itself was of course plagued with delays, scheduling difficulties, drug overdoses, food shortages, water shortages, toilet shortages, and let us not forget, a big old rainstorm on the final day which led to hundreds of thousands of concert goers getting to enjoy the beauty that is the impromptu mud bath. The music has come to be accepted as legendary, with electric performances by Jimi Hendrix, who closed the concert, The Who, Sly and the Family Stone, as well as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young who were playing together for only the second time. There was also an adrenaline filled rendition of I’m Going Home by Ten Years After which brought the crowd to its feet, as well as Joe Cocker’s guaranteed crowd pleaser, With a Little Help from my Friends, and so many more. Ironically, several of the performers, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who, and the Grateful Dead were passionately displeased by their performances, and were annoyed by the disorganization, conditions, and inabilities to get in and get out of the concert venue.
A three day concert plagued by poor organization, wet weather and logistical nightmares somehow has come to not only sum up a decade, but a generation as well. Why do we still seek to go back “to the garden” as Joni Mitchell wrote 50 years ago. Is it the peace of the pastoral environment that Michael Lang was indeed seeking when he attempted to find the perfect place to stage his conception of a bucolic concert setting? Does the idea that the show despite its problems came off without any violence or clashes with the police and National Guard indicate just what was possible then, and what this generation of still youthful baby-boomers were capable of? Remember, this was the generation that sought to change the world. Did Woodstock’s success help erase the nightmare that was 1968, and bring back the idealism of the hippie movement? Was it simply a moment in time? Was Woodstock nothing more than a shared communal event that could never be replicated? The memories of the event, both real and exaggerated have been frozen into the memories of those who attended and by those who wished they had been there. It may represent how people born between 1946 and 1953 would like to remember the 1960s, as well as how those would imagine it to have been if they had been born too late to attend.
The Altamont Concert that took place at the end of 1969 featuring the Rolling Stones saw a murder committed by the Hell’s Angels, putting the brakes on the idea that concerts for young people are automatically peaceful and communal. The murders committed by the National Guard under the direction of President Richard Nixon at Kent State University of peaceful unarmed college students in 1970 ended the ’60s with a thud, and seemed to beckon the nation towards a more violent and divided direction that we are still struggling to come to grips with. Today, to often when people assemble for any in large numbers for practically any reason, it is seen as nothing more than another juicy target for a crazed hate-filled, as well as very well-armed would be mass murderer to take advantage of, a far cry from the thoughts that those attending Woodstock would ever have had to be concerned with.
Most likely we miss the innocence of the times, the idea that the only thing we had to fear was “bad acid,” and uptight squares who don’t understand. These fears seems trite compared to the anger that seems to rage on in our society today. I’m sorry I missed the Woodstock happening, but my parents, squares that they were wouldn’t allow me to go. I also had to go shopping for my kindergarten supplies so the timing couldn’t have been worse. I did get to attend the Woodstock Museum with my wife and our good friends Chris and Nadia. In an example of how much things have changed, we tried to go out onto the field where the show took place, but since Peter Frampton was performing that night, “the man” wouldn’t allow us. They were afraid we’d stay out there and sneak into the show. (Not that I would go to a Peter Frampton concert if it was free.) “Where’s the Woodstock spirit?” I asked. “It’s in the gift shop, along with the four dollar bottle of water,” the “narc” responded. “Tune in, turn out, buzz off!”