Recently, on my drives to and from work, I have been taking a musical journey by re-listening to the music of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair via a 6-disc CD collection. The box set features close to 10 hours of music chronicling the most influential songs from almost every performer from the event as well as several of the announcements that occurred in between the songs. I first purchased this set when I was in college during a time when I was trying to discover myself and who I wanted to be. After listening to it then, on repeat, and delving into the “60 scene” for a time, I had put it away for several years. Now listening to the music again with a few more years under my belt I began to think about all of the events surrounding the concert that made it come to fruition and the lasting impact the show has had on all of the individuals who attended and everyone who has either seen or heard of it since. Somehow, more than 50 years later, the event continues to enthrall, baffle, and inspire legions of people around the world because it somehow came to embody, through no intention of its own, a set of values, tastes, and wardrobe choices that would forever be known as “The 60s”. The concert is coming up on being 52 years old on August 15, and as such I thought it would be a delectable writing topic to try and convey my interpretation of the event and explain why I think it continues to have such a lasting effect on others.
In the fall of 1969, the date was officially set for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair to take place in the small upstate New York town of Bethel. The event’s organizers, spearheaded by Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, fresh from pulling off the recent Miami Pop Festival, had finally found a venue for the event big enough to hold a sizeable crowd in a vacant pasture owned by local dairy farmer, named Max Yasgur. Lang and Kornfeld planned on attracting a relatively small crowd (50,000 people) to three-day music festival. However, as the show was still just a few days away from starting, the town of Bethel slowly began to receive visitors from all over the country. It wasn’t long before the local newspapers reported the story of their extra visitors and gawked that their small town of Bethel was being overrun by “hippies”. Word of the shows incredible musical lineup had gotten out and with the rise in popularity of outdoor music festivals the masses continued to flock to the event until there were almost a half a million spectators there to see the show by the time it began. And just like that, the event transformed itself overnight into one of the most iconic events of the 20th century.
My own experience with the Woodstock festival began in my late teenage years when I first discovered the event on television. One Sunday morning while channel surfing, I stumbled across the original Woodstock film, directed by Michael Wadleigh and originally released in 1970. I caught the film about 10 minutes in during the first performance of the concert. Folk artist Richie Havens had just taken to the stage and was in the middle of singing “Handsome Jonny”. Right from the get-go I was hooked. Its hard to explain my initial attraction to that culture of the time but perhaps it was the apparent earnestness of the whole affair. Amidst the impactful lyrics, intense guitar strumming, and between shots of the sea of people that was the crowd, the 3-hour film was mesmerizing. The film not only showcased the musical performers but also the micro stories of the fans experiences as they tried to take in just exactly what they were a part of. During the film when an artist came on that I didn’t know (several actually), I would rush to the computer and look them up. This was in my junior year of high school. A year, that because of this film, became my “60s phase” and the evidence of which is clearly seen in the featured photograph below. Ever since I first saw the concert the event has had a powerful impact on me as an individual and I have come to realize that my own experience is not wholly unique. For countless others, the event holds some significance in their life.
At the time, the Woodstock event was a culmination of countless governmental actions, economic factors and social conditions stemming primarily from the clashes between the so called “establishment” and the “counterculture.” The establishment was essentially viewed by the counterculture as the embodiment of the government. It was characterized as being made up of people in power who encouraged racism, America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, militant social structures, and materialist culture. This establishment culture was opposed by the aptly named “counterculture” that held with ideas of increasing civil rights such as free speech, equality, anti-war sentiments, and a decline from holding to traditional values surrounding drug use and sex. (While many at that time did not exclusively fit into either of these categories indeed these were the two predominant ways of thinking that history has shown to be most prevalent.) The establishment saw the counterculture as self-indulgent and hedonistic being offput by the new generation’s appearance, clothing, music, and spiritual ideology. The issues that caused this divide really seem to have arisen post World War II. On the people side of things, following WWII with all of the babies born post war we see the rise of the baby boomer generation, or those who were born in the mid to late forties to the mid-sixties. It is in these boomers where the majority of the so-called hippies come from.
Whenever the war ended, I can imagine for most Americans that all they wanted to do was to start a family and being living their lives in peace. This enthusiasm created, in a relatively short time some major structural systems for United States that had not existed to such a large degree, prior to this time. For the first time in modern history, we see industrialized society create a social structure designed around a 5 day work week, public education, and sprawling urban expansion. Schools, colleges, libraries, social programs, industries, businesses, tourist attractions etc. are all established and made possible because of the efforts of those who laid the groundwork for those institutions at the time, namely those who were veterans of a War that shook the world to its core. This, for me, is what really stands out about the whole 60s counterculture. From my perspective, we had never been in a place in our modern history where there was a seamless network of millions of people who virtually all shared a common heritage, that is, being a product of the newly created social order and civilized structure that emanated from the “American Dream”. For the first time millions of kids were connected all across the country by watching the same TV shows, reading the same books in school, and experiencing the same woes of high school life whereupon entering into adulthood society expected you to get a job and join in the “rat race” of civilized life.
These processes worked fairly well for a short time in the 50s and early 60s when people were just happy to exist without the threat of war on the Homefront imminent. Additionally, I feel that people were just trying to live long enough to escape nuclear annihilation that they feared was going to happen in their lifetime. However, because of the social systems in place kids and young adults were having for the first time an ability to have what I would dub “free time” to be able to think, grow, and be bored in their youth where they could think of different and/or better ways to do things. Alternatively, for others, they came to view the mass industry that the U.S. had become and were totally, to use a phrase of the time, bummed out by it. They saw firsthand how America had fell into the grips and desire of materialism and sought consciously to find a way to rebel. The interesting point for me is that without these institutions set up, public schools, media coverage, social programs etc., these young adults would have had no ability or free time to question the system or to grow into the hippies that we think about today.
In the early 1960s, small counter culture groups begin to arise that create a snowball effect for many of the younger generation. Groups such as beatnik poets, motorcycle gangs, college clubs, and drug users of various substances began to pop up all over the U.S. and because of the interconnectedness of the country, all of these youths shared a common language in the music that was happening at the time. This music varied in genre, style, rhythmic syncopations, and delivery but all featured a common theme of pointing out the apparent shortcomings they observed in our society and an expression of freedom in some form or another. Songs like Country Joe and the Fish’s “The Fish Cheer” or Neil Youngs’ “Ohio” are directly linked to the social unrest that was going on in our country and were brought about by the divisiveness of these two mainstream cultures that were mentioned earlier.
Inspired by the “British invasion” and the overwhelming popularity of the Beatles the youth in America begin to take music more seriously and we see the rise of thousands of local garage bands all across the country creating their own music. The predominant musical landscape of the time was Rock n’roll, it was seemingly detestable to most adults which made it the perfect vehicle for teenage rebellion. Rising to the top of these bands we get groups like Blue Cheer, Santana, Mountain, Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby Stills, Nash & Young, and Jimi Hendrix. In 1967, America experienced the “Summer of Love” and it is here that we begin to see that there is a nationwide moment of young people that wanted to do things differently than what they had been taught until ultimately you get to Woodstock in 1969. After Woodstock, no one was ever able to gather that many people together for that span of time in a peaceful way again. With the close of the Vietnam War following in the early 70s and an increase in freedoms and recognition for African American people in the U.S. as well as a few other wins for the “counterculture” the hippie movement soon faded away into obscurity. Today, it is usually referred to by most as just some event where a bunch of hippies gathered to drink, do drugs, and have free love.
For me, those aspects of the event are ones that I do not support. Woodstock, in my opinion, has such a lasting effect on others and myself because of its overall representation of freedom. Freedom for people to think, dream, and dare to be different. Freedom for people to be able to express themselves through music, art, and writing. Freedom to pick your own path in life instead of following the typical process of graduating high school, going to college, getting a job, raising kids, working, and then retiring. Freedom to be able to choose to eat foods that are better for you that are grown without pesticides and chemicals. Freedom to question our nation’s government. Freedom to not always have to create economies of scale and not to have to always continue wanting the “next thing” but to be happy and content just with being who and where you are. Freedom to seek your own spiritual path. And lastly, Freedom to have FUN and MUSIC whenever it was needed. These are the things that Woodstock culture inspired in my life and I feel have also inspired others.
When my wife and I were dating, we enjoyed listening to the music on our drives throughout the countryside and thought it so peculiar that many of the issues the youth were complaining about then still exist in many forms today. The music served as a fun soundtrack for us and even now we continue to listen to it from time to time still being inspired by many of the songs. Some of my favorite sets from the concert are from the folk artists like Bert Sommer and John Sebastian rather than the “heavy groups” as Grace Slick would call them. Many of the folk songs feature more poignant messaging and in fact the opening line to John Sebastian’s song “Younger Generation”, “Why must every generation think they’re folks are square?”, pretty much sums up the whole essence of the hippie movement. In looking back at Woodstock today, I feel that I am able to look at the event holistically and say that while I do not agree with everything that these people are doing and/or talking about I do agree with the spirit of the event, in that, if the entire world was able to experience just a little bit more of peace, love, and music it would be a much better place to live in.