This week marks the 48th anniversary of Woodstock, the art and music festival that was supposed to take place in the eponymous town, but, as we know, actually happened 60 miles away on Yasgur’s Farm.
The facts, mostly: Described as “three days of peace, love & music,” Woodstock was arranged by promoters Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld. Yasgur’s Farm in Bethel, New York was the site of “Woodstock” the famous rock festival that attracted over 400,000 people, from August 15 to 17, 1969.
During the rainy weekend, 32 acts performed outdoors. Woodstock is widely regarded as a pivotal moment in music and cultural popular history, and serves as a pivotal nexus for the larger counterculture generation.
Rolling Stone magazine lists Woodstock as one of the “50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll.”
Earlier in the year, Richard Nixon replaced Lyndon Baines Johnson as President of the United States. Nixon, a Californian and nicknamed “Tricky Dick” beat out Democratic Candidate Hubert Humphrey in 1968, during an election process pinned with riots and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy in April and June.
The times seemed opaque and hopeless. The War in Vietnam aired each day on the nightly news, sharing battle counts of dead and wounded. The enemy dead nearly always outnumbered the number of American G.I.s killed or wounded, and success was projected as eventual.
The problem: the nation itself was at war — rednecks beating long-haired hippies, revolutionaries blowing up Establishment institutions, Black Panthers gunning against racist policy, war-pushing Hawks against peaceful Doves (thus the Dove gracing the Woodstock poster). Grandparents and parents who had scrimped during The Great Depression were aghast at the younger generation of revolting Baby Boomers who had enjoyed a youth filled with unprecedented luxuries that included cars, fast food and television.
The nation was a cluster. People were “labeled” as hippies, rednecks, commies. The younger generation counseled itself not to trust anyone over 30.
In mid-July, 1969, amidst the political and social chaos, there was a smack of National pride as, just 40 days after Robert Kennedy was killed, a bleary nation watched through the national television eye while Apollo 11 Astronaut Neil Armstrong bounced around on the moon.
The astronauts also sent a photo from the perspective of outer space that, for the very first time, showed the Earth as seen from outer space: a blue watery sphere surrounded by the darkness of an unknown universe. Suddenly, what was happening on Earth seemed small, fragile, insignificant, even microscopic.
It was a different time. Families went to church on Sundays. Stores were closed on Sundays. (Super malls did not exist yet.) The general public respected authority figures — and that respect included cops and POTUS. If someone called you a crook, it’s likely that you were a crook. No one said “Fuck” in public. (Which is what made the “fuck cheer” at Woodstock disruptive.)
The nation was swimming in a crazy fucked up righteous potion of outraged violence, peace, free love, sex, drugs. So fucked up and violent was the national perspective that it seemed out of character for a crowd of over 500,000 American citizens to gather at Woodstock without provoking some form of violence.
That was about to change.
Tshirts and blue jeans may be standard issue today, but in 1969 most high school and college boys wore mandatory slacks and button-down shirts. Girls wore dresses to the knee. A Levis blue jeans retailer in Mill Valley, California called attention to the differing time and styles by calling itself the Generation Gap. These days they just call themselves The Gap.
(Note that it has taken 50 years for jeanswear to invade the culture and — now, today — begin to fade out with other styles.)
(Another note: because Gap also sold music, they were one of the first to integrate music and retail. Soulless MUSAK usually filtered into store sound systems, but Gap played rock and roll.)
Give peace a chance.
Woodstock, NY was chosen initially because it was the location where Bob Dylan had been hiding out. Also, Dylan promoter Albert Grossman had far-flung plans for the region, including his Bearsville recording label.
On August 15 in Bethel, New York, the festival of art and music launched. It was not always happy. A friend tells us how she drove with girlfriends from Manhattan to Woodstock.
“It was hot and muddy and there were no bathrooms,” she describes the scene. “It was disgusting. I left on the second day.”
A few days later, Robbie Robertson of rock music group The Band remembers their participation.
“By the third day of the event, we heard that all roads were closed coming and going around Bethel,” writes Robertson in his autobiography Testimony. “Someone said there were now close to half a million people at the site. We had to be flow in by helicopter…it was astonishing. None of us had seen an audience of 500,000 before…The helicopter landed in a backstage area that looked like a village unto itself, and as we disembarked, various attendees and staff greeted us like we were entering the gates of Eden.”
I didn’t go to Woodstock personally, but Bill Evans and his wife did. They picked me up later as they were driving from the concert back home and I was hitchhiking to Alaska. They let me ride with them the entire distance from Bozeman Montana to Fairbanks. Lucky ride.
They had been to Woodstock and told me about it as we drove together up the Alaska-Canadian roadway. The philosophical impact of Woodstock was in the air of the Volkswagen Microbus as we traveled along. This was before the Pipeline and the 1970s oil boom and the road was unpaved for the 1500 miles between Dawson Creek and the Alaskan border. That meant the entire stretch through the Yukon Territory. Trucks stormed past that kicked up stones the size of badger skulls. Headlights were taped, windshields were taped, and shattered nevertheless. Moose burst from the forest, running full speed across the road in front of you. The region is too cold for deer, but there were plenty of moose and any random moose collision could crush your car. One long blue Yukon lake stretched for seventy miles, the water so clear you could look down into the bottom as you drove beside it. Trees were stunted in the permafrost. A tree only ten feet tall could be five hundred years old. We came around a bend and baby red fox kits were playing in the middle of the road.
There were many roads from Woodstock.
The Hippie esthetic born at Woodstock created many offspring that are taken for granted today. Woodstock was the first outrageous festival of art, music and culture, the wild naked ur-Mother of Coachella, Lolapalooza, Bonnaroo and Burning Man.
The energized idealized surround of Woodstock attitudes sparked endless possibilities that have evolved toward some of today’s contemporary passions. Recycling became sustainability. The movement for equality became diversity. Movements toward different forms of energy became wind farms and solar panels. Nut and berry eaters (rather, the grandchildren of nut and berry eaters) became vegans. Free love transformed into sex positive. Illegal marijuana became legalized pot.
A food co-op in Austin, Texas sold organic local produce. When users complained that they now were forced to go to several stores to buy all their household needs, the co-op merged with another local food retailer and re-named itself Whole Foods. (An aside: the choice between “paper or plastic” at the grocery store arose during the Woodstock era from a misguided ecological tree-hugging attempt to preserve forests. Petroleum-based plastic bags were handed out as an option.)
Building on the ethos and esthetics copped from the older Beats generation (nee beatniks) and spiritual guidance counselors including Buckminster Fuller, Rachel Carson, Marshal McLuhan, Timothy Leary, Carlos Castaneda and the handy Whole Earth Catalog, hippie attitudes dredged from Berkeley in the West and NYU, Yale and Harvard in the East (Timothy Leary was a Harvard professor) seeped into mainstream culture.
[Related music news in 1969: The Beatles released “Abbey Road,” Johnny Cash played at San Quentin, Led Zeppelin launched their first album, Nick Drake released “Five Leaves,” Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” came out, as did Neil Young’s first solo album, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.”]
Woodstock, 1969 was the swan song that emerged after an exhausting decade of Cold War, assassinations, the politically-incented Vietnam conflict and civil violence. Half a million people gathering together peacefully on a muddy hillside seemed to signal a way out. But months later on April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. Within days, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a mass of Kent State college students protesting the Vietnam War. Four students were killed and nine wounded. Suddenly, two musicians who had performed at Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, overdosed on heroin and died. A bead string of unrelated events culminated three years later, when, in June 1972, three men were arrested after breaking into Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., causing the eventual resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.
“Watch out for the bad acid.”
Woodstock was over as an event, but not over as an impactful cultural awakening.