1969, the end of the most transformative decade the world of popular music has ever seen. We started the 1960s with “The Sound of Music” and Neil Sedaka, and look where we are now. There is no single event that defines this decade, or particularly the year of 1969 in music, more than the Woodstock Music Festival. Although the film and album were not to be released for several years, I chose to incorporate the soundtrack album at the time of its occurrence, in August of 1969.
I have always been fascinated by the size and phenomenon that is and was Woodstock. Several years ago, I made a pilgrimage to Bethel, New York to see the site in person. It is now a quiet field in the middle of the country, with a visitor’s center, and amphitheater and some demarcation noting the historic event. At the bottom of the field, looking upwards at the massive hill where the crowd gathered, a few stones and wooden remainders of the stage area exist. For all of its issues, the festival remains a symbol of hope, peace, and happiness. There are so many accidental elements to the festival. It was supposed to be a paid entrance, but the crowd overwhelmed the staff quickly and most attended for free. It was supposed to end on Sunday night, but the duration of performances and interruptions, along with the logistics of getting everyone out of the area, carried the festival into Monday morning, when Jimi Hendrix closed out the festival with his unforgettable version of “The Star Spangled Banner”, offering proof that we can love America and still protest for change at the same time. Even the location itself, originally targeted and named for Woodstock, New York, had to be adjusted with just weeks to go to a location on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York due to legal challenges.
In my younger days, I was most taken with the performances of Hendrix and The Who, with their classic set ending Sunday morning with the backdrop of the emerging daylight as Pete Townshend destroyed his guitar. Over time, I have chosen to appreciate many of the other artists at this festival, including many I have covered in my blog, including the Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Sly and the Family Stone, The Band, and Janis Joplin, along with others like Carlos Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Grateful Dead who will surface before I am done. Even more so, I appreciate the less obvious choices, like Joe Cocker, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, John Sebastian, Canned Heat, Richie Havens, Country Joe and the Fish and even Sha Na Na for their role in the festival.
Overall, the album, and in particular, the full-length film, really capture the spirit and the real show, which was ~ 500,000 people making their way through a situation nobody could have possibly imagined just days before. There have been many attempts since, both here and elsewhere, to re-create this magic, but nothing has come close. While most of the artists are cynical about the experience and the festival as a whole, from my research, the vast majority of people who attended Woodstock, who are now in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s, look back on the experience with adoration and appreciation. The 1960s was a turbulent, tragic, and at many points, a terrible time for the United States and the world, particularly in southeast Asia, but I think most of us look at Woodstock as proof that hope, love, and peace can bring us all together in the darkest of times, and what better force to unite all of us than the common love for music. I wasn’t there in person, but in my heart, I will always consider myself a part of the Woodstock generation.
“Good morning! What we have in mind, is breakfast in bed for four hundred thousand…We must be in heaven, man!”