Woodstock 40th Anniversary

40 years after the seminal festival in upstate New York, we’re still enamoured with the ideals behind Woodstock

As Woodstock celebrates its 40th anniversary, the nostalgia for those three very important days back in August 1969 is almost omnipresent. The new Ang Lee film Taking Woodstock, a DVD re-issue of Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music, publication of a number of books, including one by Michael Lang, Woodstock’s founder, and another by photographer, Elliott Landy, suggest that not only do we long for Woodstock, but that it’s an important cultural landmark. Woodstock is widely regarded as one of the most significant moments in popular music history and was listed as one of the “50 moments that changed the history of rock and roll” by Rolling Stone Magazine.

Ensuring that the legacy of Woodstock lives on, Lang will be opening the Big Chill Festival (6-9 August) in Ledbury, Herefordshire this year. With countless festivals springing up around the world since 1969, what is it about Woodstock that still fascinates us? Woodstock captured the spirit of the human experience, one of triumph and hope over cynicism and potential disaster. Organisers and performers emphasised Woodstock’s exceptional nature throughout and beyond the Festival. Joan Baez talks of “an extraordinary, unrepeatable moment” and Richie Havens, the first to take the stage, reinforces the feeling that the participants had achieved something amazing just by being there when he called out: “We’ve finally made it. We did it this time – they’ll never be able to hide us again.”

At its core Woodstock represented more than music, as an event, it became the most powerful form of expression of the counterculture, which was in constant friction with mainstream America through the various movements (anti-war, civil rights, feminist, ecological and psychedelic).  Speaking about Woodstock 1969, Michael Lang said: “Eight months before the event, I had a dream. I was on a stage looking out at a sea of people, and I knew that was coming. I didn’t have the specifics of it, but I had the end results. I just followed that.”

It wasn’t all flower power; there were tensions and divisions within the counterculture. These did not disappear at Woodstock, as evidenced by the notorious incident when Abbie Hoffman, founder of the Youth International Party, was physically attacked by Pete Townsend for interrupting his set with a political protest on behalf of the imprisoned White Panther leader, John Sinclair. Hoffman wanted the Festival to matter politically: “It wasn’t all love, love, love. It was about justice too. It was about ending a war. It was about changing our society.” Townsend also knew that politics had to be closely related to the music in order to engage the audience, and music had formed “for all intents and purposes, a revolutionary community” during the previous few years.

Some of the musicians were explicitly political. Joan Baez sang about her husband, David Harris, imprisoned for draft-dodging; Country Joe McDonald roused the crowd with his Fixin’ to Die Rag against the Vietnam War, “One, two, three, four what are we fighting for” and famously, Jimi Hendrix subverted the Star Spangled Banner with the sound of his rebelliously discordant guitar.

Beyond the music, the mind-bending drugs, nudity, and the 1960s “free love” attitude, Woodstock was political in another fundamental way. For those who attended, it was an opportunity to do more than express ideals of youth rebellion, demonstrations and commonplace trends. Here was a chance to form a community around these concepts and for three days, Yasgur’s Farm became the site, however temporary and fragile, of a new society and utopia. One audience member said: “There was a feeling of community, a spirit of cooperation that touched everyone who was there.”

Billed as an “Aquarian Exposition”, the event was presented as the heralding of a new age.  Max Yasgur, the owner of the farm, spoke to the assembled audience about “proving something to the world” and offering “hope for a brighter and more peaceful future.” Such phrases may seem worn and empty for today’s cynical crowd, but they are not the whole story. Work was also very much part of the Woodstock experience. Everyone was expected to play their role in making the event a success, an expectation driven by Hugh Romney, leader of the Hog Farm Commune. Rather than adopting a top-down approach, Romney emphasised the importance of people cooperating with each other on logistical tasks. Recognising the practical and social dimension of the Festival, Abbie Hoffmann was one of many who volunteered by offering medical assistance and by editing a newssheet providing factual information about such matters as how to obtain food supplies.

In close collaboration with the authorities, a low profile, consent-based policing strategy was adopted; the neat name “a please-force” summed up the approach. There was a collective responsibility for ensuring people’s safety and for assisting with the delivery of essential services. John Sebastian, of the Lovin’ Spoonful, spoke of the Bethel site as a “city”, and throughout the Festival it was the second most populated in New York State. Its young “residents” were not simply then passive consumers of music but active participants in a countercultural utopian community that could model an alternative approach to living for mainstream America.

Woodstock’s 40th anniversary should be remembered for the way that it offered America an alternative value system and new set of choices. After a turbulent decade with the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and the never-ending war in Vietnam, Woodstock offered a vision of hope. The legacy will continue as the decades pass. It was more than a festival, and embodied a time when society was at breaking point, and the vibrant youth culture of the 1960s rebelled against the formalism of America.

There are still wars today, violence has not disappeared, but the legacy of Woodstock is one that reflects humanity. As Hunter S Thompson so famously said: “And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting – on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Michael Lang opened 2009’s Big Chill Festival 6 – 9 August. www.bigchill.net. Woodstock Experience is a signed, limited edition box set available only from Genesis Publications www.genesis-publications.com. Images from the book were exhibited at Idea Generation Gallery, 5 – 30 August 2009 www.ideageneration.co.uk.

Mike Peters