Check the Dave’s Music Database Facebook page for daily music-related posts. Also check out books by Dave Whitaker, including the collection of past blog entries, No One Needs 21 Versions of “Purple Haze”…And Other Essays from a Musical Obsessive. This essay is included in that book.
Note: the original 8/14/09 post was re-edited in August 2011 with images and videos added.
When the original Woodstock thrust itself upon the world four decades ago, I was all of two years old. Considering my parents were neither interested in rock & roll nor the counterculture, I have no great tale of toddling along in a diaper amidst the hippie masses. I didn’t behold Jimi Hendrix wailing on “The Star Spangled Banner” or witness Country Joe’s infamous – ahem – “FISH” chant (or any of the behavior it advocated). There will be no firsthand accounts from me of seeing people destined for the “freak out” tent or slithering nude through the mud. All I’ve got to “remember” what transpired at Yasgur’s farm on that August weekend in 1969 is a computer hard drive stocked with hours of live performances.
There’s an old joke that if all those who claimed to be there really were, then the 400,000+ official festival goers would swell to millions. Subtract those who may have been present physically but not necessarily otherwise, and there’s no telling how many people were or weren’t there. It begs the question of whether actually being there was a prerequisite to claiming the event as one’s own.
Perhaps more importantly is the question of whether it still matters. Certainly Woodstock has been co-opted as the definitive symbol of a generation’s passions, be they the more hedonistic pleasures of sex, drugs, and rock & roll or the more idealistic dreams of peace, love, and harmony in the face of the Viet Nam War and the draft. Interestingly, there isn’t complete agreement on the significance of Woodstock even among actual attendees. Some “treasured the festival as an adventure that changed their lives. Others found it nothing but a messy, dirty, disorganized debacle.” BWC
So what lasting effect can that “Aquarian Exposition” boast amidst debate over what it meant even then? In the USA Today article, writer Jerry Shriver asks if “Woodstock’s organic, peace-and-love-through-music legacy still resonates – and whether it’s relevant to young people living in a high-tech, marketing-driven era of splintered musical tastes, widely diverse political views and short attention spans.” JS
Festival co-founder Michael Lang asserts that “a lot of those seeds planted in the Woodstock era are beginning to flower…From the green movement to sustainable development and organic gardening, all these things seem to be coming back to us.” JS Sam Yasgur, whose father Max Yasgur offered up his farm as the festival grounds, says that Woodstock was about “the right to gather, the right to criticize, the right to dress funny, the right to listen to your own music.” JS That message resonates with the youth of any generation.
Then there’s the business model of Woodstock. As Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell points out, “the staging of Woodstock, haphazard as it was, remains important because it influences every large concert and festival staged today.” JS The original festival treated its guests to a bevy of inadequate conditions including lack of shelter, food, water, bathroom facilities, and parking. Today’s festivals have largely heeded those lessons – even if the variety of festival options has spread the audience thin enough that today’s festival planners are unlikely to face gate crashing on the scale of Woodstock.
Here’s the thing – even if you dismiss Woodstock as a symbol of ‘60s counterculture and the “make love, not war” ethos or as the how-to-make-a-buck-at-a-festival-gone-haywire business model, it mattered. It wasn’t just what ABC News called “the most celebrated rock festival of all time” SDJ for those reasons – it was also about the music, stupid! As Justin Gage, founder of the music blog Aquarium Drunkard, asks, “Were people going to Woodstock for change or to party and listen to music? I think it’s more of the latter.” JS
Creem magazine editor Dave Marsh cynically states, “It wasn’t utopian…Utopian has plumbing. It wasn’t idyllic. Woodstock is important because it was big.” JS Oddly, what generates the least press is the festival’s astounding lineup – Jimi Hendrix; the Who; the Grateful Dead; Crosby, Stills & Nash; Creedence Clearwater Revival; Janis Joplin; Santana; Jefferson Airplane; Sly & the Family Stone; the Band; Joan Baez; Joe Cocker; Blood, Sweat & Tears and more. Oh sure, there were some “where are they now” performers thrown in the mix (the Keef Hartley Band? Quill? Bert Sommer?), but mostly the big names at Woodstock are still big names today.
So, in response to the question of whether or not Woodstock still matters, I can speak only from the perspective of a rock music fan who wasn’t among the throngs. I’ll be spending as much time as I can this weekend glued to my computer, downloading and listening to music while scouring the Internet for others’ reminiscing about the events of 40 years ago. Alas, there will be no mud or nudity involved in my exploit; I’ll be wearing a freshly-laundered tie-dye shirt.
Resources and Related Links:
- SDJ ABC World News Woodstock’s 40th Draws Geezers, Maybe Sex and Drugs Too by Susan Donaldson James (8/13/09)
- BWC Bethel Woods Center for the Arts Woodstock: 40th anniversary (8/09). Page no longer exists.
- JS USA Today Woodstock: More of a curiosity than a benchmark in 2009? by Jerry Shriver (8/16/09)
- Woodstock Wiki: full setlist for the festival