Rise and Fall of the Woodstock Nation

Rise and Fall of the Woodstock Nation

It's difficult to not suffer from Woodstock overload at this point.  The past weeks have seen endless attempts to cash in on the fortieth anniversary of "three days of peace and music."  Rhino records has released a six-disc collection of the festival's highlights (yet another one).  Specials galore has descended upon cable and public television.  And we're all being reminded that at the end of the month, director Ang Lee will be applying his own treatment to the hippie-fest with his own Taking Woodstock.

Like everything that happened in the '60s, Woodstock seems to have its boosters and detractors.  Those who love it and those who hate it.  Those who sing its praises and those who deride it all as a muddy mess worthy of being forgotten.

Is there anything between these two extremes that can explain all the hubbub?  Today's young people aren't stupid or cynical, and they deserve to know.  What is it about those three boisterous, soaking wet days that has irreversibly forced them into the cultural consciousness?

The reality of 1969 is a hard one to replicate today.  A year before a half-million converged on Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, New York, the whole world seemed to explode into an unpredictable upheaval.  The war in Vietnam had been declared "unwinnable" by Walter Cronkite after the Tet Offensive.  Young people who had taken to the streets of Chicago to voice their own discontent had been faced with an onslaught of police violence at the Democratic Convention.  Martin Luther King had been assassinated, sending America's ghettos into uprising.  The Black movement was growing and becoming more militant, the women's and gay movement were just being born.  And from Prague to Mexico City, the new buzzword appeared to be "liberation."

Culture never follows far behind when societies collide with the prospect of real change.  The teenagers and young adults who had been fed their parents post-McCarthy hogwash couldn't ignore the outside world forever--or the music that had taken on increasingly rebellious tones.

In short, this was a time when youth were looking for alternatives--be that to war and repression, or to the culture as a whole.  "Although the festival didn't go exactly as planned, it was, as advertised, three days of peace and music," says Jon Pareles, a music journalist who was in attendance.  "That made Woodstock an idyll, particularly in retrospect, even though it was declared a state disaster area at the time."

It rained.  It was muddy.  There were insufficient food and bathroom facilities.  And none of the groups took the stage on time.  Yet it was still an "idyll."  Past all the hyperbole, that's a real statement. 

At the time, the festival's sheer size was enough to put it on the map.  Woodstock Ventures, the outfit that put the concert together (yes, it was a corporation) had sold 186,000 tickets beforehand, and expected few more than 200,000.  They certainly didn't expect it to turn into, as Wavy Gravy put it, "breakfast in bed for 400,000."  

But due to the last minute venue change, the promoters were faced with a decision: finish building the stage or strengthen the fences.  They ultimately made the wise choice of finishing the stage.  So when crowds showed up earlier that expected, the fences proved to be a useless venture anyway.  An anarchist grouping known as Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, who had gained a great amount of notoriety around the New York City area, is credited for bringing the fences down entirely.  

Listening to any of the material from those three days (and there is more than an ample amount available) one starts to get why Woodstock was a big deal.  Of course the liberatory sentiment of the times peppers the songs--from Country Joe McDonald's anti-war "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" to Joan Baez's version of "We Shall Overcome".  In an infamous moment, Abbie Hoffman attempted to steal the mic from the Who to plea for the freedom of radical activist John Sinclair, but was hassled off by Pete Townsend (who later said that if he had known what Hoffman was intending, he would have let him go forward).  Then there's Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner," whose searing, distorted notes did something to the national anthem that no doubt made Richard Nixon bristle.  

Stepping back and listening to the songs in their entirety, though, you start to hear the feel of the time actually seeping into each song.  This was music happening in a time and a place.  Its chaotic echo wasn't simply a bunch of great songs; it stood in stark contrast to the repression that America seemed ready to dole out.  

The massive crowd at the festival--who aside from leaving a large hillside in shambles caused little trouble for the locals in Bethel--went along with the whole thing quite well.  Two deaths were reported: one from a heroin overdose, the other when a tractor ran over someone sleeping in a cornfield.  However, all accounts reveal the behemoth influx of folks on Yasgur's farm was largely peaceful.  The bohemian ideals that Woodstock purportedly aspired to seemed intact when all was said and done.  Pareles describes the throngs in attendance as a "young, left-of-center crowd--nice kids, including students, artists, workers and politicos, as well as full-fledged LSD-popping hippies."  

As the newspapers hit the stands in the days that followed, commentaries seemed stunned.  Many papers attempted to paint Woodstock as a disaster of some sort, as if half-a-million unwashed hippies could result in no good.  Bernard Collier, at the time a writer for the New York Times was told by his editors--hilariously--to focus on the traffic jams and drug use in his article:

"Every major Times editor... insisted that the tenor of the story must be a social catastrophe in the making.  It was difficult to persuade them that the relative lack of serious mischief and the fascinating cooperation, caring and politeness among so many people was the significant point. I had to resort to refusing to write the story unless it reflected to a great extent my on-the-scene conviction that 'peace' and 'love' was the actual emphasis, not the preconceived opinions of the Manhattan-bound editors.  After many acrimonious telephone exchanges, the editors agreed to publish the story as I saw it, and although the nuts-and-bolts matters of gridlock and minor lawbreaking were put close to the lead of the stories, the real flavor of the gathering was  permitted to get across."

The New York Daily News also ran defamatory headlines in the opening days of the festival like "TRAFFIC UPTIGHT AT HIPPIEFEST" and "HIPPIES MIRED IN SEA OF MUD."  But after receiving angry phone calls (from the parents of the attendees no less), the Daily News was forced to make their coverage more favorable.  

Prior to Woodstock, the "hippie" culture had remained somewhat marginal.  Each city had its own community of freaks and radicals, but nowhere had it gone beyond a sub-culture.  With the advent of this festival, it had emerged as a counter-culture.  Just like everything else in American society, the parameters of music and arts were changing.    

Regardless of what kind of time the festival was--and there are conflicting reports in how enjoyable those muddy three days were (to each their own I guess)--the tone and sheer size of the event had served as a kind of coming out for the hippies with all their contradictions.  The revolution on the globe's streets had been met with a revolution in culture too.

Revolutions are never smooth.  Just as the rising tide of radicalism was to face new challenges in the coming years, so would the new counter-culture.  "After the buzz wore off, the utopian communal aura of a Woodstock Nation gave way, almost immediately, to the reality of the Woodstock Market," says Pareles, "a demographic target group about to have its dreams stripped of radical purpose and turned into commodities."

The militant wave receded in the '70s, and though much of the hippie culture remained, it was now as easy to emulate as going to Sears.  It wasn't the first time an insurgent way of life was sucked back into the system, and it wasn't the last.

Underneath the layers of corporate detournement, however, the cultural symbolism of Woodstock could never be completely wiped out.  That's why it echoes through to our time... well, that, and the endlessness with which it seems to pad the bank accounts of record executives.

Like most folks of my own generation, I grew up under Woodstock's contradictory shadow.  Though born thirteen years later (almost to the day, actually), I don't remember a specific time when I learned what the festival was; it had always just been part of my basic knowledge.  I watched the television with wide-eyed naivete as Green Day and Red Hot Chili Peppers attempted to recreate the original fervor at Woodstock '94, and hung my head in disappointment as reports of violence and looting leaked from the thirtieth anniversary show.

In many ways, it was my first lesson in how big money can ruin good music.  While the original Woodstock tickets went for $75 (inflation adjusted), Woodstock '99 had charged $150, as well as $12 for a slice of pizza and $4 for a bottle of water.  A communal paradise this certainly was not.  

What happened on those three mud-soaked days in upstate New York was, indeed, notable.  While establishment figures wagged their fingers at protesters, insisting that the country "needed" their buttoned-down authority, the counter-culture proved it wasn't fit for the sidelines.  It would be a disingenuous to call Woodstock a microcosm of a better world (not to mention trite).  The festival did, however, reveal yet another front where the status quo was in trouble.  Now, as the audience members of Woodstock are applying for their first Social Security checks (what's left of it), it's worth wondering whether we as young people have what it takes to make the streets and stages shake.  

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and cultural critic living in Chicago, is a regular columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts and SleptOn.com.  His articles have also appeared at ZNet, CounterPunch, Socialist Worker, MRZine and Dissident Voice.  

He runs the blog Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com.