Woodstock: 40 years later

Woodstock: 40 years later

August 14th, 2009 in Opinion Times

Depending on one's age, Woodstock is either a powerful, personal reminder of one's youth, or a historic event documented in books, song and in the grainy film footage that is considered primitive by today's sophisticated consumers of the visual media. Whatever one's viewpoint, this is a weekend of remembrance. Woodstock, the storied celebration of peace, love and music, marks its 40th anniversary August 15-17.

The event, held on Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel -- not Woodstock -- New York, was billed as a music festival featuring some of the most prominent entertainers of the period. The Who, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat and Blood, Sweat and Tears performed. So did The Band, Joe Cocker, Santana and Sha-Na-Na and many others. The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan did not. Iron Butterfly was supposed to play, but didn't. The group got stuck at the airport and couldn't make it to the rural site.

Lots of others, though, did get there. Many abandoned cars and walked to the site. Others hiked miles to get there. Before all was said and done, an estimated 500,000 people, most young and idealistic, crowded the site of what was billed as "An Aquarian Exposition." Thousands more never made it to the site.

Those who did remember it as the experience of a lifetime. It was a watershed event and its impact was immediate, particularly at the festival site where sometimes naked, almost always mellow participants quickly coalesced into a city of sorts.

There was such a crush of people that promoters quit taking up tickets. Fences came down. Supplies of food and water were quickly exhausted. Sanitation facilities were inadequate to meet demand. Heavy rains that turned fields to a sea of mud exacerbated already difficult conditions. The site was declared a disaster area by the state. That didn't stop the celebration, though.

The crowd, many admittedly stoned, partied on. Relief efforts mounted by local, regional and state officials alleviated some of the hardships but not all. One of the first large meetings between official bureaucracy and the counterculture was remarkably peaceful.

There were no shootings, no reported sexual assaults, thefts or acts of overt violence. One attendee sleeping in a nearby field was run over by a tractor. There were a couple of miscarriages and at least one child born during a celebration that would be difficult to replicate today without some crime or violence. Similar events today are rarely as peaceful.

Before Woodstock, rock concerts were generally staid affairs. Top-notch performers played to capacity crowds, but in venues like theaters that seated a couple of thousand at most. Woodstock, more by accident than design, changed that. After the festival, promoters quickly sought larger audiences -- and more profit -- by staging concerts in huge stadiums and in open spaces. Bonaroo, held yearly in Middle Tennessee, is a direct descendant of the event 40 years ago.

The innocence and idealism that marked Woodstock, many now say, has been lost in a world far more pragmatic and commercial than the one of 1969. That might be so, but that does not diminish the importance of an event that marked the coming of age of the nation's counterculture and its emergence into the mainstream of American life.