If everyone who had claimed to have been at Woodstock on the week-end of August 15-17 1969, had actually been there, attendance would have been in the millions, rather than the estimated 400,000 who actually made the journey down a congested New York State Thruway to Max Yasgar’s dairy farm in the Catskills, near the town of Bethel, for three days of peace and music. Caleb S. Rossiter, in his 1996 memoir The Chimes of Freedom Flashing, recalled a crowd ‘amazed and heartened by its own size’, and the sense of awe as the audience ‘roared with approval as they contemplated a nation to which they could truly belong.’
The potential for disaster had not occurred to the festival organisers, who had anticipated a paying crowd of about 50,000. As people kept on arriving, any thoughts of extracting the prescribed $18 entry fee from each person disappeared, and they flowed in, turning the natural bowl of the site sloping down to the stage into a makeshift town. The press reported on this ‘hippiefest’, firstly with dismay at the ‘sea of mud’, food shortages, evidence of psychotropic drugs, and the lack of toilet and washing facilities, but increasingly with a sense of wonder that such a large and seemingly disorganised event could proceed in an atmosphere of peace and harmony.
Opened on the Friday afternoon by the Afro-American folk singer Richie Havens, the crowd was entertained by thirty-two rock and folk music acts, many of which have become emblematic of the period; Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Santana, Janis Joplin, the Who, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish. Music continued throughout the night, with a few hours’ of relative silence on the Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Set against a background of growing opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam, as well as antagonism to compulsory army service (‘the draft’), anti-war songs featured in many of the performances. Country Joe led the crowd in a chorus asking ‘what are we fighting for?’ while, in ‘Love March’, the Paul Butterfield Blues Bang sang that ‘there’s gotta be a change’ to a system which glorified regimentation and cultural conformity. When Jimi Hendrix took the stage at 8.30 on the Monday morning, only 30,000 people had remained to hear his rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner to close the festival. Alone on stage, the feedback and reverb he was able to conjure from his electric guitar emulated the sounds of war, machine gun fire and explosions, constituting a ‘sarcastic rejection of the culture that celebrated order, flags, war, Vietnam, and obedience to them.’
Over nearly fifty years, the mystique of the Woodstock festival has continued to grow. Thanks to a still-popular film and a soundtrack, the organisers were eventually able to recoup the money they had lost, as well as to settle a raft of law suits brought by disgruntled neighbouring farmers. The event became a pivotal moment, not only in popular music history, but for a generation of Americans which was growing to think of itself as ‘counter-culture’, rejecting not only the musical forms of their parents, but their seemingly unquestioning acceptance of American mores and assumptions, including the use of military might to intervene in conflicts around the world. The war in Vietnam rumbled on for six more years and, by its end, had resulted in the death of millions, including perhaps 60,000 US servicemen (and over 500 Australians).
In the fractured environment of the US during the 1960s, the reality of Woodstock, a grimy, crowded and disorganised festival, has been transformed into a powerful symbol of an alternative America, but its cliché of love, peace and happiness remains just as elusive today as it was in 1969.
Jimi Hendrix closed the festival on the Monday morning, performing his version of the Star-Spangled Banner before a vastly reduced crowd.
Dr Malcolm Allbrook is a Research Fellow and the Managing Editor within National Centre for Biography.