HISTORY OF WOODSTOCK
August 15 marks the anniversary of the “3 Days of Peace & Music” held in 1969 at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in the rural town of Bethel, New York, southwest of the village of Woodstock. This outdoor music event, in spite of thundershowers, gave voice to the counterculture youth generation of its time. A documentary film followed it in 1970 and a top-selling soundtrack album.
I’d like to share with you what it was like to be at the Woodstock Rock Festival — the music, the crowds “half a million strong,” the rain, the muddy roads, the traffic jams, the counterculture vibe, the media coverage, the movie film crew, the atmosphere, the awareness of its own importance, the sense of history in the making:
- What it was like to hear Jimi Hendrix electrically and psychedelically reinterpret the national anthem The Star-Spangled Banner.
- To experience the frenetic exuberance of The Who define a new youth anthem with We’re Not Gonna Take It and My Generation.
- What it was like to hear the newly formed supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young say, “This is only the second time we’ve performed in front of people, we’re scared s***less!”
- To describe to you what it was like to participate in “peace, love, and rock & roll.”
I’d like to do this, but I wasn’t there. However, I do remember it when it occurred. And of course, who hasn’t seen the 1970 Academy Award-winning documentary movie — edited by a young Martin Scorsese.
Woodstock, the Event
Over fifty years ago, 400,000 Baby Boomers attended one of the defining moments of American post-modernism. While The Beatles may have introduced post-modernism earlier in the ’60s, Woodstock pulled together many distinctively American voices. This music festival was called “An Aquarian Exposition,” though it now may feel more like the “dawning of the aging of Aquarius.”
Here were the performers, 32 different acts performed over the course of the four days, in Yasgur’s field, from Friday to the morning of Monday — with a few of my comments:
Friday, August 15
- Richie Havens – 8 songs including 3 Beatles songs
- Swami Satchidananda – gave the invocation for the festival
- Sweetwater – the first GROUP to play at the Woodstock festival. Their music style is a fusion of rock, jazz, folk, psychedelia, Latin, and even classical music.
- The Incredible String Band
- Bert Sommer
- Tim Hardin
- Ravi Shankar – father of singer Norah Jones
- Melanie – Melanie Safka did a solo act, though she’s well known for her Top Ten “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” with the Edwin Hawkins Singers, a popular gospel group. She was popular on the Smothers Brothers TV show during this time with “Brand New Key.”
- Arlo Guthrie – son of folk musician Woody Guthrie, Arlo is famous for “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” He also played “Amazing Grace” and (somewhat inaccurately) told some of the history behind the hymn. Years later, it was followed by Judy Collins’ hit version of the hymn. Alice’s Restaurant Massacree appeared in the 1969 movie “Alice’s Restaurant,” further re-popularizing it in the ’60s,
- Joan Baez – San Francisco Bay Area folk singer, social and political activist who once dated Steve Jobs of Apple.
Saturday, August 16
- Quill – forty-minute set of four songs
- Keef Hartley Band
- Country Joe McDonald – Country Joe & the “Fish” (Barry Melton) became popular for the “FISH chorus” associated with his Vietnam song, was a local favorite in Berkeley, where he lives, for anti-war rallies.
- John Sebastian – (of the Lovin’ Spoonful) I once saw him live when he was doing the warm-up for standup comedian Steve Martin. The impatient and unappreciative audience shouted Sebastian off the stage in preference of Martin.
- Sha-Na-Na – a New York ’50s revival and send-up band made up mostly of students from Columbia University, later made famous in the movie “Grease” where they appeared as Johnny Casino & The Gamblers.
- Santana – Carlos Santana was playing a residency at the Mirage in Las Vegas last time I was there.
- Canned Heat
- Grateful Dead – a popular Haight-Ashbury-based band. I saw them once in Oakland. Even in an open-air venue, the smell of burning hemp was overwhelming.
- Creedence Clearwater Revival – Bay Area group. Lead singer John Fogerty has recently experienced a comeback with tours. The song “Who’ll Stop the Rain” he claims was inspired by Woodstock.
- Janis Joplin with The Kozmic Blues Band – another popular Haight-Ashbury band.
- Sly & the Family Stone – Sly Stone was known as a popular San Francisco disk jockey.
- The Who began at 4 AM, kicking off a 25-song set including songs from their rock opera Tommy – I have seen the band perform live half a dozen times, including during the early ’70s when at the San Francisco Cow Palace drummer Keith Moon twice passed out into his drum set from a drug overdose. Guitarist Pete Townsend excused it as “It must have been something he ate. It’s your American food.” They’ve been performing now for over 50 years.
- Jefferson Airplane – the first of the San Francisco psychedelic rock groups of the 1960s to become internationally known, later changing their name to Jefferson Starship and then Starship.
Sunday, August 17 to Monday, August 18
- Joe Cocker and The Grease Band – dressed in classic tie-dye.
- Country Joe and the Fish
- Ten Years After
- The Band
- Blood, Sweat & Tears
- Johnny Winter featuring his brother, Edgar Winter
- Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – formed by refugees from three 1960s bands: The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and The Hollies. The band is primarily known for its three-part vocal harmonies. In the Summer of 2009, they were touring without Young.
- Neil Young
- Paul Butterfield Blues Band
- Jimi Hendrix
Woodstock, the song
In 1970 Joni Mitchel wrote an eponymous song about Woodstock that was later popularized by Crosby, Stills, Nash (her then-boyfriend) & Young that they’ve performed every time I’ve seen them:
I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
“I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free”
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden…
Contrast Woodstock with the Altamont Free Concert that happened on the West Coast four months later.
Where were you in ’69?
UPDATE: Here’s a story on the 40th-anniversary reunion at Woodstock. Woodstock 50, intended to begin on this date in 2019, was canceled. Woodstock 2020 was canceled due to COVID-19. Woodstock 2021 concert lineup was announced.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian