Woodstock: A Peaceful Rock Revolution
To some, the 60s were a decade of discovery as Americans first journeyed to the moon. Others remember the time as a decade of America’s moral decline with the advent of rock and roll and its representation of sinful, inappropriate ideals. Yet for many people, the 60s symbolized a decade of love and harmony. Hippies exemplified these beliefs, and in 1969 they gathered at a music festival known as Woodstock to celebrate their music, their love, and their freedom in a concert that has remained on of the most influential events of the 60s.
The youth of the 60s were known as the Love generation. They made love promiscuously and openly, and preferred open to formal marriages. Weekend love-ins, free form gatherings, communal living quarters, and rock festivals were held in response to the love movement. The love movement was the hippie belief for peace and harmony. It reached its peak in the summer of 1967, and by then it had over 300,000 followers who referred to themselves as the love children or the gentle people. They gathered in San Francisco, the hippie center of the world, during the summers. During these Summers of love, they lived on the streets of Haight-Ashbury, sitting in groups along the street and strumming their guitars (Frike 62).
These love children, otherwise known as the hippies were the result of the antiwar
movement that was sweeping the nation during the Vietnam war. Hippies were resolutely against the war. They participated loudly, and often violently in countless anti-war protest rallies and marches. They were known to publicly burn draft cards, and some even renounced military service for prison (Hertsgard 124).
Hippies were not only antiwar, they were predominantly antiestablishment. The status symbols of their elders were decisively rejected: wealth, social position, culture, physical attractiveness, and economic security. They held in disdain, cosmetics, expensive jewelry, nightclubs and restaurants and all other refinements of the affluent society. Wealth meant nothing to them. Personal freedom to express oneself was believed to be the most important thing in life. They were antiauthority, antirace discrimination, and antipollution, in short they were rebels against the society, fighting against the moral standards of America they felt were unjust (Hertsgard 153).
Events such as rock concerts soon became a platform against the repressive government and accepted morals. Such events provided opportunities to express their resentment. The rock concert of Woodstock was a prime example. It was described by psychoanalyst Rollo May as a symptomatic event of our time that showed the tremendous hunger, need, yearning for community on the part of the youth(The Big Woodstock 17). Rock concerts of the 60s had become the equivalent of a political forum for the young for the expression of political ideas, the spirit of community and awareness of the world around.
Woodstock was a celebration of joy which wiped out, at least temporarily, the persistent feelings of meaninglessness that permeate our culture This concert, held in Bethel, New York, in
August of 1969, has become a symbol of the 60s. It is a symbol of the hippie culture embodied in
the youth of the time. This concert was the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Billed by its youthful
Manhattan promoters as An Aquarian Exposition, it promised music, peace, and great rock and roll. By a conservative estimate, more than 400,000 people, the vast majority of them between the ages of 16 and 30, showed up for the Woodstock festival. Thousands more would come if police had not blocked off access roads, which had become parking lots choked with stalled cars. The multitude of cars and people also forced the New York Thruway to close, creating one of the nation’s worst traffic jams (Peace Mecca 10).
People walked as many as twenty miles to get to the concert, all the while singing songs of peace and love and carrying placards displaying their hippie sentiments. Among the many were Keep America Beautiful-Stay Stoned, Love is Power, and Flower Power. Flowers, along with a dove perched upon a guitar became the symbols of the festival. These images were painted on cars, clothes and even bodies (Rock Audience). Their shabby clothes were a symbol of their freedom, their uniforms being faded jeans and worn tee shirts. They wore beads and feathers with their long hair pulled back in bandannas and beaded headbands Had the festival lasted a little longer, as many as one million of these colorful youths might have made the pilgrimage to Bethel (What Happened 8).
The lure of the festival was an all-star cast of top rock artists, including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jefferson Airplane. But the good vibrations of the good groups turned out to be the least of it. What the youth of America, and their observing elders saw at Bethel was the potential power of a generation that had in countless disturbing ways rejected the traditional values and
goals of the U.S. Thousands of young people, who had previously thought of themselves as an
isolated minority realized now what power they had as a group over society (Fass 3).
Woodstock was the brainchild of four young entrepreneurs who wanted to put on a great
Rock and Roll show for America In 1968, the four men, Michael Lang, Artie Kornfield, Joel Rosenman, and John Roberts, made a visit to their friend Max Yasgur who lived on a farm near
Bethel, New York. They had chosen the town of Bethel for their concert because of the symbolic biblical reference in its name. The four managed to convince Yasgur to let them hold their concert on his 600-acre farm. He agreed to the estimate that only ten to fifteen-thousand people would be attending the concert on his land (Woodstock Music).
The concert was widely advertised, but the unexpectedly large crowd it attracted, about 400,000 people, suggested that the potential significance of the event was spread by some kind of an underground network. If you were a part of the culture,said one pilgrim from Bethel, you had to be there. Consequently, the crowd was too big for the police to handle, only one-fifth actually paid the admission for the concert, the remaining attended for free (All Nature 194-96). Law was nearly impossible to enforce due to the massive crowd, and the police were outnumbered considerably, one for every two-thousand attendees. Drugs were used widely at the festival, yet out of fear of rousing the crowd to hostility, fewer than 100 arrests were made on drug charges (Grunwald 227).
After the first day of the festival, the promoters hired the Hog Farm hippie commune to police the fair. They took care of kids on bad drug trips, and acted as nurses to the few doctors at Woodstock. Along with the mass drug use, thousands of people suffered from injuries such as colds, broken bones, and sore throats. Due to the unexpected large group of people, there was poor sanitation and very little water. The conditions became so bad that the festival doctors declared a Health Emergency and over 60 doctors were flown from New York City to help
with the crisis (Huges 334).
The mishaps at the Woodstock were numerous, yet they failed to put a damper on the high spirited crowd. It rained through the entirety of the weekend, turning everything to mud. It rained over the instruments, and yet the bands continued to play. Consequently, several performers were treated for electrocution burns. There was even a power blackout during the middle of the Grateful Dead set, which lasted for several hours (Woodstock). Max Yasgur’s farm became a muddy mass of people as the rain fell throughout the days of the festival.
Along with the pouring rain and the resulting mud, there were numerous other things to deplore about the concert in Bethel. Three people died, two of which were caused by an overdose of drugs. Over 400 youths had reportedly suffered from bad trips caused by low-grade LSD, which was being openly peddled at $6 per capsule. On the other hand, three babies were born, there were no rapes, no assaults, no robberies, not even one fight was reported (Tired Rock 2). This theme of peace prevailed at the concert, and was later remembered to be the single thing that set Woodstock apart from the rest of the concerts, making it the most successful and the most remembered.
The Bethel scene demonstrated more clearly than ever before the pervasiveness of a national drug culture. At least 90 percent of those present at the festival were smoking marijuana. In addition, narcotics of all kind and description, from hash and acid, to speed and horse, were freely available (Peace Mecca 3).
Woodstock was said to be the greatest group of musicians ever assembled. In total, 28 world-famous musicians gathered to play at this festival. Among them were acts such as the
Grateful Dead, The Who, Janis Joplin and the Creedence Clearwater Revival. The festival began
on the afternoon of August 15th, with a performance by Joan Baez. She set the mood for the rest
of the musicians who were to play over the next few days. The music continued throughout the weekend and finally ended with Hendrix giving a psychedelic performance of the Star-Spangled Banner. Considering the diversity of the bands, the musicians dealt well with one another, and many became friends. Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane commented on the harmony between the groups playing at Woodstock: It brought everyone down to a common reality. That was the most precious thing about the festival. All egos all melted away (Ewen 644-48).
Although Woodstock was deemed a success, as a result of few people paying admission, there was a reported deficit of over one million dollars. Eventually, this was made up by the sale of film and book rights. The financial gain for the promoters was, however, nothing. The Woodstock movie released in 1970 proved to be a success. It depicted the festival as a major love and drug fest. The Woodstock album, released the same year was also a major financial success. On the album was the anthem for Woodstock, We Can Be Together, by the Jefferson Airplane band. The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was now officially an event that marked a decade, symbolizing the music and ideals of the youth in the sixties (Woodstock).
Several attempts were made to relive the success of Woodstock. None compared to the unique and intense feeling of love and peace that signified the Woodstock success. Many attempts
ended with violence, bad drug stories, police fights, and lost money. The most notorious was the rock festival held in Watkins Glen, New York. Over 600,000 people attended, making it the largest rock festival ever. There were mass riots at this festival, over 1500 people were hospitalized, and several died. Drugs were consumed by over 95 percent of the concert-goers, and that large scale drug use resulted in several deaths due to overdose. Barely five percent of the
attendees paid for their ticket, and in the end, it was considered a failure (All Nature 200-01).
Woodstock and Watkins Glen were not the first attempts at successful rock festivals. Between 1967 and 1970, more than 2.5 million people attended some 30 rock festivals. Eighteen others had been planned or announced, but were canceled (Fass 8).
Before, rock and roll was the music for stoners and hippies, but with the event of Woodstock, rock music became widely heard by the mass public market. Just as Elvis had ruled the music scene in the 50s, the Beatles became the music phenomenon of the 60s. These four mop-haired rock singers from England revolutionized the style and techniques of rock. Their influence over the young was tremendous, as they became one of the primary trendsetters of the 60s. The four singers: Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, had become rock legends by 1967 (Hertsgard 19).
For the first time since Elvis, music stirred the youth into a frenzy and caused mass hysteria. Anywhere the foursome went, they were followed by screaming mobs of young girls. The Beatles though were not the only group to draw large crowds of fans. The Rolling Stones, The Who and Alice Cooper also had their share of young following. Most parents of the time were unaware of the youth reaction to music. The ones who did know were shocked to see their sons and especially daughters so obsessed with the new music culture.
The Church also became disturbed by the growing popularity of rock music. Rock music was viewed as an instrument of the devil that was leading America’s youth to a sinful orgy of sex, drugs, and communism (Ewen 653). Musicians such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were accused of being immoral and promoting communist beliefs. As the decade continued, problems between rock music and the Church grew. In 1965, Pope Paul VI censured teenagers
for admiring rock singers. He condemned the Beatles and pressured parliament to ban rock and
roll (Ewen 672).
Despite the religious pressures, rock music flourished in England, as did the music scene in the U.S. San Francisco immediately became the heart of it. Known as the Liverpool of the West, San Francisco was bursting with rock activity in the 60s. Embedded in this city’s rock scene were such groups as the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Byrds. The music of these groups began the infamous Acid Rock movement. It symbolized and portrayed the drug abuse of the decade. The widespread use of mind altering drugs such as marijuana and LSD provided the inspiration for the creation of this music (Grunwald 254).
The music of the sixties was diverse and colorful in its nature. The different sounds of sixties rock included folk, reggae, acid, blues, soul, punk, and countless others that helped shape the music of this period. Compared to the fifties, it had become subtler and more sophisticated. Songs of this decade reached for the poetic, the symbolic, and the mystical in an effort to better pinpoint the moods of the times. Through such varied means, rock music became an art that appealed to the youth of America
This music provided a support during the turbulent times of the sixties. It stood firmly while the mushroom cloud of the atom bomb and the smoke from the devastation in Vietnam hung menacingly over America, and it remained a support throughout the antiwar movement which
deeply involved the young. In revolt to the war, the youth of America had become flower children, or hippies. They rebelled against a society whose morals they held in disdain. They symbolized the universal need for love and harmony. Finding an outlet in music, they created songs that expressed their need for personal freedom and societal peace – crying out to give peace
a chance (Hertsgard 309).
The music festival of Woodstock was a prominent event of their time that was viewed as a celebration of life in the sixties, during which Hundreds of thousands of kids came together to enjoy each other in the presence of music, and of peace. They knew about art and nature. They lived for a weekend in the still eye of the hurricane (Woodstock).
All Nature is but Art: Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Vogue. December 1969:194-201.
Big Woodstock Rock Trip. Time. August 1969:14b-22.
Ewen, David. All the Years of Popular Music. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc.,1977.
Fass, Don. The Sixties. http://www.sixties.net (19 March 1999).
Frike, David. Minor Epiphanies and Momentary Bummers. Rolling Stone. August 1989:62-91.
Grunwald, Henry. Youth Trip. This Fabulous Century: 1960-1970. 1986 ed.
Hertsgard, Mark. A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. New York: Dell
Publishing Groups Inc.,1995.
Huges, Rupert. Music Lover’s Encyclopedia. New York: Doubleday Inc.,1984.
Rock Audience Moves to Dusk-to-Dawn Rhythms. New York Times. 18 August 1969:25.
Tired Rock Fans Begin Exodus From Music Fair. New York Times. 20 August 1969:1-3.
What Happened in the Sixties?. http://www.bbhq.com/sixties2.htm (19 March 1999).
Woodstock: Dawn of the Bigtime. Economist. August 1989:75.
Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Newsweek. August 1969:88.
Woodstock: Peace Mecca. Billboard. August 1969:1,10.