Three days, a lot of land, hundreds of thousands of people, music icons and, of course, plenty of talk of scandal.
The Woodstock Music and Art Fair became a global brand almost overnight. The pop culture phenomenon that swept the nation’s young people has lasted through the decades as a benchmark for music performances and cultural revolution.
The Woodstock festival was held in mid-August, ‘69 on an alfalfa field in Bethel, N.Y. Max Yasgur owned the field and had no idea what kind of impact his agreement to host the festival would have on American history.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, and 50 years after the counter culture was created, the spirit and embrace of new music continues. The music demanded attention then and does today, marking
Amidst the turmoil in America during the late ‘60s, young people at Woodstock drew a line in the sand and raged against the war, creating a counterculture and an event, a celebration, that still commands attention today.
What made Woodstock so special? Why do we still talk about a music festival from decades ago? The Union-Recorder sat down with local 60s music expert, Tom Toney, a professor at Georgia College, to discuss.
“I love the music of the ‘60s,” Toney said. “To me, it was the greatest era of music.”
Other than just the music, Toney mentioned how the youth culture was growing. The ‘50s, he said, was the start of marketing to young people, but the ‘60s ended up shaping a culture of teens.
“The youth culture was really growing in the ‘60s,” he said. “…[A] whole culture built around the teenager, during the ‘60s, that culture was growing more and more. People were starting to market to it, they were starting to pay attention to this."
The unification of the youth was somewhat unique for America. Before then, people didn’t pay attention to the youth as a movement.
“One thing that united kids in the ‘60s was the war,” he added. “Much of the music started having to do with the war, many of the counterculture movements ultimately had to do with the war, and that started becoming a permeating factor, too. The music, for years later, would influence new music, new artists.”
This new wave of culture and music — that energy — was quantified through Woodstock. Boundaries were broken and young people showed up.
“The festival — was amazing that it ever happened and that it happened when it did…,” he said. “No one wanted it in their community. As soon as they heard it was going to take place, no one wanted it. It was fear of a bunch of long-haired hippies coming in and tearing up everything.”
Luckily for America’s sake, pig and dairy farmer, Max Yasgur, said OK to the promoters, and Woodstock was a go.
“Initially the promoters planned on having about 50,000 people,” Toney said. “It became apparent that it was going to be more than that, then it just kept growing and growing. It became the defining festival of the counterculture movement, I think, for a lot of reasons. One, it was just the sheer size of it. The fact that you had 400,000 people who were together under some pretty overall nasty conditions for three or four days, and there were some incidents, but there was no real violence, there were no real problems.”
The “no real problems” part was something that at the time, America had a hard time believing.
“I think also one of the reasons Woodstock became such a big deal was the juxtaposition of it,” Toney said. “It was this huge festival. Everything should have gone wrong, yet it seemed to go right. Shortly thereafter you had a festival outside of San Francisco, which was a disaster in every single point. Someone did end up being killed, he was stabbed to death, you had fights everywhere…The thing that’s interesting about the Woodstock festival, too, is that there was a lot of bad publicity about it initially. This was taking place not far from New York, so this festival got a lot of media attention that other festivals hadn’t gotten because it was just right there in New York. So, The New York Times, The Daily News, they were all up there. Most of the stories that were initially coming back were very negative. It looked like this bunch of stoned hippies playing in the mud and all this other stuff. That’s what a lot of the stories were. Then, it kind of shifted. Before cellphones or anything, a lot of the kids were finding payphones and would call their parents and would tell them ‘hey everything’s great here, there’s no problem.’ The parents started to complain to some of the media because they were hearing nothing but negative stuff. By the end of the festival, a lot of the newspapers started to shift around to how it seemed to be working, they seem to be having a good time.”
Woodstock was the culmination of the flower child era. Some acts at the festival were political and others were very anti-politics. This dynamic, although a sign of the times, was not what people were there for. They were there to have a few days of music, peace and love.
“One of the most infamous moments of Woodstock was when The Who were playing their set and Abbie Hoffman, a major political activist in the ‘60s, suddenly got up on the stage and started ranting and started going on about stopping the war and Pete Townsend, lead guitar player of The Who, was having none of it and literally booted him off the stage,” Toney said.
Later, Townsend said he regretted doing that because at the time he did not realize what sort of impact Woodstock would have on history.
There was a general disenchantment during ’69 due to Nixon being elected, and the escalation of the war, but the music continued to rage. The music continued to change.
Music connected the young people culture lines and Woodstock was the ultimate representation of this love.
No one knew that listening to Hendrix, Joplin or The Dead would make such a powerful mark on the cultural history of America.