Editor’s Note: For another viewpoint, please see Point: 50 Years Ago, Woodstock Gave Peace a Chance
They were a generation getting back to the garden, the dirt and homegrown America. Their music blended soul, gospel, folk, country and rock. They would go on to start the health craze of the 1970s organic movement, and would later see the commercialization of the rock star, a capitalistic bend of the 1980s.
But that golden moment in August 1969 was all about togetherness, harmony and peace.
“Walk around for three days without seeing a skyscraper, a traffic light. Fly a kite, sun yourself. Cook your own food and breath unspoiled air,” read one Woodstock advertisement.
The 600-acre concert venue had a lake, a grassy hill, a dairy farm, and a large wood. And the songs emphasized love — of nature, country, neighbor and self.
Police, soldiers, churches and local community members fostered the communal spirit, peaceably banding together to support the hippie assemblage with good old-fashioned American neighborliness. In other words, Woodstock saw a group of liberal youths relying on authority figures in a conservative community to pull off their three-day celebration — and it worked. As a Christian Science Monitor headline from August 19, 1969 read, “N.Y. rock fest amplifies goodwill.”
The Boston Globe reported that the New York state police supplied an escort for Sweetwater, the first band, dodging abandoned cars, driving on grass, and using emergency lanes to access the venue. The Sullivan County sheriff’s office even marshaled police radios to solicit two medical evacuation helicopters from West Point Academy.
Concertgoers returning from the bathrooms often struggled to find their way back to their groups because there were no demarcated areas, ushers or seating. And food was scarce. But after Woodstock Ventures sent out a call for help, local churches and hotels provided — and U.S. Army soldiers in a helicopter dropped candy bars, snacks, sodas and flowers to fans on the hill.
It’s a good thing the local community was so accommodating, because attendance was high: 450,000 people traveled to Bethel, New York, from August 15-18, 1969, for the event, according to reports at the time. New York City in 1970 had a population of 7,894,862 — so that would have been like one in every 16 New Yorkers flocking to a concert.
Dr. William Abruzzi, in charge of the medical tent, said he was surprised that not one injury was caused by a fight. (A music festival in Altamont, California, just four months later, saw violence and chaos, with one fight ending in death.) Abbie Hoffman, an anti-war activist, did leap on the stage during The Who’s performance. But Pete Townsend hit him with his guitar, and Hoffman, unhurt, leapt off stage.
In a 2009 interview, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival said, “It was so hard to see, I mean the lights only showed a few hundred feet from the stage and I saw naked bodies asleep and then just darkness. Nothing else. I didn’t know what to do. Then I saw a light move and a man yell, ‘It’s OK John, we are with you!’ so I just played for that guy!”
The last performer, a former paratrooper and legendary poet and guitarist, played a one-of-a-kind “The Star-Spangled Banner” tribute — later defending it on “The Dick Cavett Show.”
“I thought it was beautiful. They made me sing that as a kid. I’m an American,” Jimi Hendrix said.
(Cavett defended Hendrix saying, “He flew with the 101st Airborne, if any of you have complaints.”)
Go to the Library of Congress, search the ProQuest newspaper archives for Woodstock articles, and you’ll find only 14 articles from major outlets covering the event at the time. Back then it was just a giant grassroots concert — like the 1967 Monterey pop festival in which Janis Joplin made her debut and the Newport Jazz Festival the year before. As an August 17, 1969, Chicago Tribune headline reads, “Music and Art Fair of Woodstock is just another in a batch of Pop Festivals.”
A Library of Congress librarian with whom I spoke, Susan, 17 at the time, wanted to go but was forbidden. Her older friends went but returned earlier than planned. “It was chaos. It was just chaotic and not what they thought,” she told me. She reiterated the sentiment captured in an August 17, 1969, Boston Globe headline: “They Love the Rock, but Not the Walk” — nor the mud, rain, water shortages and poor sanitation.
Despite the conditions, the event united America’s homogenous musical flavors — Southern folk, African-American gospel, Appalachian bluegrass and urban jazz — in a natural countryside setting.
By 2009, seven out of 10 Americans had heard of Woodstock, according to a Pew Research poll. That’s how enshrined the event has become in the annals of American lore. But it’s worth remembering the American ideals Woodstock stood for as well: love of one’s neighbor, as shown by Fogerty drawing inspiration from his crowd; creativity and patriotism, as shown by Hendrix honoring his country while embracing individuality; fellowship and civility, as shown by the conservative small town providing victuals for the liberal hippie youth; and beauty and musicality, as embodied in the diverse collection of Woodstock’s sounds and strains suffusing the natural, wild landscape that connects us all.