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The Cultural History of Woodstock and a Message of Hope

The 1969 event in upstate New York that would become known as Woodstock was originally billed as “three days of peace and music.”  But as Harlan Lebo, author of 100 Days: How Four Events in 1969 Shaped America (Amazon,Barnes & Noble) explains, Woodstock would become more than just another rock festival. This is the first in a two part series on Woodstock. 

In the early morning hours of Monday, August 18, 1969, the Woodstock weekend concluded in spectacular fashion with Jimi Hendrix’s performance.  Hendrix played for nearly two hours – the longest set of his career.

Forty-five minutes into his set, Hendrix broke into his own rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” injecting the national anthem with new meaning for a new generation. 

“The guitarist performed his most famous solo, channeling the atmosphere of beauty and love amid anger and aggression that defined the culturally-tumultuous era,” said music writer Andrew O’Brien. 

“You can hear the Air Force dive bombers staking their lives for the country in Vietnam through Jimi’s whammy bar dives,” said O’Brien. “You can feel the mourning of American mothers and fathers in the fragments of military funeral hymnal ‘Taps’ he added near the song’s end. You can hear the nation’s chaos in the atonal distortion. And you can hear the hope shine through as Hendrix hits the anthem’s final notes with optimistic purpose.”

The concert officially closed with comments by stage announcer Chip Monck, imploring the stragglers to grab a plastic bag and help clean up–to do “anything you can do to give us a hand to leave this area somewhat the way we found it. I don’t think it will ever be quite the same.”

Monck was right; it was never quite the same.  The Woodstock weekend marked the beginning of a new era in America, a new consciousness about the way the world could be.  The 400,000 people who attended had arrived enthusiastic and dry; they left exhausted, hungry, and soaked – and part of the Woodstock Generation.

The new reality of a changed world

For many of those who had been there or had watched on television, Woodstock had shown them that their world had changed.

“Everyone dropped their defenses and became a huge extended family,” said concert promoter Michael Lang, “Joining together, getting into the music and each other, being part of so many people when calamity struck – the traffic jams, the rainstorms – was a life-changing experience. 

“None of the problems damaged our spirit,” said Lang, “in fact, they drew us closer. We recognized one another for what we were at the core – as brothers and sisters, and we embraced one another in that knowledge.” 

For Saturday Review writer Ellen Sander, Woodstock meant that popular culture “could no longer be overlooked or underrated. It’s happening everywhere, but now it has happened in one place at one time so hugely that it was indeed historic.” 

What happened, wrote Sander, was “the largest number of people ever assembled for any event other than a war lived together, intimately and meaningfully and with such natural good cheer that they turned on not only everyone surrounding them but the mass media, and, by extension, millions of others, young and old, particularly many elements hostile to the manifestations and ignorant of the substance of pop culture.”

Woodstock-the-film: creating an icon of the age

Despite its notoriety, Woodstock might have been remembered as just a pleasant shared moment had it not been for the March 1970 release of Michael Wadleigh’s documentary. Titled simply Woodstock, the Academy Award-winning film gave the concert and its attendees an iconic vibe. It became the link between the significance of the concert for those who attended and how the rest of the world would begin to respond to it. 

“I chalked up my appreciation of the festival to my enjoyment in attending,” said attendee Patricia Tempel, who later became a university professor and journalist.  “But when the movie was released, all of a sudden Woodstock became truly significant – it just exploded onto the culture.”

The documentary also clearly demonstrated that those who had attended represented only a fraction of the young Americans who were bringing new attitudes and ideas to the nation.

“After the movie came out, it seemed like youth and counterculture burst into the mainstream,” said Tempel. “In many respects, Woodstock was the beginning of seeing youth and counterculture values as this incredible market.”

Indeed, the concert and the movie solidified the increasing awareness of young people as the bellwether for cultural change, as well as a market to be tapped. That view was a long time coming; before the 1960s, the interests and needs of Americans under 21 as a separate entity were homogenized into broader U.S. culture, and thus marginalized to the point of non-existence.  

As one example among many of this lack of significance ofAmerican youth, consider the pre-1960s motion picture industry, which created little of relevance for the under-21 market as a separate audience.  As a result, for the first 60s years of the movie business, issues affecting young people were nearly invisible.   

By the mid-1960s, youth culture had not only risen in prominence, but began to move toward center stage in marketing, fashion, and entertainment. Woodstock – both the concert and the film – reinforced the change of direction toward the interests and purchasing power of the young as primary catalysts for all things social and commercial.

This shift toward younger audiences in marketing and cultural experiences helped shape the creation of  a wide variety of large-scale youth-focused events that were unheard of before the summer of 1969.  Today’s concerts are not only large in size, but also broad in their scope, including music events such as the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, or Summerfest in Milwaukee; as well as events that reflect broader personal interestsin digital technology and community, such as Burning Man, Comic-Con, and South by Southwest.  

Such events cater to today’s lifestyles and viewpoints that are as relevant in the 21st century as Woodstock was in its era; all owe much to the “three days of peace and music” in 1969.

The challenges to come

For promoter Lang, Woodstock also represented the challenges and opportunities that new generations would face.

“Woodstock declared that a young generation could take on the issues of personal freedoms, stopping an unjust war, creating respect for the planet, and work for human rights,” said Lang.  “Woodstock showed that the world can be a better and more peaceful place, and that view keeps resonating.” 

Woodstock attendee Jim Shelley, who was not politically involved in the ‘60s, said that for him Woodstock continues to be a reminder of the unceasing care required for the fragile victories won in that era.

“Because of Woodstock, I’m constantly aware that the issues we thought had been taken care of in the ‘60s will always need attention,” Shelley said. “Like when the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, we thought the right of everyone to vote was taken care of, but that issue needs attention now more than ever. We made a lot of progress on the environment, but now the issues about global warming and new forms of pollution are growing. 

"There was a level of shared consciousness that occurred that weekend – that we need to stay involved, and be sure that the next generation knows that it’s their turn to be involved.” 

Power just starting to be imagined

The lasting impact of Woodstock is not the tangible change that resulted from the weekend, but the broad philosophical viewpoint it inspired. As the aura of Woodstock continued to grow, America would learn that the message of the concert weekend had little to do with LSD, swimming naked in Filippini Pond, or even the music; what truly mattered was the spontaneous group cooperation on an unprecedented scale.

In spite of the rain, lack of food, and limited sanitation, those at Woodstock found earnest respect, kindness, and unconditional acceptance of others. When eyewitnesses recall their memories of Woodstock, they seldom – if ever – linger on the drugs or the sex; what they do treasure are the three days of unity – chatting happily with local cops, or sharing oranges with strangers, or standing on a street corner handing out lollipops – the simple human dignity of sharing and caring. 

As one idealistic young vendor at the event recalled, “The power to the people is just starting to be imagined – the things we never could have believed!

A message of hope

The impact of the great growth of the counterculture and social consciousness spawned in the 1960s would ebb and flow over the decades, in tandem with the ongoing seesaw of political viewpoints and national agendas across the nine presidential administrations since then.

Perhaps the most important change in the counterculture that peaked shortly after Woodstock was the transition of counterculture issues into mainstream America.  In the decade after Woodstock, much of the energy of the 60s had changed– in part happily – because some of the major goals of the 60s, such as expanding national social programs, the environment, and civil rights, had been at least partially achieved – or perhaps more important, had moved into the ongoing mainstream discussion of America’s political and social concerns. Counterculture of the 1960s in its endlessly evolving forms continues today, now as a broad influential force in a spectrum of social movements and cultural expression.

How Woodstock fit into this discussion was contested for years; the event was a lightning rod in the post-1960s clash of counterculture and The Establishment; to some, the concert would become the ultimate demonstration of new social accord on a mass scale, while to others it represented yet another excuse to avoid adult responsibilities and the conventional demands of a middle-class lifestyle. 

But for many Americans – one could dare say most – the issue that has remained steadfast is the philosophy of a better world that was embodied in Woodstock.

Woodstock vividly represents the intangible best qualities of the American experience. A month earlier, Apollo 11 demonstrated the most tangible expression of U.S. achievement; Woodstock symbolized the possibilities and dreams of a new generation – whether those dreams could be achieved or not. 

"What Woodstock represented, and what it still represents today, is hope,” said Barry Levine, who photographed the entire weekend for the documentary team. “Woodstock gave the hope that things could be different.”

While broad definitions are often used to describe the generations since 1969 – “baby boomers,” “millennials,” and “xennials,” among others – the term “Woodstock Generation” has taken a special meaning – a description that applies to a group of any age or orientation still committed to the ideals of the 1960s. 

Moreover, “Woodstock” has become part of the American vernacular, not just as the name of an event, but also a term synonymous with uplifting and inspiring. When Barack Obama was inaugurated almost forty years after the concert, the Wall Street Journal called the event attended by more than one million people “Washington’s Woodstock.”    

“Woodstock showed that people can take care of each other,” said concert promoter Artie Kornfeld. “For that reason alone, it reaffirmed my faith in people."