Imagine waking up in the morning and looking out your window to see the population of Cleveland, OH gathered on your back lawn. Now imagine seeing that sight for three days. That mental exercise will give you an idea of what Max Yasgur saw back in August 1969 as he looked out over his dairy farm at what became known as Woodstock after the nearby town which was supposed to host the gathering but ultimately turned the promoters down.
Woodstock is so massive, so important, and so well documented that it’s hard to write about it and say something someone else hasn’t already said so I’m not even going to try. I’m just going to share some history but also my thoughts about the event that became a touchstone in American musical and countercultural history.
Let me begin by saying this unequivocally — I don’t consider myself anything of a hippie person. I’m certainly not countercultural, but if I had a time machine and a list of the top places in history I’d love to personally visit, Woodstock’s music festival in 1969 would be number four. Imagine seeing almost anyone who was anyone in the music scene on one stage over three days? CCR, The Grateful Dead, The Band, Janis Joplin — over thirty bands and artists culminating in a never duplicated performance by the legendary left handed guitarist, Jimi Hendrix! I definitely would park the Delorean and sit down awhile.
I can’t help contrasting the mood at Woodstock with what’s going on in America today. Back then, the Vietnam War was burning hot and protests were popping up all over the country. The country was as divided at that time as it hadn’t been since the Civil War and yet 400,000 people got together and stood in the rain and mud and generally horrible physical conditions to enjoy music and each other. The local sheriff went on record saying how calm the whole thing was. He said, “Something about the marijuana just keeps everyone real calm; if it had been beer or other alcohol, things would have gotten ugly I believe.” Imagine getting that many people together today? The National Guard would be on scene before the first act went on stage and probably for good reason. Half the people would want to fight the other half over something political and you’d be lucky if one or two mass shooters didn’t smuggle in something bad and kill a few people.
You know who worked security for Woodstock? A commune out of New Mexico lead by a charismatic guy who went by the nom de plume of Wavy Gravy. A commune. No one needed anything else. He also helped run the aid stations where the job description often included hugging out people in the middle of really bad trips on LSD.
Over all, in three days with 400K people less than a thousand accidents or injuries were reported and 900 of those were from bare feet stepping on glass or other impediments. Two people did die so it wasn’t bloodless. One overdosed on heroin and one for reasons known only to him went to sleep behind the rear wheels of a tractor and the driver didn’t look behind him when he backed up and rolled over the young man’s head. Two babies also were born during Woodstock, but not on the grounds as popularly believed. One was born in a car during the attempt to get to the venue and the other mother was safely airlifted to a hospital to give birth.
Now it’s fifty years later. A lot of the artists who graced Woodstock’s stage have gone on to that great amphitheater in the sky or maybe in the other place, who am I to judge? Janis and Jimi both died the next year the rest succumbed to overdoses in some cases and old age in others.
Still, for a shining moment, Woodstock lived up to the billing. It was, truly, three days of peace and music. To be honest, I believe we need a Woodstock today. In any event though, I don’t think Woodstock will ever happen again. People can’t get along long enough to get together in that large of a group without violence. Less than half that many riot almost monthly at soccer matches all over the world today.