September 18, 2020 | Arts and Culture
peace, love, and music
woodstock as our past, present, and future
2020 has been the 1969 of years. People are protesting in the streets, the president’s a crook, we’re fighting a soul-sucking war (this time against a pandemic instead of the domino theory), and for some reason, we want to send a man to the moon again. History is repeating itself in ways that we should have seen coming, and most of those ways are absolute garbage. That said, there’s one thing that came out of ’69 that I wouldn’t mind making a guest cameo in 2020: Woodstock. The Aquarian Expedition. Three Days of Peace and Music on a farm in Bethel, NY. Intended as a three-day music and arts festival for 50,000 people, Woodstock turned into a four-day festival for half a million. Fences were torn down, food and water were scarce, and mud was everywhere. In other words, a typical weekend for me.
Of course, I understand the viral preclusions that prevent a music festival from happening in 2020, and if someone took my recommendation literally, I’d tell them to go lick a doorknob, but the sentiment stands. Personally, I feel like a cat who just got put in a washing machine and these last summer months have been the spin cycle. My joie de vivre has been permanently pressed out of me. How have I kept myself busy? Overwork and escapism. I would jump at a chance to hang out in a field with my friends and listen to some psychedelic folk music. What truly captivates me about Woodstock, however, is its spirit.
I’ve discovered Woodstock for myself through documentaries and a steady exposure to the music that shaped it, courtesy of my dad. Because of his influence and whatever brain chemistry we share, I have my 65-year-old father’s taste in music almost exactly, which is a blessing and a curse. How much dad rock is too much? I’m getting dangerously close to finding out, and among my friends, I’m infamous for having what I’ll call a “mature taste” in music. When my dad was my age, he was a fan of Woodstock’s music, but actually attending the festival was out of the question. He was a teen from a pragmatic, working class, North Side Chicago family. No way in hell would he ever have attended this godforsaken hippie convention in godforsaken New York. And if given the opportunity, I’m not sure I would have either. The festival’s vibe may have been immaculate, but the actual event and facilities—not so much. I happen to be a fan of showering, real bathrooms, and lines instead of mobbing.
Woodstock’s producers had safety to keep in mind because, realistically, they could only put so much faith in humanity. Who would keep the order? Who could possibly control what was, effectively, a small city that lacked food and toilets? You might be thinking it was the police. Close. It was actually a man named, and I wish I had the mental capacity to make this up, Wavy Gravy. He was a volunteer at a commune called the Hog Farm and ran what was dubbed the “Please Force.” In the end, Mr. Gravy did a stand-up job, and the festival was kept relatively safe. In this overcrowded gathering of 500,000, people took care of their neighbors, and there were hardly any incidents of thefts, overdoses, or otherwise.
And so, on August 15th, 1969—and with almost no plan for the next three days—the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival begins. On the first day, Richie Havens, a Black guitarist from New York City, kicks the music off. He runs through his set, but when he tries to wrap it up, he winds up performing so many encores that he runs out of songs and has nothing left to play. It’s a nightmare scenario to me, but I’m not Richie Havens. He, on the spot, improvs one of the most profound and iconic songs of the festival, “Freedom.” It’s a driving, heavily rhythmic song inspired by a spiritual from the African diasporic tradition called “Motherless Child.” It sets the tone for the rest of the weekend: wing it, but make something nice.
Whenever we talk about Woodstock, we need to talk about Black musicians. None of the music played at Woodstock would exist without Black creativity (“Freedom” being a prime example), but the actual demographics of the festival don’t reflect this. In the beginning, Woodstock’s producers attempted to create a space for a more diverse audience by inviting (what they considered) a racially inclusive lineup of performers. However, Woodstock’s timing overlapped with the Harlem Cultural Festival, which featured a far more diverse slate of performers and a more family-friendly culture. Also, this was the ’60s, and attending a music festival on a farm in rural New York didn’t hold the allure of “relaxing weekend fun” for everyone. Consequently, Woodstock’s location wasn’t conducive to the goal of drawing in a racially diverse audience. It became a festival primarily for white college students who had the means, time, and ungodly ability to survive on nothing but acid and rainwater for four days. But the idea behind Woodstock, of a place where everyone can get together and appreciate one another for their humanity, was revolutionary, regardless of its mediocre execution. And I feel like that’s what we need more of right now.
The weekend rolls on from Richie Havens’ iconic first set. Acoustic acts come first: Arlo Guthrie, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez performing at midnight while six months pregnant. (Notably absent was Bob Dylan. But, to be honest, when does Bob Dylan ever show up where he should? *cough Nobel Prize cough*) Their music is what I think of when I think of the benevolence and peace that so many young people of the time were eager to incorporate into their lives. Baez’s rendition of “Joe Hill,” a slow, melodic ode to a man murdered in the 1930s by corporate bosses for defending the rights of his fellow workers. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the sentiments of the students and teens living in fear of the draft. Their government had let them down, and it is unfortunately reminiscent of how I, and many others, feel today. I’m assuming you share my opinion unless, of course, you’ve enjoyed 2020 so far and don’t mind the global pandemic, institutional racism, and climate disasters.
I’m pissed, to sum it up. The sheer greed and lack of human compassion that’s on display every day in this country, dripping down from the top, is disgusting and infuriating. What’s worse is that there’s no authority to turn to because those very same institutions are turning a blind eye to the public. I’ve realized that it’s up to the people to uplift and advocate for themselves and each other; there’s no guarantee that anyone else will. As the Black Lives Matter protests have gained more attention this summer, this has become painfully clear. This frustration is part of what makes Woodstock so resonant to me. Woodstock was about artists echoing the voice of the people, having your neighbor’s back, and giving a big ol’ middle finger to the powers that be.
The first night of Woodstock, the weather begins to reflect the tempestuous feelings of the artists as a huge rainstorm descends on the festival, causing more mud and chaos. The music gets more electric and psychedelic. We get artists such as Santana (who forgets he’s in New York and verifies with the audience during his set), Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, The Who, and Jefferson Airplane. The music from these performances smells like weed and tastes like shrooms, but what I like about it most is that it allows itself to be angry. Janis Joplin doesn’t care what you think, and when you listen to “Try,” you fully understand that. It’s not a traditional love song in terms of melody or cadence, and the lyrics are more stream-of-consciousness than poetic. It’s a five-minute-long scream where Janis is imploring herself to keep trying to show her man “love with no control.”
To me, this is a better kind of love song, one where the singer is not only deeply in love, but militant about taking action to make her love felt. I like that she’s taking responsibility and being proactive, that she’s not expecting her relationship to fall together blindly like a fairytale. That’s my number one pet peeve in rom-coms: the deus ex machina crap where they run into each other years later in Paris and realize they’re soulmates. What are the odds? Janis Joplin is giving you great relationship advice (in a way only she can), and she’s also making a powerful point about life in general: you can’t expect a reaction, whether it be love or social progress, without an initial action. Isaac Newton can quote her on that.
The last performer is pushed until Monday morning due to rain delays, and by this time, most of the crowd has gone back to work or school. Jimi Hendrix, a man whose person, talent, and genius cannot be overstated, plays the “Star-Spangled Banner.” He’s playing the nation’s anthem, but you can also hear a warzone, complete with the sounds of bombs falling, sirens, and a snippet of “Taps.” It’s the anthem being forced to reflect the brutal realities that nationalism and American exceptionalism try to justify. Hendrix, who was briefly a soldier before embarking on his career as a musician, never specifically said that he meant for his rendition of the anthem to be viewed as a protest song. That said, it’s largely seen as one. The Vietnam War disproportionately impacted Black men, who were drafted, assigned to combat units, and killed at levels that weren’t reflective of U.S. demographics. It’s a clear-cut example of the racism that’s permeated American military institutions for centuries. Hendrix, as a Black man, is making a political, anti-war statement, whether explicitly intended or otherwise, and he’s doing it on a guitar. I can’t even play an F chord.
Hendrix’s performance was an iconic moment of Woodstock, and for good reason. My favorite moment was not a specific performance, but rather a short speech made by the farmer on whose land Woodstock took place. Max Yasgur was a dairy farmer and veteran, the antithesis of the type of person you’d think would support the goings-on of a psychedelic music festival. And, in all honesty, he had a right to be angry: his land was trashed and his community was furious at him for opening the hippie floodgates. Still, Yasgur didn’t unleash a tirade against the half-naked lovefest happening on his lawn. Instead, he left the crowd with this: “The important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids—and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you are—a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I–God Bless You for it!” Max Yasgur affirmed to everyone watching around the world what the festival goers already knew: Woodstock was a testament to brotherly love and proof of concept for a peaceful future.
And now, I want to bring us back to today. What happened to that peaceful future? Where’s the follow-through? Those kids on Yasgur’s farm went back to work and college, moved to the suburbs, and pursued the white picket fence. What else could they do? Woodstock was a kind of utopian experiment, but it wasn’t sustainable. The festival was full of political ideology, but not political action. Still, I believe the hippie counterculture’s idea to emphasize brotherly love, peace, and art remains hugely relevant today.
I’m excited by the potential that we have when we work together—or as Woodstock has shown me, camp out in a field and sing together—and I’m cautiously optimistic that we can get to a better place by taking conscious action and speaking out in ways that aren’t entirely performative. Someday, I hope, we’ll see ourselves as a house united.
The hope that the Woodstock generation brought about is still important, and their songs are still resonant. I love and will always love this music. It’s a snapshot of history that I’m seeing reflected back in many ways today, and I’m grateful that I have art to help contextualize my feelings. I’m even more thankful that I have a dad who showed it to me and that this is something that bridges the gap between our experiences. As a generation, I have full confidence that we’ve come farther and will go farther than the counterculture movement of the ’60s. History may be repeating itself, but that doesn’t mean that we have to listen to it. We’re putting on our shirts and shoes, we’re going to work, and we’ll be all the better for it.