The 1960s counterculture—and perhaps an entire generation—was defined by one historic summer weekend, fifty years ago. About half-a-million people, most under the age of thirty, swarmed Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York, from August 15th to 17th to be a part of the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Concertgoers listened to rock music performed by famous acts, experimented with drugs, and abandoned most traditional societal norms while there. Woodstock was preceded by the “Summer of Love” in 1967, the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, and the Atlantic City Pop Music Festival. Yet, it would come to overshadow them all. Why? Woodstock was the culmination of a decade of unrest and marked the awakening of America’s youth. The 1960s featured the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War controversy, the 1968 Chicago Riots at the Democratic National Convention, and several high-profile assassinations. Most notably, the latter half of the decade was characterized by a battle of values and a rise in anti-establishment feelings among the nation’s younger citizens. The Woodstock Festival showed that the counterculture was alive and thriving, and that its members were more aware than ever. However, many view that famous (or infamous, depending on perspective) weekend as an overblown, disorganized, and immoral “hippie fest.” This paper will examine the dismissals of the festival’s significance and then challenge them by exploring the political and cultural—mainly the social/utopian, spiritual, and artistic—components of this transformative event.
The Inaccurate Minimization of Woodstock
During the Woodstock Festival and immediately afterward, the media devalued or ignored its greater significance. Most press releases chose to focus on the logistical and public safety issues that Woodstock presented, instead of the potential historic impact of the weekend. In fact, no major newspapers made Woodstock, as unique and strange as it was, the lead story. This may have been due to bias; some editors may not have wanted to glorify and make newsworthy the actions of hippies. However, even liberal newspapers missed the main point of Woodstock. The New York Times often only emphasized the shortcomings and negatives of the festival. An August 18th story declared, “Waves of weary youngsters streamed away from the Woodstock Music and Art Fair last night and early today, as security officials reported at least two deaths and 4,000 people treated for injuries, illness, and adverse drug reactions over the concert’s three-day period.” New York Times opinion pieces deplored the illegal drug use and lack of security, while highlighting the discontent among the local residents, and the festival’s financial problems. Overall, newspaper articles were condescending, joking that it was surprising that there had not been violence. An editorial titled “Nightmare in the Catskills” and an article stating that Jimi Hendrix had played among a “sea of refuse” demonstrate the dismissive attitude of many in the media regarding Woodstock. Reliance on specific and minute details by the New York Times and other papers may have been because of a dearth of substantive reporting and quality journalistic practice. Reporters sent to Bethel lacked interviews from concertgoers, and therefore came to their own conclusions about the weekend. Most interviews they did conduct were with apprehensive teens, who did not have the maturity or cultural awareness of the twenty-something attendees. As a result, rich commentary about the concert’s connection to the counterculture was nearly nonexistent in those press pieces.
Many residents in the surrounding area of Bethel were equally unimpressed with the participants, and failed to recognize the importance of the Woodstock Festival. During on-camera interviews, local citizens complained about the noise and disturbance, but were most perturbed at what they deemed to be the “inauthenticity of [the] revelers.” The locals believed that the politics of Woodstock was not tied to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and that the concertgoers were all druggies with no concept of fundamental cultural values.
Those residents’ sentiments still exist to this day; even some current authorities on music and culture share these feelings. For example, The Faber Book of Pop and Rock (edited by Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage) only mentions the Woodstock Festival once, and in a highly critical manner. It refers to it as a “festival fantasy,” one that was “weak and stupid.” Scholar Jonathan Green asserts that positive assessments of Woodstock only serve to “fuel hippy ‘fantasies of an alternative culture.’” Author George McKay labeled Woodstock a mere “potentiality,” while identifying the more violent and darker-themed Altamont Concert held later in 1969 as the “reality.” Many other historical narratives omit Woodstock altogether.
Today, some Americans share those negative interpretations of the Woodstock Festival. Ironically, many consider it “an accurate symbol of the 1960s, not because it was so innocent and harmonious and peaceful, but rather because it showcased spectacularly self-indulgent, childish, and irresponsible behavior.” These people would argue that Woodstock, and the counterculture in general, severely degraded the country’s morals.
In fact. some festival participants are also critical of the event and its legacy. Newsweek journalist Mark Hosenball was there, but did not enjoy the experience, describing the weekend as “a massive, teeming, squalid mess.” He also questions its cultural importance: “What was Woodstock’s bottom line? Is the fact that such a large crowd didn’t become violent and start killing each other…Woodstock’s principal legacy? What’s the big deal?” The journalist lists the Clinton/Lewinksy affair, the death of Princess Diana, and the election of Barack Obama as moments of more significance. To explain why the concert became a symbol in American culture, Hosenball cites an “artificially sweetened nostalgia” that is “supplemented by entertainment-industry efforts to exploit the occasion.”  This media exploitation may be the reason why Woodstock’s greater impact remains ignored. even when the event is viewed positively. As a result of the bombardment of stereotypes from television and other sources, many today see Woodstock, and the 1960s, in a “tongue-in-cheek” manner. They may only associate the weekend and era with colorful fashion, “drugs, free love,” and so on. This phenomenon showcases the danger of public knowledge relying on “inadequate and manipulated media representations.”
Woodstock’s Political Atmosphere
Despite the contentions already described, the Woodstock Festival was an incredibly political phenomenon. Many people, even some of the concertgoers, do not realize that much of the music played over those three memorable days was politically charged. Artists in the 1960s often spoke through their music, providing commentary on the social ills of the day. Woodstock was no different.
The most famous and, arguably, the most political performance of the weekend was Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the national anthem on the morning of Monday, August 18th (the festival had bled into Monday due to delays and rain—only 25,000 concertgoers remained). Before dissecting the actual performance, it is necessary to understand its background. By 1969, many citizens—especially African Americans—had begun to wonder whom the national flag represented and if the country had lived up to its promises and ideals. Additionally, the Vietnam War was in full swing and protest against it had reached a fever pitch. Hendrix himself had traveled to Europe in the late 1960s and gained more of an awareness of his own country; he would become more critical of America’s foreign policy and its domestic race relations. Although it is widely forgotten, the legendary guitarist had played the “Star-Spangled Banner” publicly dozens of times before his Woodstock rendition. This, most likely, debunks the myth that his Woodstock verison was improvised, and his decision to play it had occurred spontaneously. Lastly, it is important to note that Hendrix had served in the U.S. military as a member of the heralded 101st Airborne Division. This explains his fascination with patriotism and military matters, as well as his empathy for soldiers deployed in Vietnam.
Now, to the details of the performance; dressed in red, white, and blue, Hendrix flashed the peace sign to the crowd, after playing the introductory notes that correspond to the lyrics “O, say can you see?” The consensus is that this, most likely, symbolized his general optimism regarding the country’s future. Hendrix then continued to play the anthem, using its traditional notes, but did so unconventionally, to create “crackling feedback” to show that he believed American society was “static” at the time. At the “and the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air” portion, the guitarist suddenly created dramatic sounds of planes, bombing, crying/screams, and other “onomatopoeic evocations of the sounds of jungle warfare.” This, as can be inferred, was Hendrix protesting America’s involvement in Vietnam. Another way he condemned the war was by playing “Taps,” the U.S. military funeral staple. By so doing he connected the anthem and the death of soldiers abroad. Some have also interpreted it as honoring all those who died in the Civil Rights Movement. When Hendrix reached the “broad stripes and bright stars” line, he intentionally allowed the sound to plummet and waiver, which evoked the fluttering of the flag. Through volume distortion, the musician conjured a “mood of devastation” that contrasts with the anthem’s traditional uplifting “connotations of heroism.”
By playing the anthem in a unique fashion, Hendrix commented on the Vietnam War and American society without uttering a word. The rendition is “considered by so many to be the most complex and powerful work of American art to deal with the Vietnam War….” Since he performed his hit “Purple Haze” directly after the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the juxtaposition between the mainstream and the counterculture was made clear. Others have interpreted his performance as a call to action—Hendrix was vocal about how America’s youth must become socially and politically active. In contrast with the eerie, violent tone of the guitar, the overall rendition expressed optimism about the future of the counterculture in America. Popular opinion depicts Hendrix’s cover as unpatriotic. In reality, it carried several “patriotic trappings” and a “significant amount of respect” for both flag and nation.
While not as iconic as Hendrix’s anthem, Country Joe’s performance of “Fixin’-to-Die” was more blatantly political. The song’s lyrics, while basic, are powerful, and denounce U.S. involvement in Vietnam. For instance, one line is a straightforward, desperate question: “What are we fighting for?” What separates Country Joe’s act from the rest of the sets that weekend was that audience participation was encouraged. He asked the crowd to sing along, helping to form a “common cultural and political bond” between him and the audience. The “we” in his song refers to everyone impacted by the Vietnam War, even American citizens not present at the festival. This naturally drew attention to a “national identity” and a sense of unity within the counterculture. The performance contained an ironic element, too; the “light nature of the rag-time tune” was used to discuss dark subject matter and alleviate the anxiety surrounding the threat of being drafted. As a Vietnam veteran and son of Communist parents, it is not surprising that Country Joe incorporated political protest in his Woodstock set.
Joan Baez’s set was one of the most inspiring and politically charged of the Woodstock Festival, but it is oddly often overlooked. As the only major star to play at the concert’s free stage, she was essentially expressing her distaste for excessive capitalism, as well as demonstrating the value of sharing (one that was paramount in the counterculture). By performing in the rain, Baez embodied the power of persistence, and perhaps meant to encourage the counterculture to push forward, regardless of the obstacles it may face. The folk singer did not shy away from controversial topics while on stage: “Baez gave lovingly of herself, playing a selection of songs about America’s changing social structure, poverty, union leaders, and about her husband, journalist David Harris, who was serving time in a federal prison for refusing to answer his draft call.” Baez’s presence alone was inherently political, since she “represented one of the few, direct connections between the festival and the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk-protest movement.”
Although not as high profile as the other performers, Richie Havens set the political tone at Woodstock as the festival’s mesmerizing opening act. His song “Handsome Johnny” was an anti-Vietnam declaration. He also performed “Freedom,” most likely a reference to the Civil Rights Movement (like Hendrix, Havens was African American) or to the counterculture in general (“freedom” from society). He walked out in disgust during the song, which may have been to show that he thought America had failed to provide freedom for its citizens. At any rate, Havens had “established a feeling of peace and brotherhood” and notoriously “proclaimed that Woodstock was ‘all about you and me and everybody around the stage and everybody that hasn’t gotten here, and the people who are gonna read about you tomorrow.’”
Other less notable political performances were delivered by John Sebastian; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; Arlo Guthrie, and others. So, were these musical messages fully grasped by the Woodstock crowd? Nobody knows for sure, but much of the audience in Bethel that weekend was knowledgeable about the issues in question and might have been politically active before the festival: “The same kind of people who basked in the spirit of Bethel also stormed the deans’ offices at Harvard and Columbia and shed tears or blood at Chicago last summer—all in the name of a new morality.” In fact, some concertgoers held small political demonstrations at Woodstock. People cheered and chanted slogans as American flags and photos of President Richard Nixon were thrown into bonfires. When it started to rain, one participant angrily suggested that the “fascist pigs” had been “seeding the clouds.” Other political comments were aimed at politicians the concertgoers blamed for the Vietnam War’s escalation. The aforementioned free stage became a forum for the countercultural underground, and it was here that some became engrossed by political discussion, and completely forgot about the music. Moreover, booths were set up to distribute radical materials and Marxist propaganda. Even the famous stage announcements concerning the “birth of babies or the beauty of the audience or the free food…constituted a sense of political community.” But some historians have concluded that “Woodstock was not an event of the New Left” and that “the festival’s focus was music, not politics.” However, the above evidence paints an entirely opposite picture. One could even say that the Woodstock experience was undergirded by leftist principles.
An Expression of Culture: Woodstock’s Social/Utopian, Spiritual, and Artistic Foundations
Most people claiming that Woodstock lacked political awareness also declare the concert to be culturally shallow. This contention is similarly erroneous. Culture played a major role in the planning of the Woodstock Festival. Michael Lang, the key organizer and promoter, selected the upstate region around Woodstock, New York, because he was familiar with the town’s rich cultural history. Woodstock was home to painters, musicians, and playwrights—a true, popular artists’ colony. As far back as the late nineteenth century, the town had hosted small music and art gatherings. Lang named the festival “An Aquarian Exposition,” advertising it as “3 Days of Peace and Music”, because the weekend was meant to be a snapshot of the counterculture and promote peace and understanding. The organizers capitalized on a thriving countercultural consciousness marked by disillusionment with the American Dream and a fear of being drafted or annihilated by nuclear war.
Woodstock, like most outdoor festivals, had a “carnivalesque” dimension. In medieval times, carnivals and fairs let people engage in socially unacceptable behavior and release stress and other negative emotions. They were a fun way to escape from monotonous, everyday life, and experiment with various identities. Such a gathering has been called a “cosmoscape”, “a zone structured by particular spatial and social characteristics, which afford and indeed encourage cosmopolitan socialization.” Woodstock was the epitome of a cosmoscape, and was carnival-like because daily traditions/behaviors were reversed and the audience actively participated. Simply being at the festival was more important than seeing the musical acts (not to say that the music was not enjoyed). Despite common folklore, the music at Woodstock was not its main attraction. When reflecting on their experiences, several concertgoers note that the same music had been played at other festivals during the summer of 1969, and that audience members at Bethel sometimes were not motivated to walk and find the main stage.
Again, the music itself was not the central draw. Rather, participants sought to bond with the rock performers and the rest of the counterculture community. Woodstock was “‘experienced as participatory, communitarian and…with no great spiritual or physical distance between artist and audience.’” Concertgoers socialized and were eager to meet one another; “undying friendships were established on a moment’s notice.” Festivals often breed cultural assembly and collective representation, and Woodstock did not disappoint. The weekend was a gathering of like-minded individuals who developed “bonds of solidarity and a robust sense of belonging.” One man described the sense of cultural community perfectly: “I’m here for the same reason that Indians used to have tribal gatherings. Just being here with people like me makes it all worthwhile. I guess it will reinforce my lifestyle, my beliefs, from the attacks of my parents and their generation.” This attendee was correct; Woodstock displayed the strength of America’s youth and counterculture, proving they were no longer isolated or weak. It also showed that young people could gather peacefully en masse and achieve a sense of freedom without adult guidance or leadership. If anything, the weekend unveiled the underestimated power of the antiestablishment movement.
The Woodstock Festival was also an open social space for the otherwise culturally marginalized. Concertgoers could liberate themselves from society’s demands. As Abbie Hoffman suggested, the attendees may have been “sick of being programmed” by a hypocritical system. Additionally, Woodstock revealed that America’s youth was coming to realize that “personal freedom in the midst of squalor [was] more liberating than social conformity with the trappings of wealth.” The weekend allowed participants to toy with their identities, practice alternative lifestyles, and contemplate the authentic hippie philosophy. They had essentially formed a “temporary city” based upon the “egalitarian” principles they could not find elsewhere.
The Woodstock promoters were not immune to this questioning of self and internal reflection. Although originally planning to profit from the festival, organizer Michael Lang made it free of charge when it became apparent that the flow of people entering the grounds could not be stopped. Making the concert free was a “powerful subversion of social norms,” and a decision corresponding to the counterculture consciousness’s only concern: the present moment (contrasting with the early 1960s dissenters who focused on the future). Lang recognized this moment as historic and that the attendees’ experience was more important than the money. Fellow organizer John Roberts had a harder time accepting that the festival would be a financial disaster, but eventually he did and enjoyed the rest of the weekend. Lang and Roberts personally grew because of the ordeal, and their change in mindset represents the wider effect Woodstock had on the nation.
The names “Aquarian Exposition” and “Music and Arts Fair” fit Woodstock well. The concert accentuated the spiritual and artistic sides of the counterculture, which are too often disregarded in recollections of the era. During an August 9, 2008, panel discussion on the Woodstock Festival, Lang insisted there was a “big spiritual component to what we were trying to do” and that he hoped the concert would be “something that would show off that spiritual side of our generation.” For many who made the trek to Bethel, the music acts would become secondary to the main goal of self-abandonment. To achieve this spiritual freedom, some took part in group yoga, meditation, and focused breathing sessions, designed to calm body and mind. Others gleefully began skinny-dipping in the three nearby lakes or engaged in sexual intercourse in random open spaces. One audience member who was also present at the panel discussion noted the prominence of Eastern Mysticism at Woodstock and the expansion of consciousness that participants of the counterculture sought. This was best exemplified by a ten-minute peace and love prayer led by Hindu religious guru Sri Swami Satchidananda. Exposure to different cultures was not limited to the spiritual, though. The Woodstock Festival featured several art exhibits (overseen by the University of Miami Art Department), and Native-American pieces were prominent (including a Hopi pavilion). Psychedelic paintings and other local works were presented, as well. Lang states that the arts section of Woodstock would have been larger if tremendous logistical problems had not plagued the festival.
Politics and Culture Caught on Camera: The Woodstock Film
They say the eyes do not lie. If one is not convinced that Woodstock contained relevant political and cultural components, he/she must consult the most reliable source: the 1970 Woodstock documentary directed by Michael Wadleigh. Historians can glean only so much from interviews and analyses (which may rely on weak and wavering accounts), and nothing can match footage of the event. The movie may be biased in certain ways due to the editing process. To condense three days of action into three and a half hours, the staff had to cut parts of the weekend. Decisions on what to keep or cut were based on personal reasons or production limitations. However, the film still offers accurate impressions of the concert that cannot be found elsewhere.
By including and focusing on Country Joe’s performance of the anti-Vietnam War anthem “Fixin’-to-Die,” the documentary sheds light on the festival’s political nature. Wadleigh highlights the raw and controversial lyrics, by displaying them on screen with a bouncing ball, used to encourage the cinema audience to sing along. While not as political, the “F Cheer” is left in to provide a sense of the countercultural fervor marking the weekend. Performer-audience interaction was a motif throughout the film—the “F Cheer” being one of several such examples—and was conveyed via the split-screen effect (which was innovative for the time). The split screen is also utilized in Woodstock to “provide extra-visual commentary on points and observations made by those interviewed in the film.” For instance, while organizer Artie Kornfeld is seen describing the freedom of the countercultural generation, the adjacent screen shows a young couple undressing and presumably engaging in sexual intercourse in the grass.
What the documentary does most effectively, however, is display the sense of community and detachment from the dominant society which the counterculture ideology promoted. There are multiple scenes of concertgoers frolicking in the nature and losing themselves in the moment. In one clip, the interviewer talks to several young men sitting naked in a nearby stream. Other sections of the movie include montages of festival participants sharing drugs, drinking alcohol, and dancing together. Maybe the most poignant and culturally impactful part of the film is its introduction. Scholar Daniel F. Schowalter describes it and its meaning well: “Seemingly driven by a cause greater than themselves, like worker ants, images of old and young laboring in fields, driving tractors, and building the mammoth stage potentially position the viewer to consider the unquestioned faith, the imperative of pulling ‘this thing off.’” This powerful beginning underscores the importance (to the organizers, workers, and others involved) of holding the festival, which, as previously noted, connects to the counterculture’s emphasis on the present moment. Additionally, the depiction of rustic living, fashion, and values serves to illuminate the counterculture’s “rejection of technocratic urban living.”
Rain. Mud. Marijuana. LSD. Free love. Electric guitar. These are the phrases that come to mind when people think about the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Now, half a century later, hopefully two more phrases—political awareness and cultural growth—will be emphasized in the festival’s lexicon. This fresher understanding contrasts with the event’s contemporary negative or lukewarm reactions. The weekend and its initial assessment should be a reminder—for both media and the public alike—that conclusions about any type of happening should not be drawn immediately. Historical or cultural phenomena should not be quickly dismissed as insignificant, at least not without deep, investigative research. Future study should look more closely at events that have been similarly written off as inconsequential.
Woodstock was a landmark moment for Americans, but its tremors were also felt internationally. Some of the bold protesters at Tiananmen Square in China in 1989 (nearly twenty years after Woodstock) had been inspired by images of the festival. Woodstock sparked such fascination that its imitation has been attempted several times. A concert at Altamont in California would take place later the same year, and the 1990s were marked by two Woodstock extravaganzas. Yet none captured the spontaneous, free, and peaceful essence of the original. Those three days in Bethel not only empowered America’s youth, but also forced older generations to try to understand the counterculture ideology. Fifty years on, America may need another Woodstock, considering the current tense national climate. Only time will tell if today’s youth can express itself like the “Woodstock generation” did. That latter group made the counterculture mainstream—it would not take long for teens and twenty-somethings across the country to start wearing tie-dyed shirts with peace signs. Social activism changed as well; the causes of the 1970s and 1980s (environmentalism, etc.) were born at Bethel. Maybe the man behind it all should have the last words. On Woodstock, organizer Michael Lang simply declared, “It worked…and was a confirmation of our humanity.”
Bennett, Andy. ‘Everybody’s Happy, Everybody’s Free’: Representation and Nostalgia in the Woodstock Film, in Remembering Woodstock, ed. Andy Bennett (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2004), 46-48, 50, 52.
Bennett, Andy and Woodward, Ian. “Festival Spaces, Identity, Experience and Belonging,” in The Festivalization of Culture, ed. Andy Bennett, Jodie Taylor, and Ian Woodward (Burlington: Ashgate, 2014), 17-19, 36.
Hosenball, Mark. “I Was At Woodstock. And I Hated It.,”Newsweek, August 11, 2009, https://www.newsweek.com/i-was-woodstock-and-i-hated-it-78699.
“Transcript: The August 9, 2008 Panel Discussion” in The Roots of the 1969 Woodstock Festival: The Backstory to “Woodstock,” ed. Weston Blelock and Julia Blelock (Woodstock: WoodstockArts, 2009), 67, 80, 82-83.