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Woodstock Remembered and Reassessed on 40th Anniversary

August 12, 2009 07:00 AM
by Liz Colville
The historic four-day festival in Bethel, N.Y., looms large for a generation of Americans as a symbol of solidarity and love of music in the face of war, tragedy and generational rifts.

Woodstock as It Happened

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, as it was officially called, began on Aug. 15, 1969, and lasted for four days. The concert was planned by a group of four New York City men in their mid-20s: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang. The concert went through a variety of theoretical incarnations, chronicled by Elliot Tiber in a 1994 article for upstate New York’s Times Herald-Record, before it was decided it would be an outdoor show with a maximum capacity of 150,000.

Almost half a million would eventually show up at the venue, Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y., about 43 miles southeast of Woodstock. As Jon Pareles notes in a New York Times tribute to the event, “many people walked for miles to the site.” Though it was planned as a ticketed event, organizers eventually gave up on collecting tickets after fences were cut away and trampled, which encouraged even more to make the journey.

The festival lineup featured some of the most popular folk and rock groups of the 1960s. Ritchie Havens headlined the first night, which ended hours later with a finale by Joan Baez, who sang “We Shall Overcome” and talked about her husband, in jail at the time for draft dodging, Pareles notes.

Performances started each day around noon, and included sets by Ravi Shankar, Carlos Santana, Janis Joplin, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jimi Hendrix, who played, among other songs, a powerful, haunting rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The event was as epic for attendees as it was for the musicians that were playing for the largest audience of their careers, Pareles notes.

The History Channel profiles all the performers on the Web site of its TV special, “Woodstock Now & Then,” which airs Aug. 17.

Historical Context: Vietnam war; assassinations of King and Kennedy

There were several tumultuous events closely surrounding Woodstock. The Vietnam War, authorized on Aug. 7, 1964, had just entered its fifth year. It would be almost another six years until it ended with the surrender of Saigon to the Vietcong on April 30, 1975.

Fresh in many people's minds was the previous year's assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. while the civil rights leader was standing on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tenn. James Earl Ray, an escaped convict, confessed to the crime but later said he had been set up. His confession was nonetheless upheld eight times and he died in prison in 1998.

Even more recent was the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, which came just two months after King's death. Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant, after addressing supporters, and died the next day. Sirhan remains in prison today.

Later Developments: Memorializing and attempting to recreate Woodstock

FindingDulcinea’s “On This Day” article on Woodstock examines some of the memorializing events that followed the festival, including the transformation of the Bethel dairy farm into The Bethel Woods Center, a performing arts center and concert venue. There have also been attempts to capture the spirit of the famous concert with smaller events in 1989 and 1999. But the 1999 event was marred by at least four rape cases, according to an article in Salon.

Opinion & Analysis: Woodstock’s meaning and legacy

As the festival buzz wore off, Time magazine assessed the event by talking to its attendees. “Despite the piles of litter and garbage, the hopelessly inadequate sanitation, the lack of food and the two nights of rain that turned [dairy farm owner Max] Yasgur's farm into a sea of mud, the young people found it all ‘beautiful,’” Time wrote. “One long-haired teen-ager summed up the significance of Woodstock quite simply: ‘People,’ he said, ‘are finally getting together.’”

One of the four founders of the event, Michael Lang, gets to the heart of why the festival was so important in an interview with The History Channel for “Woodstock Now & Then.”

“We were struggling to get out of this war with Vietnam,” Lang says. “That whole decade had been filled with efforts to improving the human condition with human rights struggles, civil rights and women's rights. We were just first realizing that we were trashing the planet we lived on and the ecology movement was just beginning and a lot of groups at the time were turning a bit violent in trying to get their message out, [out of] frustration.” Woodstock, he suggests, served as a peaceful way to combat the negative sentiment coming out of these events.

In The New York Times, Pareles describes both the euphoric moments of the festival and its less fantastical aftermath: “It was as much an endpoint as a beginning, a holiday of naïveté and dumb luck before the realities of capitalism resumed.”

Still, there was a “sense of shared humanity and cooperation,” he writes. “One lunatic with a gun could have changed everything. The Altamont Festival, marred all day by violence, took place only four months later. Miraculously, at Woodstock, there was none.”

Video: "Taking Woodstock" trailer

The latest homage to Woodstock comes in the form of acclaimed director Ang Lee’s “Taking Woodstock,” starring Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch and Liev Schreiber. The movie is inspired by the events leading up to the festival and is slated for U.S. release on Aug. 28. Watch the trailer via Apple Trailers.

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