It’s been 50 years since the most iconic music festival in history: Woodstock. Extensive and, at times, shambolic lengths have gone to re-create the near mythical, folkloric essence of this event. In January of 2019 the announcement of an anniversary festival was made – Woodstock 50. This did not come to fruition however, and instead became yet another high profile festival cancellation, alongside Fyre Festival and VestiVille. Looking away from the incompetence of a handful of festival organisers in recent years, it is worth remembering that the desire to say ‘you were there’, to be a part of such a monumental, iconic cultural community, began at Woodstock in 1969.
So what’s so great about it? Intended as a protest against the conflicts between America and Vietnam, Woodstock’s ethos was centred around peace, love and freedom. It sparked a counter-cultural phenomena that is considered to have both defined a generation and solidified a new-found perspective on societal values, particularly regarding topics of war, sexual liberation and environmentalism.
Holding around half a million people, its remembered for the notoriously extreme usage of hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and Marijuana. For a weekend of sheer hedonism, of ‘sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll’, it’s extraordinary that there were only two deaths – only one was for a drug overdose. Violence didn’t exist there. It was a mini-utopia.
In terms of music, Woodstock was the catalyst of commercial success for a number of musicians. Only their second time performing live together, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young went on to have very rewarding careers after their performance. Jimi Hendrix, who died only a year after the festival, cemented his legendary status after playing Star Spangled Banner. Though there was no provocative intent on his part, it is considered a highly controversial performance for its anti-war sentiment, and his name has thus become synonymous with the festival. Songs have also been written to commemorate the festival’s spirit, the most famous of which is Joni Mitchell’s 1970 ‘Woodstock’, which her close friends Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young turned into a hit. Indeed, Woodstock transcends time and many modern artists have tried to recreate that same timelessness in their own music – whether that be by referencing the festival lyrically or copping the musical sensibilities of the 60s/70s entirely.
It’s no surprise then that the magic of Woodstock is long sought after to this day, such as with the recent Woodstock 50 announcement. Organised by Michael Lang – co-founder of the original Woodstock – this event was to celebrate the festival’s half a century legacy, headlining a combination of modern pop stars and some musicians from Woodstock’s original line-up. The initial plan was to hold the concert in New York, but after a gruelling legal spat with the Supreme Court, all of this fell through. Lang instead tried to move the concert to Maryland, but this again was to no avail. Music industry blogger Bob Lefsetz suggested Woodstock 50 was “the Fyre Festival in reverse” – a reference to the luxurious Bahamas based festival set up to promote a new artist booking app, where extortionate money was spent by both attendees and organisers, and was in the end nothing more than a fraudulent mess.
Aside from the ridiculous legalities, where Woodstock differs from these festivals is that it emphasised a mission with substance. The political tensions of America demanded its people to come together, to rally around a simple but powerful philosophy, to send a collective message of defiance to its government. The notion of a mission statement is echoed in other successful festivals of a similar magnitude as Woodstock, such as Glastonbury and its environmental focus, or Belladrum’s Tartan Heart for championing the typical Highlands attitude – laid-back, homegrown, family-friendly. Corporate interference rarely has this kind of vision; rather one based on profit, exploitation, image, ignorant to what a festival should be about. Ultimately, what is Woodstock’s legacy? At its core, Woodstock was a generational reaction to injustice, but it’s more than just a festival – it’s a movement.
In our turbulent political times, the starkest parallel to be made is Greta Thunberg, who’s climate emergency movement is based on grassroots, anti-establishment passion. The issues of Woodstock’s time are still burning today, so it serves as an example of what a people can do from the bottom up. No wonder they long to recreate its spectacle.
Image: Front of House Magazine