by Joel Tscherne | 8/17/2009 07:00:00 AM
Whenever I study a major historical event, I am struck by the amount of myths, legends, and misunderstandings crop up about the event. In August of 1969 a throng of young people descended on a farm near a small town in upstate New York to attend the Woodstock Music & Arts Fair. The event had been heavily publicized and the subject of a number of news stories, but nobody involved expected the huge attendance. Hailed by many as the culminating event of the 1960s, forty years later it is back in the news with new books, magazine articles, and recordings. Yet much of the new information has proven that like many major news events, it was a product of hard work and planning, but also a product of a great deal of luck. And like many other events, much of it is the stuff of myth.
The myth is largely built on the soundtrack and film released the following year. Both presented a festival that had problems (mostly because of the large crowds), but was successful due to the spirit of working and living together. The film opens up with lush and idyllic views of green grass and the building of the festival area. When the people begin to arrive, they’re shown as happy young people being welcomed by townspeople who, with few exceptions, talk about how nice the kids are. Looking below the surface though, it becomes very clear why something like it never happened again.
Michael Lang had very little experience as a concert promoter, but had a vision of a festival that would include art, recreation, as well as major rock acts, all together in a tranquil location. He was able to gather backers, as well as a crew built largely of experienced people in all the major facets needed to put it on. Barely a month before Woodstock was to happen, the promoters lost their planned location. Without the help of farmer Max Yasgur, the festival would likely have suffered a premature death with an ensuing financial disaster. Time and again, Lang and his organization had to deal with new potential roadblocks and come up with new ways to ensure success. However, it is also clear that they dodged a number of potential bullets that would have drastically changed Woodstock’s place in history.
The stage area was never finished and the crew constantly worried about the light towers and other parts of the structures, particularly because of the amount of rainfall during the weekend. The group of moonlighting New York City policemen who were hired to help work traffic control never came because they were forbidden at the last minute to be there by their superiors. The local National Guard had to get involved to help with transporting supplies and medical personnel. The festival area was inundated with a variety of recreational drugs that could have drastically affected the health of many of the attendees.
Yet both the film and soundtrack both tend to obscure just how much went wrong behind the scenes. For example, early on in the film, there is a scene of people “breaking into” the festival by climbing over damaged fences, followed soon after by the famous “It’s a free concert” announcement. However, days before Woodstock even started, people had already begun camping out on the festival site because no major barriers had been erected. Broken fences or not, it would have been impossible to stop the onslaught of attendees, so the decision to open the festival to all was largely a moot point. In the same way, as great as much of the music was, many acts were subject to logistical and technical problems often brought about by the fact that much of the site was never properly completed. As magical as the concert is considered, some of the bands still will not discuss their participation with any sense of good memories and at least two of the performances on the soundtrack weren’t even recorded at the actual festival (Arlo Guthrie's Coming into Los Angeles and CSNY's Sea of Madness).
Still, the careers of some artists were made because that weekend. Joe Cocker and Carlos Santana readily admit that much of their enduring fame was because of Woodstock. Yet two of the festival’s major headliners, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, as well as Alan Wilson of Canned Heat, would be dead a little more than a year later, victims of the hard and fast life almost reveled in at Woodstock.
As much as many want to remember Woodstock with nostalgic memories of a different time when things were better, forty years on maybe it might be better to accept it, not as any kind of turning point in American history, but as a part of the country’s cultural history, warts and all.