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.

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Blogger Ahistoricality on 8/17/2009 8:56 AM:

On the memory front, there's also the counter-narrative which I started seeing about five years ago....


Blogger AndrewMc on 8/17/2009 9:45 AM:

Years ago there was a wonderful magazine called Lingua Franca, which was a kind of an intellectual free-for-all monthly. Great articles on a wide variety of topics.

One piece, "Who Owns the Sixties," is a must-read for all students of history. It's as good for the historiography as for the history, and does a nice job of outlining the generational battles over how we remember the 1960s.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 8/17/2009 10:54 AM:

The link is a bit off, Who Owns The Sixties is a good start, but it focuses almost entirely on the left side of the equation. What I was trying to point out is a right-side response which focuses on military service -- a response which the Democrats tried to actually leverage with Kerry -- to highlight the existence of multiple "mainstream" experiences in that era.


Blogger AndrewMc on 8/17/2009 11:21 AM:

Ooops. Thanks for the fix. I doubled the http accidentally.


Blogger Joel Tscherne on 8/17/2009 12:16 PM:

One of the interesting things about Woodstock was the near total LACK of politics. While the antiwar sentiment came out in some music and there were political groups on the grounds, most of it was pretty much ignored. Abbie Hoffman tried to work up the crowd more than once (most famously during the middle of The Who's performance when Pete Townshend threw him off the stage). I almost hate to say it, but I suspect that many of the people there that weekend cared more about the recreational pharmaceuticals than anything else!


Blogger Ahistoricality on 8/17/2009 1:39 PM:

One of the interesting things about Woodstock was the near total LACK of politics.

At risk of reigniting the Culture Wars(tm), though, this is more or less the point -- someone with less qualms than I could probably make a mint on a book arguing that This Is The Point(tm) -- at which cultural and artistic choices become political issues: this is why "being at Woodstock" has become such a potent marker of authenticity for the sixties experience.


Blogger AndrewMc on 9/01/2009 12:23 PM:

As a followup to the "Who Owns the Sixties" idea:

What a Long, Strange, Thoroughly Obnoxious Trip It's Been