The motivation to write this particular blog arose after I saw a particular episode of the PBS series American Experience. This one was titled Woodstock – Three Days That Defined A Generation. (The show is now also available on Netflix.) The movie was remarkable!
For some reason or the other, even though I did not live in the United States at that time, I have been drawn to the US of the 60s and the 70s. Part of it was the music. I do not know if others of my generation who lived in India at that time remember this, but we used to be easily able to get comic books from the US in India during those days. I used to read any that I could get my hands on. Many of these comic books would include pages where they advertised certain music clubs in the US that you could join to get the few albums for almost no cost. Even though we were not able to join these clubs, I used to read about the music. I could even listen to some of this music on shortwave radio.
Anyway, it was not until the 1980s that I was able listen to more of this music, and to even obtain the complete official live recording of the music of Woodstock. We still have the VHS tape of this recording in our basement. I will be honest in admitting I did not really completely understand the spirit of those times since I did not live in the country, but, as I said before, I was still drawn to it. Maybe it reflected something that I felt in my inner self.
Which brings me to today. The movie from PBS which I saw last week tells the entire story of the Woodstock concert. It is not a music video. It is a remarkable documentary. First of all, the event itself would be considered a complete disaster from the point of view of the staging of any kind of event. Almost everything that could go wrong in the organization of the event went wrong. Our sense of organizational structure these days would not allow a concert like this to happen in the United States today. The organizers of Woodstock completely miscalculated. They did not have enough time to set up for the concert, and the crowds that came were many more than they anticipated. They did not set up enough resources for the concert-goers, including food and sanitation. The place was a disaster zone by the end of the four-day event.
But a remarkable thing also happened during those days of Woodstock. Hundreds of thousands of young people gathered in an open field, under very, very, crowded, and appalling and dangerous conditions, to listen to music, to get high, and to basically have a good time. During the almost four days, they slept where ever they could. They managed in spite of the lack of toilets. They took to skinny dipping in the local pond to clean themselves and have some fun in the process. When a dangerous thunderstorm passed through they sheltered in place, and then they started playing in the mud like little kids. And they managed to have their fun in spite of the chaos and the terrible conditions around them. They did not riot. They behaved as a giant human family – taking care of each other, and managing with whatever they had. The kids were completely peaceful in spite of the worst that others were expecting of them.
There are too many things worth noting about the concert. (If you are interested, it is worth watching the movie to get a better insight.) The organizers had to make it a free concert because people arrived well before the fences around the field had been set up. An activist commune from California called the Hog Farm provided “security”, and whatever organization and community service that was needed – even feeding the people after the concessions ran out of food, and also taking care of the people who had overdosed on drugs. The members of the Hog Farm were hippies who did all of this for the benefit of the community just because they wanted to, and not because of any monetary incentive. The community of Bethel, NY, where the concert took place, was a deeply conservative one. They were generally Republican folks who supported the war in Vietnam, something that the young people were against. They did not want the concert in their backyard, and opposed Max Yasgur, the farmer who provided his land for the purpose. In spite of their opposition, the locals banded together to provide food for the kids when the situation grew desperate on the concert grounds. The military even flew in doctors and medical supplies to take care of the kids. (The Huey choppers that flew in for this purpose were similar to those being used in the Vietnam war at that time.) The musicians had to be flown in to the concert grounds in helicopters because the roads were all blocked. Each group that was performing had their own unique story line and attitude that they brought with them to the stage. It was a remarkable set of circumstances.
And I should probably say something about the music itself. The organizers tried to keep the music going all 24 hours of the day, hoping to keep the kids entertained and in a good mood. They did not want trouble to break out. The music was of the times – starting with folk music on the first day, and moving on to more mainstream pop music and rock and roll. There was a general anti-establishment theme to a lot of the music. The kids were rebelling against the voice of authority, they were against the Vietnam war. Richie Havens was the first performer. He improvised the song Freedom on the spot at the end of his set. The organizers had him performing well beyond his initially allotted time because the next band was not ready. Santana apparently took the excitement in the crowd to a higher level on the second day with Soul Sacrifice (listen to the mother of all drum solos in this rendition!). Sly and Family Stone took the crowd higher with their final rendition of I want to take you Higher in what was apparently one of the most energizing sets of the concert. Who would have thought that Funk would work well in the middle of a series of rock and roll music sets? On the last morning, after many of the concertgoers had already left for home, Jimi Hendrix woke up the remaining crowd with the now classic rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. The sounds and the violence of the Vietnam war (“The bombs bursting in air!”) come alive in the song through his guitar. It was electrifying! If you do a search on the “Best Performances at Woodstock”, you will find a few articles that tell you a little more about some of the songs that were performed at the concert. Here is one such article. There were apparently a few duds at the concert, including the Grateful Dead. They were too stoned for their own good.
After seeing the movie, I decided that I wanted to find out more about Max Yasgur, the farmer who had provided his land for the concert. I found a great video – a talk given by Max’s son Sam Yasgur to a legal group. The video is supposed to be about the First Amendment and free speech. I found the entire video interesting, but you can skip directly to the 40th minute of the video to go directly to the part where Sam starts talking more about the circumstances of Woodstock, and about Max himself. Sam Yasgur is an amazing speaker, and quite entertaining. And Max Yasgur was a remarkable human being. (I hope that this video does not get removed by Youtube!)
I did a little more of searching on the Internet regarding Woodstock. This is a video of an interview given to the The Guardian more recently by one of the organizers of the original concert. You can find interviews with a few people who were at Woodstock, including this video. There were attempts to have concerts at the original location (or close to it) for the 40th and 50 anniversaries. I do not think they were very successful. I am sure there were a few people who went back for these concerts to try to relive some of the days of their youth. There is apparently an art center near the original site of the concert.
Although, I was not here in the US during the time of Woodstock, I somewhat identify with the sense of idealism of the kids. They were the hippies, the flower children. They were questioning the ways of their society. They were not into materialism. They were looking a simpler way to live. They wanted a peaceful way of life. They were against the war that was going on. I get the impression that at least a few of the young people of the 1960s and 70s remained true to their original spirit as they went on through life. I am guessing that there must be others who went on to become conservative Republicans. I wish we could feel and see more of a positive impact of these youth of the 60s and 70s in the culture of the current times, but it is difficult to influence the world in the major way when your life is based simply on peace, love, and understanding.
The world has changed a lot since the days of Woodstock. It seems to have become tougher, and life has become more regulated and seemingly more systematized. Society is less inclined to allow you to take risks. But, I would like to believe that the young people today are still idealistic, although it must be more difficult than ever to confront The Man in today’s world. Life ought to be about looking out for your brothers and sisters. I wonder how many people think that way today. For heaven’s sake, we cannot even come together in our country to confront the corona virus!
An event like Woodstock would not be allowed to happen today – even if there were enough interest. There would be too many rules. There are new causes for the day, but it is a different crowd – a less mellow one than before, I think.