PBS documentary ‘Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation’
You can spend hours, days even, pouring through the articles and books written about it or indulging in the scores of recordings that chronicled its music.
You can view it as a cultural milestone, a generational pilgrimage or what it always was at heart – a music festival.
You can weigh its lasting worth, its naivety, its flirtations with - and ultimate avoidance of – disaster.
However you perceive it, what transpired a half century ago at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York, comes down to a single nine-letter word that carries with it perhaps greater social recognition than any tag pinned to any other event of its day.
Held 50 years ago this weekend, the famously billed “3 Days of Peace and Music” was the height of the youthful promise – or naive idealism, depending on your viewpoint – that fueled pop counterculture in the late 1960s. With an estimated audience peak of 400,000, the concert site became a city unto itself intent on shutting out, at least for a few days, an outside world where headlines seldom strayed from sobering news of the Vietnam War and the looming reality of a military draft eager to ship a hearty youth populace overseas to fuel the fight. It’s hard, in that respect, not to view Woodstock as a kind of sanctuary.
I will leave the social significance of Woodstock to the generation that experienced it first hand, be it the festival itself or the times that surrounded it. I was nine when it took place, so I’m not about to speak for anyone, especially those eligible for the draft, that literally never knew when their number would be up. But I’ll happily speak to the music of Woodstock and the glorious time capsule of recordings the festival continues to give us.
I have long been fascinated by contemporary music of this era, especially its sense of expression and adventure. There was a level of organic thrillseeking allowed in the late ‘60s that largely evaporated as the ‘70s progressed. Hearing the recorded Woodstock performances of Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, The Who and especially Santana and Sly and the Family Stone have simply embellished that infatuation.
Of course, one of the primary reasons Woodstock remains an astounding piece of cultural history today is the fact it was so well chronicled. Few events of its stature were preserved so completely, whether it was through Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning 1970 documentary “Woodstock” (with a young Martin Scorsese as one of its seven film editors) or through an ongoing stream of recordings, some of which are just now surfacing.
The first recorded music came in 1970 and 1971, through the “Woodstock” and “Woodstock Two” records that collectively gave us five vinyl albums of highlights from the festival’s top billed artists – Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
As the birthdays piled on, the recorded output increased. In 1994, in honor of Woodstock’s 25th anniversary, we had a 4-CD package titled “Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music.” That grew to a 6 CD set, “40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm” in 2009. This summer’s 50th anniversary brought us “Woodstock: Back to the Garden,” a sprawling 38 disc compendium of nearly 36 hours of live recordings that sells for a whopping $800 and comparatively inexpensive 10 and 3 disc distillations selling for roughly $160 and $35, respectively.
The later editions certainly satisfied the curious, giving glimpses into performances by Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band and the Grateful Dead that never made their way into the movie or the initial albums. But the festival highlights, all of them familiar, remained undiminished.
There was Sly and the Family Stone igniting the Saturday night bill with a joyous funk and soul party capped by the “I Want to Take You Higher” medley. If Woodstock did nothing else, it presented one of the most audacious funk bands of the day at its peak.
A close second was Santana, essentially an unknown when Woodstock was held, turning “Soul Sacrifice” into a blast of percussive, guitar-drenched Latin psychedelia. Three weeks later, the band’s debut album was released and became an immediate hit.
So many other performance snapshots live on – The Who, back when it was still a raw and dangerous band, tearing through “Tommy,” Joe Cocker conjuring an afternoon blues and soul revival and Jefferson Airplane utilizing a rotation of four lead singers and a monstrous rhythm section. The electric cherry on top, of course, was Hendrix, playing to a crowd that had dissipated to about 30,000 on Monday morning with a “Star Spangled Banner” that was hotwired into a scorched instrumental treatise on war, peace and unimaginable improvisational mayhem.
Determining Woodstock’s legacy in terms other than nostalgic is trickier. At the end of PBS’ recently aired American Experience episode on the festival, titled “Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation,” an attendee reminisced about how little concern she had as to whether a gathering of 400,000 could ever co-exist so peaceably again, whether the festival’s blend of good vibes and blind risk could ever be replicated on such a mammoth scale.
In many ways it hasn’t. In fact, 1969 would end, along with much of the counterculture’s youthful hope, with the disastrous Altamont Speedway Free Festival in California. Even attempts to resurrect the Woodstock brand largely failed. The infamous Woodstock ‘99 literally went up in flames while a proposed Woodstock 50, slated for this weekend, was canceled on July 31, having been beleaguered by production setbacks, location issues and, ultimately, artist cancellations.
Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. It can use time to make you think a moment from the past was more golden and inviting than it really was. It’s easy to listen to the recorded legacy of Woodstock in your living room today in beautifully remastered audio and appreciate the art of an era. One can only imagine, though, that sitting on a hill as part of a congregation of 400,000 in upstate New York, enduring rain, mud, heat and limited means of food and sanitation for a weekend 50 years ago before being tossed back to an uncertain mainstream society triggered a different perspective.
A festival attendee at the end of the American Experience episode, though, gave one of the more convincing and concise summations of what Woodstock meant to those who were there by viewing it as a moment in the moment.
“It stopped the clock for three days.”