(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on August 15, 2019.)
Fifty years ago in America, the summer of 1969 was punctuated by two major events. In mid-July the Apollo 11 astronauts walked on the moon, and in mid-August the counterculture movement peaked at an amphitheater-shaped hillside on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, NY, about 100 miles north of Manhattan. It was there that 400,000 mostly young people gathered for the Woodstock Music Festival, “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music.”
But beyond the peace and music were also drugs—some bad, rain and mud, bad sanitation, food shortages, and a general no-rules atmosphere. Nonetheless, even with all that humanity gathered in one place, there was no reported violence and only two deaths, one when a farmer ran over someone sleeping in his field and the other from either insulin usage or heroin overdose.
Earlier in the year pop music hits were apt precursors for Woodstock. In April the song, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” hit #1 on the billboard charts, proclaiming a new age and promising peace, love and harmony. The month before the festival, the dark, ominous song, “In the Year 2525,” reached #1 and remained there till after the festival had concluded.
For over three days the enormous crowd listened to 33 musical acts, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Santana, Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, The Band, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the Grateful Dead.
Declining invitations to perform were The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Byrds, and Bob Dylan, who lived in the actual town of Woodstock about 43 miles away. He stated: “I didn’t want to be a part of that thing.” “I just thought it was a lot of kids out and around wearing flowers in their hair, taking a lot of acid.”
Richie Havens opened the festival at 5 pm, Friday, Aug 15. When the next act, Sweetwater, was delayed, he agreed to keep playing, belting out his improvised chant “Freedom,” which became a touchstone of the festival. He remarked: “It was about love, about sharing, about helping each other, living in peace and harmony.” Of course, “freedom” as interpreted by most of the Woodstock Generation was the shallow kind: freedom to live without restriction and obligation.
Another high point came when Country Joe MacDonald and the Fish performed “I Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag,” one of the anthems of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Now come on all of you big strong men
Uncle Sam needs your help again
Got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
Put down your books pick up your gun
Gonna have a whole lot of fun
And it’s 1, 2, 3, what are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn
The next stop is Vietnam.
And it’s 5, 6, 7 open up the Pearly Gates
Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why
Whoopee, we’re all gonna die.
The final signature moment came at the end with the performance of Jimi Hendrix, clad in a blue-beaded white jacket and red scarf in his Afro. Because of delays, Hendrix could not take the stage until 8:30 am, Monday, Aug 18. Central and climactic was his piercing, exploding, transfixing rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” as part of his two-hour set.
Despite the chaos, disorder, poor sanitation, and mud, most of the attendees probably had very positive memories and feelings about the event. But not all. Pete Townsend of The Who was horrified: “What was going on off the stage was beyond comprehension—stretchers and dead bodies and people throwing up and people having bad trips.”
Mark Hosenball writing in Newsweek in 2009 said: “Woodstock was, if not a nightmare, then a massive, teeming, squalid mess.” “If you like colossal traffic jams, torrential rain, reeking portable johns, barely edible food, and sprawling, disorganized crowds, then you would have found Woodstock a treat.”
Portsmouth resident, Joe Lubiner, drove to the festival on Friday but was stopped in Monticello, NY, and was forced to walk the remaining 10 miles to the festival site. When he arrived, he could not find sufficient space to unroll his sleeping bag. Then the rain came. “I regretted it, because I never really got to experience the music, and the basics [of life] were lacking.”
At 20 and entering my senior year at West Point, I had just assumed command of the summer training camp for sophomores, “Camp Buckner.” My world of order, military training, uniforms, parades, rules and regulations, and military music rather than psychedelic rock was the polar opposite of the free and unrestrained unreal world of Woodstock.
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and a monthly Daily News columnist.