By Steven Wishnia
August 14, 2009
On Thursday, Aug. 14, 1969, two distinct groups packed the bus from
New York City to Monticello, N.Y. The people in the back were going
to the Woodstock rock festival; the ones in front were bound for the
Borscht Belt. One elderly woman turned to me and my two friends and
asked, in a Brooklyn-Jewish accent almost as thick as my
grandmother's, "What is this, a hippie convention?"
I was 14. (Yes, I had permissive parents.) It was an epiphany of
cultural validation. The three of us had been too rebellious to fit
in with the smart kids in our Long Island junior high, too soft and
cerebral for the tough kids, and against the Vietnam war in a
seriously polarized America. The 1960s have been mythified as a time
of peace and love, but in much of the nation, long hair and antiwar
attitudes were often an invitation to a gay-bashing even if you were
cast of the purest hetero vanilla.
Now we realized we weren't alone in the world. There were 400,000 of
us, sharing smoke, food and orange juice according to the principle
of "from each according to their abilities; to each, take a hit and pass it."
The music was great too. Richie Havens wailing "freedom" while
flailing his acoustic guitar; Santana's fusion of Afro-Cuban drumming
and acid-blues guitar; Creedence Clearwater Revival's concise,
choogling swamp-rock tunes; Sly and the Family Stone exhorting "I
want to take you higher" over crackling electric funk; and Jimi
Hendrix's cosmic blues, bringing up the sun over the debris of Monday morning.
I'm not into Woodstock nostalgia, however. It's kind of hard to be
when most of the era's bestknown songs have been licensed to shill
for credit cards and SUVs. Corporate America saw those 400,000 people
too and it realized that the "counterculture" was a viable mass
market. The festival was also a landmark on the path to the
resegregation of rock 'n' roll and popular music.
The Top 40 radio of the mid-1960s was rigidly commercial, but
gloriously catholic. On a good night, you could hear Aretha Franklin,
the Beatles and Johnny Cash backto- back. The low cost of recording
and manufacturing 45-rpm singles gave independent record companies a
chance, and a good reaction on local radio could win unknown artists
national hits. In June 1967, Atlantic Records, then a New York-based
indie label, had 18 records in the Billboard Top 100, including
Aretha Franklin's "Respect." Virtually all 1960s soul and R&B records
came out on indie labels, most notably Motown and Stax-Volt, as did
the early releases by the Rolling Stones (on London) and the Doors (Elektra).
The emergence of FM radio around 1967 created an alternative, for
both good and bad. It gave musicians and DJs more freedom; a place
for songs that weren't three-minute current hit singles, that were
too long, too odd or too political for Top 40. FM freeform radio DJs
might play Cream next to Robert Johnson (the 1930s blues singer who
wrote "Crossroads"), the Beatles next to a Ravi Shankar raga. On the
other hand, this new freedom was essentially a white niche market.
You wouldn't hear James Brown.
The evolution from singles to albums meant that record labels needed
a lot more capital, especially for studio and packaging costs. That
made it harder for indie labels to break through, and the newly
discovered mass market enticed corporate takeovers. Within a few
years of Woodstock, Warner Brothers would acquire Atlantic and
Elektra. Within a decade, six corporations would control more than 80
percent of record sales. Since then, mergers have reduced that number to four.
As rock audiences got bigger, sports-arena shows superseded the
hippie ballroom-theatre circuit. The Fillmore West in San Francisco
and the Fillmore East on the Lower East Side closed in 1971; the
Grande Ballroom in Detroit shut down in 1972. These weren't
grassroots collectives by any means, but they were strongly connected
to local musicians and scenes, hiring local artists to do their
now-legendary psychedelic posters. (The current "Fillmore" clubs in
New York and Miami Beach are owned by radio/concert oligopoly Clear
Channel, which bought the rights to the brand name.)
Free-form FM radio succumbed too. Radio marketing consultants
targeted the 15-to-24 white-male demographic, imposing playlists and
severely narrowing the definition of "rock." The new format was
called AOR, "Album-Oriented Rock." By the late 1970s, people bitterly
joked that it stood for "Apartheid-Oriented Radio."
SLICING THE MUSIC
Rock 'n' roll's emergence in the early 1950s broke racial barriers.
This wasn't just about white youths discovering Afro-American music,
or white musicians imitating blues and soul (though there was plenty
of that, and some was embarrassing). It flowed more than one way.
White musicians played in the Stax-Volt and Motown studio ensembles,
and even in James Brown's band. Some of the deepest soul records
ever, by Aretha Franklin, Irma Thomas and Wilson Pickett, were cut at
the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, with a band of white Southerners
that occasionally featured Duane Allman on guitar. Black musicians
embracing psychedelia included Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton's
Funkadelic, the Chambers Brothers, and future Miles Davis guitarist
Pete Cosey. Santana and Malo (with Jorge Santana, Carlos' brother)
emerged from the thriving Latino-rock scene in San Francisco's
Soul artists also translated counterculture concepts into their own
style. Sam Cooke said he wrote his 1964 civil-rights anthem "A Change
Is Gonna Come" after hearing Bob Dylan's spiritual-protest song
"Blowin' in the Wind." The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper concept album at
least partially begat Marvin Gaye's 1971 masterpiece, What's Going
On? Their "Eleanor Rigby" inspired a 21-yearold Jamaican
singer-songwriter, who was then illegally working the night shift in
a Delaware car factory under the half-pseudonym "Donald Marley."
By 1969, however, several trends were resegregating music. The Top 40
radio audience was splintering into niche markets. The integrationist
dream of the civil-rights movement was collapsing after the
assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Most insidious was the
counterculture's definition of "rock." By rejecting the danceability
and songcraft of three-minute singles as "commercial," it essentially
rejected soul music.
Woodstock's booking reflected this. Yes, people remember Richie
Havens opening the festival and Jimi Hendrix closing it, Sly Stone as
a high point and Santana as the best new band but of the 32 acts on
the bill, those four were the only ones fronted by black or Latino
performers. (A few more, including Janis Joplin, had black sidemen.)
Sly, as far as I can remember, was also the only band at Woodstock in
which women played instruments other than acoustic guitar.
It's conceivable that soul acts such as the Temptations or James
Brown might not have wanted to play in a muddy field with uncertain
prospects of getting paid. But two years before, Otis Redding had
been one of the stars of the Monterey Pop Festival.
MISSING THE BLUES
Another gross omission was that for all the hippie veneration of he
blues, the closest Woodstock got was Chicago blues-rock singer Paul
Butterfield. This wasn't because the originals weren't available.
Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, the two titans of
Mississippi-to-Chicago blues, were still phenomenal performers even
though they were both pushing 60. John Lee Hooker was about to record
with Canned Heat, who were on the bill. B.B. King was a regular on
the Fillmore circuit, as were talented lesser-knowns like Willie Mae
"Big Mama" Thornton, who'd done the originals of "Hound Dog" and
Janis Joplin's signature song, "Ball and Chain"; James Cotton, who'd
played harmonica with both Muddy and the Wolf; and Albert King, a
stinging soul-blues guitarist who'd influenced Eric Clapton almost to
the point of plagiarism. Any one of them would have gone over well,
and they all definitely could have used the exposure.
These trends advanced through the 1970s. By 1983, music genres were
so segregated that CBS Records had to threaten to boycott MTV before
it would air Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video. It wasn't "rock,"
network executives said, despite the Eddie Van Halen guitar solo.
The deregulation of radio ownership in 1996 enabled mega-mass media
corporations such as Clear Channel to gobble up hundreds of local
stations, accelerating the tyranny of music formats as narrow and
homogeneous as fast-food menus. Current popular music is a multitude
of niche markets. If hiphop is self-consciously black, often to the
point of caricaturing ghetto realness, indie rock is insularly and
This has much more to do with marketing than with people's ethnic
tastes. Heavy metal is often considered one of the whitest genres
there is, but there are thousands of Latino metalleros banging their
cabezas in Queens, Buenos Aires and Guatemala City. My greatest
musical pleasure this summer has been another outdoor festival:
Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park, where for a $3 donation, funky,
multiracial crowds have turned out for the Venezuelan funk-rock band
Los Amigos Invisibles, reggae veteran Burning Spear and the
Sufi-bhangra-rock mashup of Bollywood singer Kailash Kher.
So let it be with Woodstock. As the 1950s comedian Lord Buckley put
it, "The bad jazz that a cat blows, wails long after he's cut out.
The groovy is often stashed with their frames."