By John Cody
'Three Days of Peace and Music' was the promise of the Woodstock
Music and Art Festival's promoters. Four decades on, the effects of
the event are still being felt.
In August, 1969, just outside Bethel, New York, more than 30 acts
performed before an audience in excess of 400,000. Billed as 'An
Aquarian Exhibition,' it was the moment when the counterculture
became the culture. Charles Shultz even named a character in his
Peanuts comic strip a bird after the festival.
All these years later, Woodstock remains a contentious subject. Was
it a stunning testimony to one generation's breaking away from
outmoded values? Or was it evidence of all that was wrong; an
unprecedented loosening of morals as sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll ran
rampant? There are plenty of advocates on both sides of the issue;
but no one can argue that the genie was now out of the bottle.
By 1969, the button-down mindset of the early sixties was well and
truly over. The Baby Boomers the wealthiest and healthiest
generation in history were coming of age. Youth culture pervaded
society, and according to the year's biggest hit single, it was the
dawning of the age of Aquarius.
Initial estimates of 60,000 attendees proved way off, as almost half
a million showed up - closing the New York State Thruway in the process.
Woodstock was instantly the second largest city in the state. Gates
and fences came down, as the crowd grew into the largest single
gathering in recorded history. On the second day, officials declared
the site a disaster area. Those at ground zero hardly seemed phased.
Wavy Gravy famously announced "Breakfast in bed for 400,000…we're all
feeding each other. We must be in heaven, man! There is always a
little bit of heaven in a disaster area."
When it became clear there was no way to control the influx,
promoters decided to make it free festival. In Woodstock, a reporter
questions Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, wondering why they seem so
happy, even though they've taken a massive financial hit (it would
take 11 years to pay off all festival-associated debts); "Look what
you've got there, man. You couldn't buy that for anything," replies
Lang, "These people are communicating with each other. That rarely
happens anywhere anymore."
"It has nothing to do with money," Kornfeld, a successful songwriter
with hits by Jan & Dean and the Cowsills to his credit, adds; "It has
nothing to do with tangible things. You have to realize the turnabout
that I've gone through in the last three days… just to really realize
what's really important…The fact that if we can't all live together
and be happy, if you have to be afraid to walk out in the street, if
you have to be afraid to smile at somebody, right, well, what kind of
a way is that to go through this life?"
The film underscores the divide between generations, as audience
members nearly all under 30 repeatedly voice objections to their
parent's adherence to tradition mores.
Despite a noticeable lack of police, there were no reported incidents
of theft or violence. Lang explains: "This generation, away from the
old culture and the older generation…you see how they function on
their own. Without cops, without guns…everybody pulls together and
everybody helps each other and it works."
Max Yasgur, the middle-aged dairy farmer on whose 600 acre spread the
festival was held, addressed the crowd as an ambassador from the
other side: "If the generation gap is to be closed, we older people
have to do more than we've done."
The mainstream certainly got the message. Describing festival goers
as "pilgrims," Time Magazine marveled at "the agape-like sharing of
food and shelter by total strangers," and declared "these rock
revolutionaries bear a certain resemblance to the early Christians."
Aside from a few shots of nuns giving the peace sign, any obvious
Christian presence was conspicuous in it's absence, as if the church
simply gave up on this reaching this audience.
In spite of the generational and cultural divide, gospel music was
heard repeatedly throughout the weekend. Festival opener Richie
Havens closed his set with an adaptation of 'Freedom (Motherless
Children),' which the second act of the day, Sweetwater, then sang to
open their portion of the show. Joan Baez included an accapella
'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' before closing with 'We Shall Overcome,'
and Arlo Guthrie performed 'Amazing Grace,' and 'Oh Mary Don't You Weep.'
Recent material in the same vein was just as popular; the Band and
Joe Cocker each covered Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released,' while both
Sweetwater and Joan Baez sang 'Oh Happy Day' a popular hit at that
time and Janis Joplin included two gospel-derived performances in
her set: 'Raise Your Hand' and 'Work Me, Lord,' the latter featuring
a plaintive plea to the creator.
In the festival's opening invocation, Indian guru Swami Satchidananda
wholeheartedly endorsed the changes taking place: "America is
becoming a whole. America is helping everybody in the material field,
but the time has come for America to help the whole world with
Drug use is depicted throughout the film, with what - to present day
sensibilities - appears an almost willful naiveté regarding any
inherent danger. In fact, 40 years ago, the list of high profile
casualties was almost non-existent. The following year, three
Woodstock headliners would perish in drug-related incidents; but at
the time, any risk was seen as minimal.
Which makes it all the more surprising to find an anti-drug presence
at the festival, albeit one coming from decidedly left of centre: a
Kundalini Yoga instructor leads a class of neophytes, describing the
technique as a viable alternative for psychedelic drugs.
Pete Townsend of the Who was among the followers of Indian mystic
Meher Baba who taught that recreational drug use of any kind was
damaging, advising that LSD "leads to madness or death."
"If God can be found through the medium of any drug," Baba reasoned,
"God is not worthy of being God."
The Who's rock opera Tommy - which they performed at the festival -
was inspired by and dedicated to the guru. Townsend was put off by
the entire Woodstock philosophy, and composed 'Won't Get Fooled
Again' in response to the event.
Never one to mince words, he commented on how "what they thought was
an alternative society was basically a field full of six-foot-deep
mud laced with LSD. If that was the world they wanted to live in,
then f--k the lot of them. "
LSD was an ongoing issue throughout the weekend. Stage announcers
warn that the brown acid is simply; "not good," whereas the blue is
out-and-out bad news; "poison - 15 people are sick." Country Joe
advises those who took the green acid: "Go to the hospital tent. I
recommend that you don't take it…wait until you get some stuff that's
good." Apparently, that would be the Grateful Dead's stash; the band
all veterans of Ken Kesey's psychedelic Acid Tests - merrily tossed
purple acid into the audience during their set.
If, as some argue, Woodstock represented the realization of all that
was possible, the death of the dream was imminent.
Less than a week before the festival, Charles Manson had masterminded
the Tate/LiBianca killing spree in California. It would be months
before he was identified as a suspect. At the time, the notion that a
member of the hippie community could lead his followers to commit
murder - using Beatles songs as motivation was simply unfathomable.
Four months later, an audience member was brutally murdered by
members of the Hell's Angels during a free concert that the Rolling
Stones staged at the Altamont Speedway outside San Francisco.
Ironically, the motorcycle club had been hired by the band to provide
The following year's Isle of Wight festival was an even bigger event.
Referred to as 'the last great rock festival,' the event drew half a
million concert goers, but peace and love seemed to be in short supply.
While Joni Mitchell sang the refrain from her ode to Woodstock; "We
are stardust/ we are golden/and we've got to get ourselves back to
the garden," a scuffle broke out onstage, forcing her to stop
mid-song. Close to tears as captured in the film Message To Love
Mitchell pleads with an angry audience for order.
As the years passed, Michael Lang's optimistic comment; "It's been
working since we got here, and it's gonna continue working. No matter
what happens when they go back to the city, this thing has happened,
and it proves that it can happen. That's what it's all about,"
appeared increasingly out of touch.
Within a decade, the Woodstock generation had turned from Hippie to
Yippie to Yuppie, in the process becoming even more materialist than
their parents. Disco was the reigning sound, promoting a hedonistic
lifestyle that made what had come before seem tame by comparison.
Abbie Hoffman, who coined the phrase 'Woodstock Nation,' stayed true
to his ideals, but after years of struggling with a bi-polar
condition, took his own life in 1989.
In addition to Hendrix, Joplin, and Canned Heat vocalist Al Wilson,
Paul Butterfield, Tim Hardin, and various members of the Who,
Grateful Dead, Santana, Sha-Na-Na, and the Band all met early deaths
as a result of substance abuse.
David Crosby, a fierce social critic famous for railing against the
establishment in songs like 'Almost Cut My Hair' and 'Long Time
Gone,' wound up imprisoned in 1982 on drug-related charges, his
notoriety as an addict far outstripping his fame as a musician. His
excesses would necessitate a liver transplant in 1995. In the book
Prisoner of Woodstock, C, S & N drummer Dallas Taylor detailed his
own battles with addiction, which ultimately led to liver and kidney
These days, the majority of performers have long since given up
overindulging. Crosby and Taylor both got straight years ago; Taylor
now works as an Interventionist, specializing in alcoholism and
Many of the performers have embraced faith. Typical of festival ethos
- variety defines their choices. Sly & the Family Stone guitarist
Freddie Stewart is now Pastor Frederick J. Stewart, serving at the
Evangelist Temple Fellowship Center in Vallejo, California, while
bassist Larry Graham is a long-time Jehovah's Witness. Following a
decades-long heroin habit, Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma
Kaukonen embraced Judaism. Arlo Guthrie bought a church in 1991,
starting the Guthrie Center, an interdenominational fellowship whose
goal is to "find ways to embrace the spiritual journeys of those
whose traditions are different, without abandoning our own."
In it's wake, the festival spawned an entire industry, including an
Oscar-winning documentary film, a best-selling soundtrack album with
at least a dozen follow-ups, and a bookshelf worth of writings.
Eventually, interest began to wane. Attempts to repeat the event
ended in disaster, and a 25th anniversary box set lasted for a single
week at the bottom of the charts before disappearing.
For a variety of reasons in no small part, interest from an entire
generation born long after the event - the 40th anniversary has
brought a resurgence of interest. Alongside an expanded reissue of
the film, a massive six CD box set and five complete individual
performances are being released for the first time. It's clear
there's an audience eager for more the initial pressing of the box
was sold out within days of it's release.
Clocking in at just under four hours, the expanded Woodstock: The
Director's Cut offers more of everything. At times, that can be a
mixed blessing; director Michael Wadleigh's use of split screen with
varying ratios might have been cutting edge in 1970, but viewing on
the home screen can be headache-inducing. Still, it's a fascinating document.
The film opens in the days leading up to the festival, as workers
prepare the site. Reactions from townspeople run the gamut; some
thrilled to have young visitors, others disgusted by the hordes of hippies.
As almost half a million attendees descend upon green fields, Jerry
Garcia notes the almost biblical imagery of what he's witnessing.
Three days later, those same fields, now strewn as far as the eye can
see with garbage, offer a fitting harbinger of what was to come in
the following decade.
In between, we witness - as Arlo Guthrie called them- a lot of
freaks; freaks playing music, freaks listening to music, freaks
eating, dealing with a particularly harsh rain shower, and simply
digging the vibes.
For all of the press the festival has received both then and now -
too often what gets missed is the very reason the event occurred: the music.
Woodstock: 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur's Farm is far and away the
most comprehensive collection yet released. Clocking in at almost
eight hours, the massive, six disc box set includes 77 tracks - 38 of
which are previously unreleased.
With the exception of The Band, Ten Years After and The Keef Hartley
Band, every act is present and accounted for.
For the first time, the music is presented exactly as the audience
heard it. The original soundtrack included more than a few doctored
performances, and in the case of Arlo Guthrie, Mountain and Crosby
Stills, Nash & Young, sourced from entirely separate events. Young's
'Sea of Madness,' for instance, was recorded at the Fillmore East,
and one purported live album; Ravi Shankar At the Woodstock Festival,
turned out to be a studio recording with applause dubbed in.
For newer acts, the exposure was career-making. Sha Na Na weren't
even signed to a record label when they performed, while Santana and
Mountain had yet to release their debut albums. All three quickly
moved up to headliners status.
Conversely, Sweetwater, Bert Sommers and Quill played the very same
stage, but lost out when they were excluded from the film and
Performances omitted from earlier collections are every bit the equal
- and sometimes stronger - than what made the first cut. In
particular, the Grateful Dead shine on 'Dark Star.' Segueing from the
Dead at their exploratory best to Creedence Clearwater belting out
radio-friendly hits is an exhilarating experience. Blood, Sweat and
Tears' jazz/rock, quirky British folk/rock from the Incredible String
Band, and Indian ragas from Ravi Shankar underscore a sense of
diversity missing from earlier collections,
Over half an hour of stage announcements - from marriage proposals
and birth notices to insulin accessibility and bad acid warnings
reveal a sense of camaraderie that's hard to imagine today.
Not that it was all peace and love: during the Who's performance,
Abbie Hoffman attempts to halt proceedings with a political diatribe.
Pete Townsend ever the pragmatist - bonks him over the head with
his guitar and continues on, leaving Hoffman to nurse his wounds. All
these years later, the audio effect is akin to a Tom & Jerry cartoon.
Enhancing the sense of what really went down, a copiously-illustrated
80 page book documents day-by-day events, as well as offering a
complete band roster and individual set lists.
Concurrent with the Rhino box, Legacy has issued complete sets from
five acts that played the festival. Marketed under the banner 'The
Woodstock Experience,' each double-disc package includes the artist's
then-current studio release, with Jefferson Airplane (Volunteers),
Sly & the Family Stone (Stand), Janis Joplin (I Got Dem 'Ol Kozmic
Blues Again, Mama!), and Santana and Johnny Winter's self-titled
debuts offering ample evidence of the creative frenzy that defined the era.
Sly & the Family Stone deliver a set packed with danceable hits and
proto-funk workouts. This is Sly at the top of his game, garnering an
audience that stretched from AM hit radio to underground FM rock to
black soul stations. All the hits are here, including a killer
sequence of 'Dance to the Music'/'Music Lover'/'I Want to Take You Higher.'
Sly's razor-tight arrangements stand in stark contrast to the
Jefferson Airplane's ragged-but-right approach. Like a precursor to
today's jam bands, songs are deconstructed to the point of barely
resembling their more familiar versions, and often stretch to
quadruple their original lengths. Two salutes to songwriter Fred Neil
('The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil' and 'The House at Pooneil
Corners') collectively clock in at almost half an hour, and an
extended 'Wooden Ships' lasts 21 minutes.
With Nicky Hopkins sitting in, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack
Casady, and drummer Spencer Dryden take chances at every turn, while
Kantner, Grace Slick, and Marty Balin trade vocal lines over top. The
group's roots in folk music - only three years previous seem like a
lifetime ago. At 93 minutes, this is the lengthiest set in the Legacy
series, necessitating spreading the performance over the two discs.
The Airplane's status was such that they were the very first band
booked for the festival; their being on the bill legitimized the
promoters in the eyes of the other acts.
Of the Legacy releases, Janis Joplin is the only act to deliver a
less than stellar performance. It's not so much her singing, as the
lackluster support she's given. Joplin wanted a Stax Records-style
back-up band, and the Kozmic Blues Band, a loose-knit group she put
together after leaving Big Brother & the Holding Company the year
before, simply don't deliver. Throughout the set, there's a sense of
disconnect, as they struggle to keep up.
Exiting the stage to let her sax player sing 'Can't Turn You Loose'
might speak well of her willingness to give others a break, but only
serves to highlight how second-rate the band really is.
Making matters worse, the majority of material was unfamiliar to the
audience - the Kozmic Blues album wouldn't come out until a month
after Woodstock. Then again, that hardly slowed down Santana or
Johnny Winter, both virtual unknowns when they took the stage.
Winters' debut Columbia LP was only a few weeks old, but he comes
across totally assured, playing bottleneck blues and rock with a fire
that shows why the label signed him to what was at the time the
largest advance ever paid. Despite industry machinations, there's an
absence of hype, as he stretches out on originals and standards by
B.B. King, Bo Diddley and Sonny Boy Williamson before closing with
his show stopper, 'Johnny B. Goode.'
Santana hadn't even released their debut album when they performed at
Woodstock, but by the time they left the stage, they were stars. The
film included 'Soul Sacrifice,' which featured a memorable solo from
drummer Michael Shrieve, who, having just turned 20, was the youngest
musician to play the festival. Carlos Santana, the band's namesake,
was only two years older.
As a group, Santana offered one of the first and still most
commercial - tastes of world music. In addition to original material,
their set included 'Jingo' by Babatunde Olatunji, and 'Fried Neck
Bones and Some Home Fries,' a Willie Bobo track that never made it
onto an official Santana album.
The idea of mixing rock and blues with Latin and African music was
entirely natural, as Shrieve recently explained; "It was that special
chemistry of the individual players; a Mexican, a Nicaraguan, a
Puerto Rican, a militant black man, and two white boys from the
suburbs that made the groove that fit like a glove."
After a trio of phenomenally successful albums, the signature sound
began to change, moving towards jazz fusion starting on 1972's
Caravanserai. As membership begun to fluctuate, Carlos became more
and more focused on spiritual issues, becoming a follower of Sri
Chinmoy, an Indian spiritual teacher in 1973. Albums like Welcome,
Oneness, and Love Devotion Surrender (a duet with fellow Chinmoy
devotee Mahavishnu John McLaughlin) put the spiritual above the corporeal.
Despite the intensity of the search, it was never entirely cerebral;
the Santana oeuvre is an ongoing mix of the sensual and sacred. While
it may not have delivered hit singles, the period offers some of the
most intense playing in the band's catalogue. Lotus, a Japanese
triple disc set recorded in 1973, boasts incendiary performances from
a truly invigorated band.
Santana would eventually fall out with Chinmoy over the guru's
anti-homosexual stance, but his spiritual journey continued unabated.
Lyrics were simplistic, but to the point, as in Boroboletta's
'Practice What You Preach:' 'I know that just being around/it's easy
to go downhill/starting from today/I'll seek only my Lord's way.'
'The River,' from 1977's Festival (by which time Santana was the only
remaining original member) was written with vocalist Leon Patillo,
who sang on three albums before embarking on a career in Christian
While he rejects much of traditional Christian theology, Santana's
own lyrics, as in Milagro's 'Somewhere In Heaven,' show an openness
to those very same concepts; "He made a promise/Gave every drop of
blood/Died on the cross/so we'd be free."
He claims that even as a child, he understood there are many roads to
enlightenment; "My body would not accept the Adam and Eve story or
that Jesus is the only thing for everybody. We all are children of
Light and we evolved and evolution is a natural state of grace."
By the 1980s, the band appeared to be a spent force. As sales slowed,
Columbia dropped the band from it's roster. Signing to a new label
did little to reverse the slide: 1992's Milagro has the dubious
distinction of being the first Santana album to not even break the
Top 100 charts.
After a few more years in the wilderness, 1999's Supernatural brought
about an abrupt change in fortune; the album sold in excess of 25
million copies and earned an unprecedented nine Grammy awards.
Santana maintains the commercial resurgence was foretold by a visit
from an archangel named Metatron ("another name for the Holy Spirit
or the Christ.")
The album's concept - pairing the guitarist with popular vocalists
and players like Dave Matthews, Lauryn Hill and Matchbox Twenty
singer Rob Thomas (who co-wrote the disc's most popular track,
'Smooth') was designed to sell, and subsequently outside of guitar
solos - employed little of the signature sound.
Two subsequent released employing the same formula, but he promises
his upcoming album will be truer to his roots; The Son, Father and
the Holy Ghost, will be a three-CD set saluting Miles Davis and John
Coltrane, along with original material inspired by the masters.
Today, in addition to heading the Milagro Foundation, a children's
charity he founded with his ex-wife, Santana has a number of
flourishing business ventures; a line of women's shoes with over $100
million in sales, a signature brand of popular wine, and partnership
in a chain of Mexican restaurants.
His current philosophy shares much with Norman Vincent Peal, who
popularized the concept of the power of positive thinking in the
1950s. He's created Architects of a New Dawn, a website that
promises: "To inspire, uplift, engage, and transform the global
community through music and positive media content."
He recently announced plans to retire from music in five years, after
which he will establish a church in Maui, which he will pastor. In a
Rolling Stone interview he explained "I find that God gave me the
gift of communication…the ability to get people unstuck with certain
sections of the Bible that have to do with guilt, shame, judgment and
fear. The God of that stuff is retarded, demented and not real. The
real God is beauty, grace, dignity and unconditional love."