July 30, 2009

Woodstock Still Rocks at 40

Members of the Hog Farm commune, who provided food, security and health care at Woodstock, rode a bus from New Mexico to Bethel, N.Y. (Copyright Henry Diltz/Morrison Hotel Gallery)
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Members of the Hog Farm commune, who provided food, security and health care at Woodstock, rode a bus from New Mexico to Bethel, N.Y. (Copyright Henry Diltz/Morrison Hotel Gallery)

After a stormy weekend in Bethel, N.Y., 17-year-old high school newspaper photographer Dan Garson captured this image of the crowds. (Copyright Estate of Dan Garson)
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After a stormy weekend in Bethel, N.Y., 17-year-old high school newspaper photographer Dan Garson captured this image of the crowds. (Copyright Estate of Dan Garson)

An original poster from the collection of Woodstock producer Michael Lang, who was 24 when he organized the festival. (Loan, Michael Lang)
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An original poster from the collection of Woodstock producer Michael Lang, who was 24 when he organized the festival. (Loan, Michael Lang)

Press pass and tickets belonging to Mark Goff, a reporter for Kaleidoscope, Milwaukee’s alternative newspaper. (Loan, Mark Goff)
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Press pass and tickets belonging to Mark Goff, a reporter for Kaleidoscope, Milwaukee’s alternative newspaper. (Loan, Mark Goff)

Forty years ago in the upstate New York town of Bethel, about half a million people gathered for three days of peace, love and music at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. And everything was groovy, baby.

Bethel is located roughly 50 miles from the hamlet named Woodstock, where the concert originally was to be held. When the agreement to hold the gathering in Woodstock fell through, Michael Lang, one of the concert’s creators, cut an impromptu deal with dairy-farm owner Max Yasgur for the large swath of land nestled in the Catskill Mountains. The organizers decided to stick with the Woodstock name.

It turned out to be quite a show. Little did the organizers know that they would attract more than twice the expected attendance, the infrastructure would be insufficient to handle the crowd, and the concert would turn into a free event that lasted for several days.

Nearly half a century later, Woodstock has achieved a mythical stature that many musical gatherings have tried to re-create but have been unable to truly achieve. Woodstock tapped the zeitgeist in a unique way, and the ensuing legend has taken on a life of its own.

Woodstock was the embodiment of the counterculture movement, and is one of the "50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll," according to Rolling Stone magazine. At its core were the music and the fans. A dazzling array of legendary bands were showcased, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Grateful Dead, Richie Havens, Santana, The Band, John Sebastian, Sly and the Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

"It was unpredictable, spontaneous and organic," says USA Today rock music critic Edna Gundersen. "Music was the siren call to all of these young people. They took care of themselves, focused on the music and did so with joy and optimism. Against all odds, it succeeded as a magical event of peace and love and free expression."

It also was a turning point for music journalism, particularly for rock music. What had previously been relegated to underground publications or buried as a random curiosity in the dailies was now vaulted into the mainstream. The youth movement, rock music and all that went along with them were now front and center, demanding to be heard. Coverage of this demographic became not only a legitimate beat but also a smart market to cultivate.

The mostly local media coverage of Woodstock focused largely on the traffic, nudity, drugs, rain, mud and the hippie subculture. Former New York Times reporter Barnard Collier covered the event, despite his editors’ misgivings about the story. They wanted Collier to focus on the negatives. But he resisted, stood his ground and gained the support of the top editor at the Times, Scotty Reston.

"There were lots of colors and wildly dressed people," Collier said. "The story just got better and better. The people were beautiful. Yes, there was nudity, but it was natural. It was certainly the best story I have ever done, and I’ve done quite a few. It was all a beautiful accident."

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