Why do some idealize the Woodstock music festival?

We’ve been debating the cultural relevance of the three-day peace and music festival known as the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival for the last 50 years. It’s abbreviated for the late 1960s and has become associated with a generation that reinvented young culture. It would be an impressive feat of self-seclusion or obliviousness to never have seen images of a half million attendees wearing jeans and fringe and singing and dancing in mud-caked fields.

The event is significant not only for the artists it launched (Carlos Santana; it was the second gig for supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young), but also for becoming an idealized moment in the middle of the Vietnam War when a generation of young people came together for a few days of celebration and nonviolence.

“What occurred at White Lake this weekend may have been more than an uncontrolled outpouring of cool young people striving to live,” a CBS Evening News contributor remarked at the time.

A half-century later, there’s still a lot of enthusiasm in trying to recreate it, even though the most recent effort, Woodstock 50, never happened owing to difficulties securing a place and artists pulling out.

Still, as well-trodden as some of the stories surrounding Woodstock are — the helicopters airlifting musical acts and food, the bad weather, the fact that it  didn’t actually happen in Woodstock, New York — a few details may have escaped you. These are five facts about the legendary cultural event that you may not know.

A band from movie Grease played a set

Fans of the 1978 film Grease may recall Johnny Casino and the Gamblers, the band who performed at the televised Rydell High School dance. The band was actually called Sha Na Na and just 9 years before, took the stage at Woodstock right before Jimi Hendrix.

Considering some of the other artists at Woodstock — The Who, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Santana — you might not think a band specializing in covers of Doo-Wop and early rock would land a spot on the roster. The ensemble, which founded at Columbia University, burst onto the scene in 1969, paying homage to and mocking oldies that were, in fact, not that old.

Sha Na Na covered songs like Get a Job by the Silhouettes (the band pulled its name from the song’s “sha na nas” in the chorus) and Duke of Earl by Gene Chandler, as well as a smattering of Beach Boys songs. It’s good, but it’s not quite Pete Townshend-style guitar-smashing rock.

Yet, according to Variety, it was Hendrix who convinced Woodstock organizers to see Sha Na Na at a bar, prompting them to award the band a slot.

The media initially ignored Woodstock

As huge as Woodstock looms in the popular memory – how many articles have been written about it 50 years later? – not everyone expected its impact. The media is included in this.

Initially, The New York Times rejected a pitch from one of its writers to cover it at all, according to a 2009 NYT piece looking back at the event. Barnard Collier, the writer, went nonetheless, and managed to convince his editors that it was worth a story. The New York Times was hardly alone in its indifference. As Collier came inside the press trailer, it was completely empty. As an aside, Collier’s essay is a goldmine for defining terms like “grass,” “joints,” and “grooving.”

By the end of the festival, though, all three major networks (CBS, ABC and NBC) ran stories recapping Woodstock, acknowledging the drug use and logistical failings of the promoters, as well as how surprised locals were the kids were so darned polite. One ABC commentator even utilized overhead pictures of the grounds to transition into a program on population growth.
The Times’ lookback feature also contained an interview with Kenneth A. Paulson, one of USA Today’s founding editors, who saw Woodstock as a watershed moment in how the media covered young culture.

“The media world became extremely cool very rapidly,” he said.

Most attendees missed Hendrix’s set

Although there is no official count, it is estimated that roughly 500,000 people attended Woodstock. That was owing, in part, to the fact that the festival promoters made the event free when so many more people showed up than expected.

Participants put up with a lot, including rainstorms and a shortage of food and drink (remember the Fyre Festival?). Yet, as Woodstock drew to a conclusion, the throng dwindled substantially. By the time Hendrix, the closing act, took the stage at 9 a.m. Monday, Rolling Stone writer Jan Hodenfield wrote at the time, only about 30,000 people were still around.

“Most of them straggled out into suddenly free-flowing traffic that went through the muck of a society that had spanned its own eternity in three days,” he wrote.

It means they didn’t get to hear Jimi Hendrix’s legendary rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. On the Dick Cavett Show, Cavett asked Hendrix why he played it and noted that some folks were offended by the “unorthodox” take on the national anthem. “Since I’m an American, I played it,” Hendrix said, adding, “I thought it was wonderful.”


The Grateful Dead played five songs in an hour and a half

Jam bands, amma right?

Organizers were split about a repeat performance

In October 1969, a few months after Woodstock, Rolling Stone published an article on the event’s aftermath. Michael Lang, one of the organizers, had said in a news conference only four days after Woodstock that they would do it again the following August. But it wouldn’t be in Bethel, New York. Max Yasgur, the dairy farmer who graciously allowed his land to become the scene of the festival, told the publication that 2,000 acres wasn’t enough space for a half million kids, and he was heading to Canada to decompress.

On the other hand, one of the other organizers, Artie Kornfeld, summed up his feelings on the matter like this: “I don’t think there could be another Woodstock Music and Art Fair,” he said. “The journey is over.”


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