They say that if you remember the 60’s then you weren’t at Woodstock. But the truth couldn’t be farther from this because many people still remember the weekend of August 15, 16, and 17 1969 (Newcott, n.p.). This is the weekend of the first, and most legendary Woodstock. The music festival, headlined by rock and roll’s legendary artists, encountered so many obstacles and mishaps, but it still turned out to successful because of the Aquarian spirit that prevailed among its attendees. Although some consider Woodstock a great tragedy that was characterized by traffic jams and bad trips, many consider it to be a turning point in music and American history. For one, the music festival captured the hippie movement that emphasized love and peace. Second, it showed the clear connection between music and activism. Last, and most importantly, it brought together a generation of youth who realized they shared the same sentiments about American politics and society. Woodstock’s legacy, thus, goes beyond rock and roll and drugs. Its legacy is in how it formed and united an entire generation’s politics and empowered them to find ways to change their world.
Background on Woodstock 1969
Woodstock 1969, entitled “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music,” is a 3-day music festival. It was originally planned with the historical Woodstock, New York as venue, but was turned down (Newcott, n.p.). They had to look for other towns, but were consistently turned down. In the end, the organizers found held Woodstock at Bethel in New York thanks to a farmer, Max Yasgur, offering up his land for the festival’s use (Newcott, n.p.). The organizers estimated 50,000 attendees but around 400,000 showed up and demanded free attendance because of the insufficient tickets. More people were believed to have tried to go to the festival but were stuck in traffic. Many left their cars on the road and walked toward the venue. The rain that ensued did not help in maintaining order in the festival (Newcott, n.p.). The mud made the fences easy to tear up, so even those without tickets were able to enter the venue. The police also did not attempt to stop or arrest anyone, even if they were publicly using illegal drugs, for fear of provoking a riot (Newcott, n.p.).
Part of what made Woodstock legendary were the performing artists who agreed to play there. The artists include Richie Havens, Sweetwater, Joan Baez, Santana, Janis Joplin, The Who, The Band, and Jimi Hendrix (Benjamin, n.p.). Some of the artists that played were well-known, like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, while others, such as Santana, were more locally popular and became widely known after their appearance at Woodstock.
Since the laws were effectively suspended at Woodstock, the attendees were able to do whatever they felt like doing. People hung out nude, some had sexual intercourse in the middle of the festival, some went skinny dipping at a pond to rinse off the mud, and many people were high on marijuana and hallucinogenic substances (Benjamin, n.p.). It was the ideal hippie field trip, with people being kind to each other, but it was nowhere near ideal. So many people were high that even those who did not use illegal drugs most likely had contact high (Engel, n.p.). And although the festival was peaceful—truly exhibiting love and peace—about 742 overdoses were reported throughout the festival, and 2 deaths occurred (Engel, n.p.). What is interesting, however, is the uncharacteristic lack of interpersonal violence throughout the festival. Despite the tragedies that occurred at Woodstock, it was clear that the festival, more accurately, the people who attended, lived up to the message of love and peace.
Music and Activism
Woodstock is fondly remembered by the people who went there as a demonstration of the youth’s yearning for togetherness. It was peaceful—no fights, robberies, assaults, or rapes. People who had bad trips on hallucinogens were taken care of by fellow attendees. People shared food and shelter with total strangers. Woodstock proved to the adult world that young people could create peace in a situation that otherwise would be chaotic and violent. The attendees of Woodstock were hippies, who did not participate in politics. They reveled in their psychedelics-centric lifestyle outside of the norms of middle-class American society (Newcott, n.p.). Although hippies would agree with anti-war and equal rights sentiments, they were rarely seen included in the protests (Pruitt, n.p.). This, however, changed after Woodstock.
The artists who played at Woodstock were all activists. Jimi Hendrix was an active civil rights supporter, and his performance at Woodstock was a protest against the Vietnam war. His rendition of the Star Spangled Banner highlighted the violence and the deaths throughout American history (see Mass shootings in America and hate crimes in the US) (Hartley, n.p.). Janis Joplin was human rights activist and feminist symbol, while Richie Haven is an environmental and peace activist. All the other artists that played at Woodstock created music that existed outside the norm and echoed ideas that resonated with the anti-war and/or the civil rights movements. The hippies who attended Woodstock were fans of most of the artists who played. However, as mentioned, the hippie generation was not as yet as politically active. Woodstock showed the hippies how many of them think the same way. Wade Lawrence, director and curator of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which celebrates Woodstock and the 1960s, explains how Woodstock served as a turning point for the hippies: “They looked around, and for as far as the eye could see, there was a mass of their peers that had been thinking the exact same things about the political debate topics of the time. Woodstock empowered kids everywhere with the idea that the world could be changed. (Newcott, n.p.)” Woodstock empowered the young generation of hippies to unite against the Vietnam war and racial inequality. If hippies were apolitical before, they became more active afterwards.
Just a few months after Woodstock, the opposition to the Vietnam War joined together in the largest antiwar protest in the country (Pruitt, n.p.). About half a million people joined the protest in Washington, D.C. while numerous other protests occurred throughout the country (Pruitt, n.p.). The hippie movement appears to have died down and accepted into the mainstream by the 70s but many hippies continued to live a political life outside the confines of the norms—living in communes, living a vegetarian lifestyle, engaging in organic farming and holistic medicine, and using drugs (Pruitt, n.p.). The hippie movement did not, by any means, cause the end of the Vietnam War nor did it end racism, but they are testament to the influence and unifying power of music.
Although the hippie movement died down during the 70s, their sentiments continue to resonate among the youth of today. The music of the artists who played at Woodstock continue to play a big influence on the politics of the youth today (Benjamin, n.p.). Majority of the young generation today believe that equality should be natural and have no tolerance for wars and violence. It may be said that these sentiments started with their parents who grew up listening to music that resonated with the hippie movement. We see the same unity and empowerment in this generation in the numerous large protests that have occurred in the last few years—the 2017 Women’s March and the Black Lives Matter protests.
Woodstock may have started as a simple concert for the hippies, but because nothing at Woodstock went according to plan, it ended up becoming a political influence for the youth. The music at Woodstock united the hippies in the 60s and empowered them enough to go to the streets and protest against the Vietnam war and racial inequality. This custom of going to the streets have become more common since. Woodstock’s legacy extends beyond the music, as this custom essay demonstrated. Its most enduring legacy is how it showed that not only is it possible for multitudes of people to come together peacefully, but also that they can come together for the benefit of an advocacy. The ideals of Woodstock continue to be alive today in the youth that believes in kindness and love and fights for peace and equality, and who actively participate in nation-building. Although Woodstock happened over 50 years ago, its legacy continues with the new generation of Americans fighting for equality.
Benjamin, Esme. “Peace, Love, and Music: The Legacy of Woodstock 50 Years Later.” Culture Trip. 2019, Jul. 24. https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/new-york/new-york-city/articles/peace-love-and-music-bethel-woods-still-rocks-50-years-after-woodstock/
Engel, Currie. “People Were Born and Died at Woodstock. Here Are Their Stories.” Time Magazine. 2019, Aug. 9. https://time.com/5641667/woodstock-50-health-care/
Hartley, Nathan. “Jimi Hendrix: Musical Protests.” STMU History Media. 2018, Oct. 1. https://stmuhistorymedia.org/jimi-hendrix-musical-protests/
Newcott, Bill. “For Those Who Were There, Woodstock Was A Weekend Like No Other.” National Geographic. 2019, Aug 8. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/08/woodstock-those-there-weekend-like-no-other/