Fifty years ago, in August 1969, half a million people gathered for three days on a 600-acre dairy farm at Bethel, New York to celebrate peace, love and music. The event became known as the Woodstock Rock Festival. The festival became world-famous after a soundtrack album and an award-winning documentary by the same name was released subsequently. Nearly 30 bands and musicians performed at the Woodstock Festival over four days, including Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, The Grateful Dead, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker and many others. Despite the famous absentees — like Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel — Woodstock became a symbol of anti-Vietnam contestation and the global counterculture movement. Unlike today’s youth, who is thinking in terms of money and jobs and becoming increasingly conformist and complacent, the young people of the 1960s were feeling frustrated and rejected by the socio-political systems of their time. In American society, in particular, young people were disgusted by the Jim Crow laws in the Southern US and the assassinations of the African-American emancipation movement leaders, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. They were also strongly opposed to the Vietnam war and the draft system — which mainly drew from the Black population, minorities and lower-class whites. Increasingly disillusioned with the American political debate, the rebellious youth turned towards new radical values expressed by Black Power, Maoism and the hippie movement.
The hippie movement was reinforced by the escalation of US involvement in Vietnam, followed by unrest on college campuses. It included hundreds of thousands of young Americans across the country who showed their rebelliousness by way of their long hair and beards, colourful dresses, drug use and adherence to a host of oriental spiritual philosophies — things that American society had never heard of. Among the distinctive signs and attitudes related to those of this generation was the love of psychedelic and progressive rock music. In fact, the American counterculture movement was not only influenced by the philosophies of the Beat poets and writers like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and some Freudo-Marxist icons like Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm; but it was also motivated by the music of rock bands like The Mamas and the Papas who popularised the Hippie image of California when they sang “If you’re going to San Francisco/ Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”
In July 1967, Time magazine published a cover story on the Hippie movement, describing it as the “Summer of Love”. According to the article, the movement was “blooming in every major US city from Boston to Seattle, from Detroit to New Orleans,” embracing hundreds of thousands of souls. These were mostly young people in their twenties and thirties who dreamed of a place where they could practise free love, take acid and listen to their favorite bands: This is what the Woodstock Music Festival provided them with in August 1969. No other music festival had attracted so many counterculture people in one place. The Monterey International Pop Music Festival in 1967 and The Atlantic City Pop Music Festival had each attracted around 1,00,000 people. The specificity of the Woodstock Music Festival was that it embodied the zeitgeist of the 1960s, represented by political radicalism, women’s liberation movement, anti-war partisanship and, finally, cultural transformation.
Max Yasgur, the man who rented out his farm for the Woodstock festival in 1969 died in 1973. In 1984, a plaque was placed at the site of the festival commemorating the historical event and years later, in 2008, the ashes of Richie Havens, one of the artists who participated at Woodstock, were scattered across the field. Several years ago, Michael Lang, who was one of the organisers of the original Woodstock event, decided to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the event in August 2019. However, the investors who had promised to help Lang in this enterprise walked out. Though Lang continued his dream of organising a Woodstock 50 with help from Oppenheimer & Co., the concert was finally cancelled in late July. Consequently, in an interview with the magazine Variety, Lang underlined that Woodstock remained committed to “social change. and the values of compassion, human dignity, and the beauty of our differences.”
But the truth is, that times have changed and Woodstock is no more in the hearts and minds of today’s youth. The Woodstock Music Festival was organised in 1969, a year after the sons and daughters of the most privileged sections of the United States and of Europe decided to change the world. The year that Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane sang, “Now it’s time for you and me to have a revolution.” As such, the Woodstock Music Festival was the result of all that rebelliousness which seemed to be in the air, and it seemed to be everywhere. It was a moral revolt against a mode of living which has now taken over our universities and workplaces. Fifty years later, maybe, it is time to re-invent Woodstock.
The writer is professor-vice dean, Jindal Global University