Remembering the Fleeting Magic of Woodstock, 50 Years On

Unfortunately, not enough of the hope, idealism and sense of community that made the Woodstock festival so magical survived. And we sure could use  it now

A  Look Back by Niagara At Large reporter  Doug Draper

Posted August 15th, on Niagara At Large

The iconic poster for the Woodstock festival

“About a thousand years ago there was a very brief period of time that is now referred to as the Sixties. …

“It lasted about 11 or 12 minutes before the hustlers and hucksters pour in, and it has become a kind of black hole in the national cosmos into which all of the noblest and fiercest aspirations of a generation sunk and disappeared. … a kind of Bermuda Triangle of idealism.”

  • Leonard Cohen, during a 1994 performance on the PBS program Austin City Limits.

Down a black hole it went alright, but oh what a wild and crazy, strange and frightening, and sometimes magical and beautiful 11 or 12 minutes it was while it lasted.

And near the end of it all, for what seemed like just a few seconds of that time as the decade of the Sixties were drawing to a close, it reached a zenith of peace & music 50 years ago this August 15th, 16th and 17th on the verdant pasture lands of Max Yasgur’s farm in the Catskills of Upstate New York.

An aireal shot of the Woodstock festival in progress, August, 1969

The Woodstock Music & Art Fair, as this now legendary festival was called, was more than f somewhere between 400,000 and half a million young people surviving three days and nights of mud and rain, and a shortfall of food, drink and sanitary facilities, all bound together in a spirit of peace and community.

Woodstock was also a sound stage from some of the best musicians and music that has been produced in the fields of folk, rock, blues and funk before or since. I still remember walking down St. Paul Street in St. Catharines a months before the festival, in July of 1969, and there is the front window of a Sam the Record Man outlet on the street at the time was a poster promoting the Woodstock festival

The masses of Woodstock festival goers flow in. A sight many Bethel New York residents I talked to for an anniversary story I was doing for The St. Catharines Standard on the festival 20 years later said they never wanted repeated. Everything was shut down and we were running out of food. We could go anywhere,” one resident told me in July of 1989.

The poster featured a line-up that included folk artists like Ritchie Haven, Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie, and there was Ravi Shankar, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker and Jimi Hendrix, and groups like Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills &Nash, Sly and The Family Stone, Grateful Dead, Ten Years After, The Band, The Who and the list went on.

There were a total of 28 artists listed in all (more than that actually turned up to play) and, get this, the price of tickets was $7 a day (make that $6 a day in the U.S.) or $18 for three days, for a festival that was ultimately declared free due to the mass of humanity that arrived and overwhelmed whatever passed for gates.

One of the headlines from the time

I’m sorry to say that I am not one of those who crashed those gates because my parents ruled my younger brother and I to be a little too young to run off for what many of their generation were sure was would be one giant pot party that would turn into a riot, and I was camping on Cape Cod with my family at the time.

So we were left out on the dunes, listening to what was unfolding at what some called the “giant hippie fest” on the radio or reading about it in  newspapers.

It would not be until 20 years later that The St. Catharines Standard, the newspaper I worked for, recognizing my love for the music of that era, sent me off to Yasgur’s farm to do an anniversary story.

There I met a number of the residents of the rural town of Bethel where the festival took place, and many of them still seemed to be experiencing PTSD from what seemed like an invasion at the time – so much so that they said they would never want to see an event of that magnitude staged in their community again (which may explain why the original organizers of the festival had such a hard time finding a host community for a 50th anniversary edition of it this summer).

Woodstock remains in history as a high water mark of almost everything that was good about the 1960s counterculture though, and in a recent interview with The Toronto Star, musician David Crosby, who performed at the 1969 festival as part of the super group Crosby, Still & Nash,  summed it up this way

One of the images that captured the spirit of the three-day festival

“The thing is, everybody is so impressed by how big it was that they think that’s where the story is, and it’s not. The story is that for three days, half a million people were nice to each other. They were kind to each other. They were decent to each other. They behaved like human beings. They were good.

“And it was such a shockingly delicious feeling,” added Crosby, “that none of us can get it out of our heads. And we may never be able to. For a minute there, we could hope.”

There was one of those minutes Leonard Cohen was talking about, and it came, and then disappeared down that black hole so fast.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said John Sebastian from the band Lovin’ Spoonful before he performed a few songs on day two of the Woodstock festival. “Wow,” he continued as he stared out at the sea of faces spreading up the hills. “Just love everyone around you and clean up a little garbage on your way out, and everything is going to be alright.”

When the festival ended, and the throngs of mostly baby boomers left Yasgur’s farm, the verdant fields they found when they arrived were covered in mud and garbage, and it seems from what can be viewed on film and photographs, that only a handful of stragglers stuck around to clean the garbage up.

Not a sight many want to remember. The acres of garbage that was left over.

And at the risk of pouring cold water on all of the fond memories and nostalgia, this same baby boomer generation – my generation, to be specific – has been covering much of the world, our oceans and atmosphere included, with garbage ever since.

So much for that moment when we all wanted to ‘get back to the land and garden and set our soul free,’ as Joni Mitchell put it in her song Woodstock, composed as a tribute to what she recently said impressed her at the time as “a modern-day miracle. … a modern-day fishes and loaves story,” filled with “a tremendous optimism.”

A monument that has marked the original site of the Woodstock festival in Bethel, New York for many years now.

Whatever became of all of that idealism and optimism, and desire to live together in a spirit of love and peace, in a caring and sharing communities?

Perhaps it says something that the organizers of the original Woodstock were ultimately had to cancel plans this summer for a 50th anniversary version of the festival.

Many baby boomers sold out a long time ago on the ideals that made the first Woodstock come together and work, and it is doubtful to me that today’s young people, with their eyes terminally focused on their iPhone screens and those ear bugs cutting them off from sounds around them, could capture or revel in such an organic sense of community.

Ah, but there was that very brief, magical moment wasn’t there? …. Once upon a time, 50 years ago this August, as the Sixties were drawing to a close, in 1969.

(If you are interested in recapturing some of the magic of that moment, there is the great film documentary of the festival, “Woodstock – 3 Days of Peace & Music,” available on DVD or Blu-ray, or you can catch it on the big screen at the Cineplex next to the Niagara Square Mall in Niagara Falls, Ontario on Friday, August 16th at 7:15 p.m. and Monday, August 19th at 7:30 p.m. – please go online and double check these times yourselves.

If you like doing road trips, it takes about a day from the Niagara, Ontario and Buffalo area to drive to Bethel, New York, where you can visit the original site of the Woodstock festival and where they have a museum, gift shop and a theatre where big name artists perform. For the 50th anniversary, Santana and Arlo Guthrie, just to name a few, will be performing there at shows that are apparently already sold out.

For more information, you can visit a website for the Bethel Woods Museum and Arts Centre by clicking on https://www.bethelwoodscenter.org/museum .

The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto is also paying tribute to the 50th anniversary of Woodstock with a series of films from Friday, August 16th through Sunday, August 18th, for three days the Cinema is calling “Woodstock Revisited.” You can get the details on that by clicking on – https://www.hotdocscinema.ca/c/woodstock .)

To view a trailer for the Woodstock documentary, click on the screen below –

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