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Four Takes: Looking back on Woodstock, The Boston Sunday Globe

An overhead view of the crowd at the Woodstock music festival in August of 1969.(Daniel Wolf/Globe Staff/file)

August 22, 2019

The old joke goes that if you remember Woodstock, you were not there. I was not there, in the sense usually meant. Most likely I was in my room in small-town South Dakota, with an A.M. radio turned low. “Crystal Blue Persuasion” talked about a new day coming, and maybe it was – or maybe I would just grow up. In those days, it was hard to distinguish hope from escape.  

Fifty years later, the literature on Woodstock remains thin (see aforementioned joke), but thoughts about its significance abound. Many of us look back with a mixture of wistfulness and embarrassment, along with a sense that we blew it.

Michael Lang, the young producer whose brainchild the festival largely was, suggests it was a test of whether his generation “really believed in one another and the world we were struggling to create.”  His book “The Road to Woodstock,” co-written with Holly George-Warren, argues that the kids passed, if with mud-stained colors.

Lang had just moved to Woodstock, N.Y., an arty community north of New York City, when he conceived the idea for a large outdoor rock concert. (With one festival in Florida already under his belt, how hard could it be?) Enlisting three partners, he formed Woodstock Ventures and began booking talent.

The logistical challenges mushroomed almost as quickly as the local opposition. With only a few weeks to go, Woodstock Ventures was denied a necessary permit by the township of Wallkill. The last-minute new location: farmland owned by Max Yasgur, in nearby Bethel.

Lang relies on a pastiche of voices to tell the story. The cultural critic Greil Marcus, seeking to arrive early, recalls being stalled in a sea of unmoving cars, with six miles still to go. David Crosby, of the then still little-known Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, remembers being scared. They were about to perform before several of their musical idols. (Graham Nash would later recall being high during the set but pretty sure that they killed.)

As the three-day festival unfolded, food was short and rain plentiful, but a spirit of joyful cooperation took hold. Several hundred thousand kids were going to show the world how life could be, and mostly did.

Critics eventually conceded that some of the music was godawful. Some of the best was near afterthought. Jimi Hendrix’s pain-infused “Star-Spangled Banner,” perhaps Woodstock’s signature song, had to wait until Monday morning, when the festival was officially over. The tune now considered its anthem came even later. “Woodstock” was written by a frustrated Joni Mitchell as she sat the whole thing out in New York, awaiting an appearance on Dick Cavett.

In “By the Time We Got to Woodstock – The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Revolution of 1969,” Bruce Pollock widens the lens on a watershed musical year. Virtuosity and experimentation reigned, he notes, but “the light-bearing counterculture”  for which it stood was beginning to fray.

That summer, hordes of restless young people caravanned from one festival to the next. Fear of the draft was pervasive. Rock musicians were the anointed troubadours of resistance, even as their world was turning increasingly corporate. (According to Pollock, a music-business mentor helped Tommy James, the herald of crystal-blue brotherhood, avoid the draft.)

How much change was truly coming was legible on the pop charts. At one point,  the bubble-gum tune “Sugar Sugar” knocked “Honky Tonk Women” from its perch.

Still, many insist that Woodstock was less about music than about a state of mind. If so, its manifesto would probably be “The Greening of America,” published the following year. Written by law professor Charles Reich, who died in June, the book prophesied wholesale cultural change courtesy of “the new generation.”

Dividing skeptics from believers, “The Greening of America” arrived like Judgment Day. In Reich’s analysis, we were entering “Consciousness III,” a transformed state in which mutuality would replace materialistic competition. Surprisingly, some of his analysis – about technology’s power to stifle democracy, e.g. – needs only a little updating. What wears less well is Reich’s visionary assurance.

Even in Utopia, the bill eventually comes due. Assisted by writer Robert Pilpel, Joel Rosenman and John Roberts, the two partners who had put up the money for Woodstock, tell their chastened side of the story in “Young Men with Unlimited Capital.”

As they saw it, almost nothing went right. Thousands of concertgoers crashed through the fences, forcing organizers to declare the event free. At a morning-after meeting with the bankers, two of whom fainted, Roberts estimated they were $1.6 million in debt. Woodstock Ventures soon dissolved in a bitter split.

Reflecting several years later on lessons learned, Roberts concluded that his rebellious phase was decidedly over. With effort, he had recovered financially. He had also become hard-working and thorough. In fact, he had become much like his father.

M.J. Andersen is an author and journalist who writes frequently on the arts.

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