They were a generation getting back to the garden, the dirt and homegrown America. Their music blended soul, gospel, folk, country and rock. They would go on to start the health craze of the 1970s organic movement, and would later see the commercialisation of the rock star, a capitalistic part of the 1980s.
But that golden moment 50 years ago, in August 1969, was all about togetherness, harmony and peace.
“Walk around for three days without seeing a skyscraper, a traffic light. Fly a kite, sun yourself. Cook your own food and breath unspoiled air,” read one Woodstock advertisement.
The 600-acre concert venue had a lake, a grassy hill, a dairy farm and a large wood. And the songs emphasised love – of nature, country, neighbour and self.
Police, soldiers, churches and local community members fostered the communal spirit, peaceably banding together to support the hippie assemblage with good old-fashioned American neighbourliness. In other words, Woodstock saw a group of liberal youths relying on authority figures in a conservative community to pull off their three-day celebration – and it worked. As a Christian Science Monitorheadline from August 19, 1969 read, “N.Y. rock fest amplifies goodwill.”
The Boston Globe reported that the New York state police supplied an escort for Sweetwater, the first band, dodging abandoned cars, driving on grass and using emergency lanes to access the venue. The Sullivan County sheriff’s office even marshalled police radios to solicit two medical evacuation helicopters from West Point Academy.
Concertgoers returning from the bathrooms often struggled to find their way back to their groups because there were no demarcated areas, ushers or seating. And food was scarce. But after Woodstock Ventures sent out a call for help, local churches and hotels provided – and US Army soldiers in a helicopter dropped candy bars, snacks, sodas and flowers to fans on the hill.
It’s a good thing the local community was so accommodating, because attendance was high: 450,000 people travelled to Bethel, New York, from August 15-18, 1969, for the event, according to reports at the time. New York City in 1970 had a population of 7,894,862 – so that would have been like one in every 16 New Yorkers flocking to a concert.
In a 2009 interview, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival said: “It was so hard to see, I mean the lights only showed a few hundred feet from the stage and I saw naked bodies asleep and then just darkness. Nothing else. I didn’t know what to do. Then I saw a light move and a man yell, ‘It’s OK, John, we are with you!’ so I just played for that guy!”
The last performer, a former paratrooper and legendary poet and guitarist, played a one-of-a-kind Star-Spangled Banner tribute, later defending it on The Dick Cavett Show.
“I thought it was beautiful. They made me sing that as a kid. I’m an American,” Jimi Hendrix said.
(Cavett defended Hendrix saying, “He flew with the 101st Airborne, if any of you have complaints.”)
By 2009, seven out of 10 Americans had heard of Woodstock, according to a Pew Research poll. That’s how enshrined the event has become in the annals of American lore. But it’s worth remembering the American ideals Woodstock stood for as well: love of one’s neighbour, as shown by Fogerty drawing inspiration from his crowd; creativity and patriotism, as shown by Hendrix honouring his country while embracing individuality; fellowship and civility, as shown by the conservative small town providing victuals for the liberal hippie youth; and beauty and musicality, as embodied in the diverse collection of Woodstock’s sounds and strains suffusing the natural, wild landscape that connects us all.