Woodstock at 50 – A Personal Reflection

It was 1969 and I was twelve years old, kind of like Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years except my reality was not as innocent. I had been hearing the ads on “underground” FM stations like WNEW FM for many weeks. It all sounded so beautiful, an Aquarian Exposition (whatever that was). Three days of peace, love, and music. Mostly, I was interested in the music: Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Sly and the Family Stone, The Grateful Dead, Jeff Beck (who didn’t show up), etc..

In June of ’69 my dad, who was my rock, passed away from a sudden heart attack. It was his second. He was, up until that time, a mythical figure to me. He seemed to know everything. He had been all around the world. In WWII he fought the Nazis as a gunner on oil tankers that were crucial to the allied cause. No one thinks about how the tanks, jeeps and fighter planes could carry out their missions in far flung locations throughout the theater of war. Were it not for the oil tankers of Nortraship they would have been useless.

Nortraship was a corporation formed by the Norwegian government in exile (The King had escaped to Britain) to support the allied war effort using navy ships that refused to return from the sea when the Nazis occupied Norway and installed the collaborator Vidkun Quisling as the head of government.  And my Dad, who had refused to return and join the Nazis, was a gunner, fully exposed to the strafing of enemy planes, who defended that supply line.

He was a great storyteller and a musician. He played violin, accordion and harmonica. When I asked him how he knew what to play on harmonica he told me, “You just hear the sound in your head and then you play it”. As it turns out science, by the use of brain imaging, now vindicates him.

After the war my dad was also an advocate for his fellow immigrants. Dad was a property manager for two large apartment buildings. The first generation of immigrants to our neighborhood were Jews. I still can remember asking Dad why one new tenant, a young woman, had a tattoo and he said, “She was in the camps.” He went way beyond the dictates of his job, performing all sorts of services for the residents and they reciprocated with appreciation. He expected no less of me. I would schlep many bushel baskets of apples up three stories for Mr. Witkowski the green grocer and read the mail for Mr. Meltz who had failing sight and would meet me at the mailboxes and ask “From whom is this from?”

When Dad died a different immigrant community remembered him. During the mid 1960’s Cuban exiles came to our village. Even though this was the time that Castro was purging the island of the intellectuals and the upper classes and many of these people were professionals they were not always welcome here. However, my Dad went to bat for them with his boss who was not at first inclined to rent to them. I still have the card that they gave my Mom at Dad’s funeral – they took up a collection for a gift and all signed it under the heading “Your Spanish neighbors”.

After the funeral, in July I went to visit my aunt and uncle, probably to give my Mom some space to grieve and arrange affairs. I loved all of my aunts and uncles but I must admit these were my favorites. They were perfect avatars for the time because they believed in ‘live and let live’. My aunt encouraged me to buy a few pair of jeans and stop ironing my shirts. They lived on a quiet road near a lake and for a kid from the suburbs who lived in an apartment this was paradise.

It was there at my aunt and uncle’s house that I watched the Apollo spacecraft land on the moon. I still remember the songs I listened to on AM radio on the trip out to Long Island: These Eyes (Guess Who), (One) Is The Loneliest Number (Three Dog Night), In The Year 2525 (Zager and Evans) Crimson and Clover (Tommy James and the Shondells), Baby It’s You (Smith).  I loved these songs but nothing prepared me for my cousins’ record collection: Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Steve Miller Band’s Your Saving Grace, Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum, Lee Michaels’ eponymous album, Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, Jimi Hendrix’s   Are You Experienced, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, well, you get the point.

I had heard songs from these albums on FM underground radio but now I had access to the entire albums at a time when albums still mattered. By the time the Woodstock festival was approaching in August I was well versed in the counter culture and the music. I knew every band and artist to appear, well, maybe not Sweetwater.

August arrived and my sister, my cousin, and a friend, packed their clothes and effects into a VW Beetle and headed for White Lake, (Bethel) NY. I begged them to let me go with them. Of course, I was too young. They wouldn’t even let my older (by four years) sister go with them. I was crestfallen. There was no way for me to get to that godforsaken farm in Sullivan County which for me represented the promised land.

Woodstock had a few older, established performers but featured mostly current acts. Among the older acts were Joan Baez and Ravi Shankar. Most of the other artists had only been known to a wider audience for about three years or less. Acts such as Ten Years After, Sha Na Na, Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tim Hardin, Arlo Guthrie, Johnny Winter, Sly and the Family Stone, The Band, Mountain, etc.

Think about it, Santana, who arguably contributed one of the more exciting performances, would not release their first album until the Saturday following the concert. Mountain was not even a band at the time. Leslie West had just released a solo album with that title a month before. Joe Cocker, who also contributed a stand-out performance, had released his first U.S. album in May. Blues powerhouse Johnny Winter was signed to Columbia records in 1969 for a then-record advance of  $600,000.00 after being discovered playing with Michael Bloomfield at the Fillmore East in 1968 and his first album came out in April, four months before the festival.

This also was a time when musicians from the mid 1960’s , a mere few years before, were not content to stand still. Rock music was already reinventing itself. Crosby, Stills & Nash, made up of former members of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and, the Hollies released their debut album in May. However, by the time of the festival they were enlarged to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Neil Young, also formerly of Buffalo Springfield, released his first solo album in January and then premiered his band Crazy Horse on the iconic Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere in May of 1969. Other established artists were also reinventing themselves: John Sebastian had split from the Lovin’ Spoonful and would not debut his solo album, John B Sebastian, from which his performance was taken until the following January. Janis Joplin had just left Big Brother and the Holding Company and emerged as a solo artist recording her first solo album in June with a September release and Jimi Hendrix was no longer with the Experience (this would be between Electric Ladyland of 1968 and Band of Gypsies recorded on New Year’s Eve of 1969). Even the Who were not superstars in the U.S at the time. Their epic rock opera Tommy was only available since May 17th and I did not hear Ten Years After on rock radio, despite their electrifying performance at the festival, until the fall of 1969. The quality of the music at the Woodstock festival was astonishing considering the short time that many of the bands had been on the scene.

I guess I should also mention that the festival was somewhat diverse for the time. There was world music: Santana and Ravi Shankar, Incredible String Band, Americana: The Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Funk: Sly and the Family Stone, Blues: Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, Johnny Winter,  Blues Rock/ R & B : Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Psychedelic/ Hard Rock: Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Country Joe and the Fish, Folk Rock: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Bert Sommer, Melanie, John Sebastian, Rock and Roll; Sha Na Na, Folk: Joan Baez, Tim Hardin, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens and Hendrix who spanned Psychedelic, Blues and Rock.

Richie Havens was notable for being an African American folk artist who defied classification. He did not play the blues, per se. He played guitar in open tuning in an intensely syncopated rhythmic style that was all his own. He played chords that would be more associated with jazz than folk music. Havens wrote original songs, such as Handsome Johnny, a war protest song that was co-written with actor Louis Gossett Jr.. However, he was better known as an expert interpreter of other writer’s work, most notably Dylan and the Beatles.

Richie was not scheduled to open the festival but the roads to the venue were gridlocked and some performers were delayed. You may remember Arlo Guthrie saying on the soundtrack, “New York State Thruway’s closed man!” So, when Havens was asked to step in and save the day he did. In fact he played for around three hours and when he had run out of material he improvised “Freedom” which he based on the old spiritual “Motherless Child”. It became a highlight of the festival. You can feel the emotion when he cries out for freedom and sings of calling out from his heart when he needs his “mother, father, sister, and, brother”.

I do remember seeing, on August 19th the day after the festival, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, and Jefferson Airplane on the Dick Cavett TV show. Joni didn’t make it to the festival (she had another commitment) yet it clearly affected her. She would later write the anthem “Woodstock” that would define this moment. By this time, just one day removed, it was clear that his was a cultural touchstone. It was not just another rock concert. I knew in my twelve year old heart that this was a movement and I was part of it, even if I couldn’t attend.

It took me a little over a year before I started growing my hair, playing guitar and living the counter culture life. It likewise took a while for the movie and soundtrack for Woodstock to be released. It was March 1970 but that seemed like an eternity for those of us who were waiting since August 1969. I didn’t see the movie in its first showing as it was rated R and I was just thirteen. But, I did listen to the first album. It was OK, however if there ever was a case for a boxed set this was it. It had only the highlights from the sets of Santana, Cocker, Ten Years After, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Who, Hendrix, etc.. Yet, Mountain, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tim Hardin, Johnny Winter, Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Ravi Shankar were not represented and the sets of the artists that were included were truncated.

This situation was somewhat rectified with 2009’s Woodstock 40 Years On: Back To Yasgur’s Farm. This was a six disc set that included more acts and for the first time contained recordings by Mountain from Woodstock – The Mountain cuts on Woodstock II were not from the Woodstock festival but were live recordings from another venue. I have just learned that a 50th anniversary release is planned by Rhino Records (for an August 2nd release) which includes almost the entire concert excluding two Hendrix songs that the estate doesn’t think are up to snuff and a portion of Sha Na Na’s act that wasn’t recorded.

Woodstock ’94 was the 25th anniversary of the original festival. It took place at Winston Farm in Saugerties, NY.  I was living directly across the Hudson river at the time. Because of the nature of the river valley I could actually hear some of the concert without attending. After hearing some of the performances I wish I had attended. Original Woodstock acts Santana and CSNY appeared along with John Sebastian. Dylan, who avoided the 1969 festivities because he was being plagued with unwelcome hippie visitors at his Woodstock, NY home, finally agreed to appear.  Peter Gabriel, Traffic and the Allman Brothers put in great performances. You also could see Gil Scott Heron, Jimmy Cliff, Mavis Staples, and The Neville Brothers.

Woodstock ’99, the 30th anniversary, was an unmitigated disaster. The acts signed seemed to be an attempt to pander to current tastes and the violence, sexual assaults and arson that resulted seemed predictable.

I have no illusions of attending either of the competing festivals this year. Within a short time of the original festival I saw Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Santana, Canned Heat, Arlo Guthrie, and Sha Na Na. Later I experienced Richie Havens, Melanie, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (as well as Neil Young and Crazy Horse), and John Sebastian, I am not interested in seeing a repeat of Woodstock ’99. I still have my memories of 1969 ( in the words of Dickens “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” ).  I also can remember the joy of attending concerts from the early to mid 1970’s. Instead my celebration of my memories will be to attend Elliot Landy’s Woodstock Vision – a half hour of video and a photographic exhibition by official Woodstock Festival photographer Elliot Landy to be held at Utopia Studios in Woodstock, NY.

Please, tell me your memories or impressions of what Woodstock meant to you in the comments.

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