The anniversary of the 1969 Woodstock festival approaches. Hardly a year passes without there being a programme on some channel telling the story of the festival. If the true story had been told at the time, perhaps it would not still be remembered
Woodstock had always held a mythical place in the imagination of those of us who seemed to have been born a decade too late. It seemed a culmination of 1960s music and protest.
Joni Mitchell, who was not there, wrote a song about the festival that seemed to portray it not just as a music festival, but as nothing less than the recovery of the prelapsarian state of humanity. The lyrics include:
I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
When I asked him where are you going
This he told me
I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm
Think I’ll join a rock and roll band
I’ll camp out on the land
I’ll try and set my soul free
We are stardust, we are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden
Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel just like a cog in something turning
Well maybe it’s the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
And I don’t know who I am
But life’s for learning.
Perhaps the song just reinforced perceptions that were already there, perhaps it did much to help create those perceptions, but the Woodstock festival seemed a defining moment in Twentieth Century culture, a rejection of tradition and convention and the assertion of complete individual freedom.
It was a piece of mythology that had always seemed convincing to me.. It was not until watching a documentary that the myth began to crumble.
The festival had fallen flat by the early hours of the Sunday morning, then Sly and the Family stone came on stage at 3.30 am and had completely re-energised the hundreds of thousands of people who sat in the mud.
Sly and the Family Stone are not the first band most people would name in association with Woodstock, yet Rolling Stone magazine, as definitive a voice as for which one might hope in the polemical world of rock music, carried a review:
“As the night wore on, it was the Battle of the Bands; Grateful Dead, strained after Canned Heat, climbed out onto a limb with hopes that the audience would reach up to them; it didn’t. Creedence Clearwater, clear and tight; a static Janis Joplin, cavorting with Snooky Flowers, her back-up band just that; Sly and the Family Stone, apart in their grandeur, won the battle, carrying it to their own majestically freaked-out stratosphere.”
Among iconic names in the history of rock music, they were ‘apart in their grandeur.’ When names like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are recalled, how many are there there who still recall Sly Stone?
Of course, Jimi Hendrix seemed the definitive face of that festival.
Friends in student days had the three disc record album of Woodstock, they would play it and I would imagine Hendrix coming on stage to flashing lights and the cheers of hundreds of thousands.
Except it wasn’t like that, I’m not sure why I imagined it was.
The festival was running late, so late that, rather than coming on at the culmination of the event late on a Sunday night, Jimi Hendrix and his band played at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning.
There were not hundreds of thousands, there were a few thousand who had remained amidst the mud and the rubbish, and their numbers grew progressively smaller as the band played. By the time of the encore, the footage of the performance shows people streaming away, and even the festival crew, standing on the stage behind the performers, are looking bored.
Woodstock was hardly the stuff of myths.