The music history of America – or rather, the history of America – is never complete without recognizing the impact and legacy of Woodstock. Held on August 15-18, 1969 in the upstate New York town of Bethel and attended by more than 400,000 self-described hippies, flower children, and Aquarians, Woodstock is more than just a music festival but a defining event for the counterculture generation and a cultural and sociopolitical touchstone for the late 1960s. It was also an escape from the vicissitudes of an America in social and political turmoil, particularly the Vietnam War and the civil rights protests.
Billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music”, Woodstock was an opportunity for certain folks to escape into music and spread a message of unity and peace. It did live up to its billing: despite the last-minute venue changes, bad weather, muddy conditions, the horde of attendees, and a lack of food, water, and adequate sanitation, Woodstock was peaceful and harmonious. Even though there were many social issues being debated and protested at that time, everyone at Woodstock was equal. Looking back, some people attribute the lack of violence to the widespread presence of psychedelic drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Yes, rock ‘n’ roll.
Some attended Woodstock for the drugs. (LSD, also called acid, was in the process of becoming extremely popular at the time.) For the most part, people came for the music. Not many people will know this but Woodstock – while not the first rock festival of significance as it was held two years after the Monterey Pop Festival – gave rise to modern music festivals and helped launch the careers of many musicians. Attendees who were not involved in anything countercultural remember the event for the music.
“If you had a gig at Woodstock, you had a career,” said ex-Santana keyboardist and singer Gregg Rolie. “Getting into Woodstock and getting featured in the middle of that movie (the documentary film Woodstock, directed by Michael Wadleigh and edited in part by a young Martin Scorsese), which was the only (live music) video available back then, everything just took off.”
Carlos Santana, ranked 20th on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 greatest guitarists, achieved his breakthrough after performing at Woodstock. His band’s debut album was released days later, reaching the fourth spot on the U.S. album charts.
The folk rock quartet Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young saw their stock rise after their one-hour show in the early morning of August 18. It was the second time they performed as a quartet. In addition to their performance, their appearance in the documentary film and collaboration with Joni Mitchell further increased their popularity.
Soul and blues journeyman Joe Cocker became a sensation after his performance of the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends at Woodstock, which launched his fame as rock music’s most recognizable interpreter of other musicians’ songs. His recording of the track was ranked number 311 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.
One of the only three solo women to perform at Woodstock, Melanie, also known as Melanie Safka, was a completely unknown folk singer-songwriter when she was called onstage for an unscheduled performance, taking over the Incredible String Band who declined to perform during the rainstorm. Her first hit “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” was directly inspired by the crowd holding up matches and lighters en masse that night. The song climbed to the sixth spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 23 on the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 singles of 1970.
In the aspect of business, Woodstock rejuvenated the market for live music and paved the way for music festivals to tap into the youth and lifestyle market. In the aspect of music, Woodstock is important due to the quality, as well as the prominence, of the musicians who played. These include, among others, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Grateful Dead, Sly & the Family Stone, Ravi Shankar, and Joan Baez.
It wasn’t at all a happy ending for many musicians soon after Woodstock. Some bands would soon break up, as with the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival (although the break-ups had nothing to do with the festival). Both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin would die a tragic death due to drug overdose.
In the years and decades following Woodstock, music began to be created for artistic reasons rather than financial ones. (Woodstock was initially initiated as a for-profit venture and later became a free concert due to the enormous crowds.) Music became a creative form of expression that changed the way music was created.