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A Week In Music History: The Woodstock Special

History as you’ve never seen it: albums, artists’ births, rumours and more: discover with us what happened this week in the history of music

August 14

Bethel, New York, United States, 1969. In a humid, sunny day of summer, a small town 40 miles (65 km) southwest of the town that would’ve given the name to the event was getting ready to welcome the possibly most iconic event to ever take place. Remembered 54 years after as one of the most famous, revolutionary and groundbreaking festivals that has ever been witnessed, the event would’ve changed the course of music, as well as how society perceived the politics of the time.

It was a complicated moment in time to say the least. The Apollo 11 had just landed on the moon, and the atmosphere was tense following the recent death of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. The strain for the unpopular war in Vietnam was at its peak, and the hippy counterculture was flourishing.

A hopeful man has been in talks with Max Yasgur, owner of a 60-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York. After a series of bargaining rounds, the two men finally reach a deal, and the area in Yasgur’s farm started to prep for a huge outdoor music festival. Among controversies and under the scrutiny of the critical eye of a part of society, the notorious, rebel, wild and political Woodstock Music and Art Fair was getting ready to unsettle the world.

Woodstock Music and Art Fair, commonly referred to as Woodstock, was a music festival held between August 15 and August 18, 1969. Famous under the name “Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music,” the festival brought to the small town over 400,000 young music fans. Expecting 50,000 attendees for a three-day music concert, the event instead drew an estimated 500,000. Squeezed in a huge, muddy field, also corrupted by the sporadic rain, the people were entertained nonetheless.

Famous for its psychedelic substances presence, the festival gathered people from all over the country, led to the countryside by the word-of-mouth mythical and mystical news of a music event in theme with the hippie lifestyle, culture and mindset. Needless to say, 1969 Woodstock Rock Festival became one of the most iconic event of the century – if not of the entire music history.

August 15: Let the show begin

August 15, Friday. “There was no 24-hour weather channel. It was hot and sunny on Friday, so we didn’t bring any rain gear or ponchos,” said Nancy Eisenstein, interviewed for the Woodstock documentary. The woman left Boston aiming to see her favorite musicians live at the festival. “Back then people didn’t have bottled water. We figured, ‘I’ll get there and there will be water. I’ll get there and there will be food.”

“There was nothing comfortable about it, for sure,” she added “I can’t believe I put up with what I put up with, but when you’re 22, you put up with a lot more than when you’re 72.” The young woman and her friend knew they couldn’t miss the event.

“We knew this was going to be the musical event of the century.” 

Day one stars, slowly setting up the ambience for the massive crowd who gathered in front of the stage. Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Tim Hardin, Arlo Guthrie and more performed on that day.

August 16: Second day among 

It’s Day 2 of Woodstock, and the stage welcomes some of the main names from the time. Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin and Santana all grace the crowd with unique performances.

John Fogerty Creedence Clearwater Revival singer and songwriter recalls his performance, starting at 12:30 a.m.:

We were ready to rock out and we waited and waited and finally it was our turn … there were a half million people asleep. These people were out. It was sort of like a painting of a Dante scene, just bodies from hell, all intertwined and asleep, covered with mud.

And this is the moment I will never forget as long as I live: A quarter mile away in the darkness, on the other edge of this bowl, there was some guy flicking his Bic, and in the night I hear, “Don’t worry about it, John. We’re with you.” I played the rest of the show for that guy.

Floral dresses and flared pants shine on the colourful stage. Among the glorious moments, the performance of The Who stood out with a memorable moment. During their set, activist Abbie Hoffman took the microphone. Hoffman is famous for his anti-war protest and for his political book “Steal This Book.” His persona was interpreted by Sasha Baron Cohen in 2020’s movie, “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” After saying a few words about fellow activist John Sinclair, guitarist Pete Townshend hits him with his guitar.

August 17: The last day, or so it had to be

Woodstock moves into day three. On this day, Joe Cocker; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Blood, Sweat & Tears; and Country Joe & the Fish all perform.

The day started with the very early performance of Sly and The Family Stone at 3:30 am. Jefferson Airplane followed. The San Francisco band should’ve performed on Saturday, but began on the day after around 8:00 a.m. They woke the audience up with their mystical “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit.”

The day should’ve been the last, but the event prolonged into the following day. This is when the most memorable performance of the day took place.

August 18: Jimi Hendrix makes history

Jimi Hendrix, back then already very famous, gained his supreme guitar role during Woodstock. Closing the festival, the singer and allegedly best guitarist ever gave a unique performance with his “Hey Joe.” The festival headliner should’ve played the previous night, but it ran long. Hendrix therefore ended up taking the stage on a Monday morning. This is when his iconic performance of the American national anthem, played with his teeth, took place.

August 19: The Memories at Dick Cavett Show

The day following the end of the festival, Crosby, Stills and Nash appear on the Dick Cavett Show. In the interview, they gave a first-hand account of the Woodstock festival. Joni Mitchell appeared as well, and performed a song she wrote specifically for the show: “Woodstock.”

August 20: What has left of Woodstock?

A generation of young revolutionaries turned the event from a generational milestone to an unforgettable piece of history. Changing the approach to music festivals forever, the event went down in history as one of the most memorable, rebellious, politically engaged, craziest event to ever take place.

The festival’s momentum was captured in the narration of the 1970’s homonimous documentary. A nostalgic soundtrack brought back and honoured some of the biggest artists who perform during those three days. This includes Joni Mitchell, which gave her song “Woodstock” for the movie.

After the unique experience that was the festival, many organizers saw a profit in the event and tried to bring it back. First yearly, then once a decade, multiple people tried to replicate Lang and his three friends’ job, but nothing came close to the original Woodstock. For this reason, after 50 years, the event that should’ve happened in 2019 was definitely canceled.

The show, which this time had a better organization and actually tried selling tickets, didn’t expect a huge crowd. Woodstock’s iconicity is linked to its historical momentum. There is no “Woodstock” without the 60s, their free spirit and their protests against the war in Vietnam. There is no “Woodstock” without the hippy counterculture that led to social, political change, and also to the relationship that young people had with music. Things were “simpler,” there was less scrutiny and people feared less about the consequences of their actions, and the festival flourished through the use of psychedelic substances.

In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine listed it as number 19 of the 50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll. We might add “the history of music” as well. In everyone’s memory the indissoluble memory of what was one of the greatest festivals ever will remain forever. And for us enthusiasts, we just have to dream, or hope that one day an event of this caliber will return.

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