Woodstock turns 40
1969, when the Woodstock Music & Art Festival began. An event that brought more than half a million people to Max Yasgur’s farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York for three days of music and celebration, Woodstock signaled the popularity and potency of modern rock ’n’ roll in American society, and ultimately led to the creation of today’s popular music empire and celebrity culture. Three books, two new volumes and an updated reissue, provide exhaustive and often spirited accounts from insiders, historians and participants in the epic festival that paved the way for the convergence of commerce and culture that constitutes such contemporary spectacles as Bonnaroo.
Behind the scenes
The Road to Woodstock: From The Man Behind The Legendary Festival is famed promoter and artist manager Michael Lang’s account of the maneuvering, deal-making and deft planning that resulted in Woodstock. Only in his 20s, he’d already organized the Miami Pop Festival in 1968 and enjoyed producing other shows and concerts. He deemed himself part of a new generation rejecting the old social order and embracing fresh ideas about such issues as civil rights, sexuality and drugs. Lang envisioned Woodstock as much more than a series of concerts: it would also be a forum for alternative political and social philosophies, and a chance to debunk myths about long-haired kids, their music and their heroes.
The book documents the daily improvising on details like staging, security and contracts. Lang recruited the help of everyone from The Hog Farm, a commune whose assistance ranged from aiding victims of drug overdoses to providing food for hungry kids, to off-duty cops who took security gigs against the wishes of their superiors, and apprentice carpenters who helped design and build sets with minimal or no specifications.
It also contains several rare photographs and many great stories. These include Lang recruiting Peter Townshend of The Who by keeping him awake and plying him with alcohol, and getting a terrified Richie Havens to open the concert, then having him do so many encores he forgets the words to a number and starts wailing “Freedom.”
History of a phenom
If Lang’s book takes an ultra-personal approach, Brad Littleproud and Joanne Hague’s Woodstock: Peace, Music & Memories is the prototypical historical chronicle. Littleproud and Hague were too young to attend the festival, but they interviewed its co-creator and promoter Artie Kornfield, along with numerous Woodstock survivors. Their colorful chronicles add spice to what would otherwise be a dry factual summary of the concert and related episodes.
Kornfield’s anecdotes dovetail almost exactly with Lang’s, while the spicy rhetoric of such figures as peace activist Wavy Gravy shows that not everyone at Yasgur’s farm was in a joyous and giving mood. There are also 350 color and black-and-white pictures, many of them great candid shots of folks enjoying the music, being overcome by the spectacle and reveling in the atmosphere.
Like Lang and Kornfield, photographer Elliott Landy considered himself part of the new order Woodstock was created to serve. But his involvement and connections came from the journalistic rather than musical end. He took pictures for various underground and alternative newspapers and magazines, and became friends with Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin before the festival. Landy was also a prolific contributor to record labels, providing spectacular shots that would become legendary album covers.
While Woodstock Vision: The Spirit of A Generation was first released in 1994, this latest version includes a special 90-page photo commemorative of the Woodstock festival personally selected by Landy from his archive. Because of his relationships with artists, his photos were never posed or staged. Whether it’s classic album covers like Dylan’s Nashville Skyline or Janis Joplin and Richie Havens before and after gut-wrenching Woodstock performances, Landy’s Woodstock Vision gives incredible entry into the personalities of icons.
There will be many other Woodstock retrospective items coming in the days leading up to the anniversary date. Still, these books are a fine addition to the legacy of sources that evaluate the three-day journey that helped change a nation’s culture.
Ron Wynn writes for the Nashville CityPaper and other publications.