Woodstock 1969: High Times
Originally published in Guitar World, September 2009
For three days in August 1969, America´s youth culture came together
for Woodstock, an event that marked the peak of the country´s counterculture revolution. On the eve of its 40th anniversary, Carlos Santana, Pete Townshend, John Fogerty and other guitar heroes recall their moments at the world´s greatest music festival.
At 5:07 p.m. on Friday, August 15, 1969, rock and roll’s greatest gathering of artists got underway in an alfalfa field, no less, located in upstate Bethel, New York. The hills of the land sloped downward like a great bowl, into a flat plain, as if nature had created her own amphitheater. In this respect, geology had set the stage for an event of monstrous proportions. Now, on this particular evening, humanity was doing its part to make nature’s gift a counterculture experience that would, figuratively and literally, take a young and vibrant generation, in the words of folksinger Joni Mitchell, “back to the garden.”
The event was Woodstock, the music and arts festival that signaled a paradigm shift in modern Western culture. Subtitled “An Aquarian Exposition,” Woodstock was billed as “3 Days of Peace and Music.” Over its course, from the evening of August 15th to the early morning hours of the 18th, nearly half a million people, most of them in their early twenties, came together for a weekend of peace, free love and music (along with the various substances that frequently go with them). More than 30 artists played at Woodstock, including some of the Sixties’ greatest and most influential performers: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly & the Family Stone, the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, Santana, the Who, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and, most memorably perhaps, Jimi Hendrix.
But for America’s counterculture youth, Woodstock was more than a symbol of sex, drugs, and rock and roll—it celebrated a new way of living and looking at the world. In this and other respects, Woodstock was a seminal event that epitomized the ways in which the culture, the country and the core values of an entire generation were shifting as the Sixties came to an end.
The previous year had been as tumultuous and divisive as any of the 20th century, marked in blood by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, and the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The Vietnam War was still raging, even as public favor began to turn against it. Many of the twenty-something male members of Woodstock nation lived in fear of being drafted and sent across the world to fight in a war they didn’t agree with. But in this one glorious weekend, the new generation found its voice in a celebration that demonstrated not money nor hostility nor anger but freedom, harmony and serenity via a potent brew of folk, blues and rock and roll.
None of this came easily. Dreamed up by two musically oriented hippies, Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, and funded by two young businessmen, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, Woodstock turned out to be a bigger event than its planners had ever dreamed. The location was moved twice, with many area landowners protesting the staging of a music festival that would bring an onslaught of dirty long-haired hippies into their midst. The festival might not have happened at all were it not for an 11th-hour rescue by a dairy farmer named Max Yasgur. Persuaded by his son, Yasgur negotiated a deal that allowed Woodstock’s founders to set up on a parcel of land at his dairy farm in rural Bethel, not far from the real Woodstock, New York.
The challenges didn’t cease once the festival got underway. A change in weather brought downpours and a steady drizzle that drenched the unsheltered crowd. Food shortages and unsanitary conditions developed as the audience grew beyond the number anticipated. For the performers, the difficulties came in ongoing weather-related delays that kept many of them waiting hours to perform. And still the show went on, peacefully, despite every attempt from man or nature to stop it.
Woodstock has continued to live on in the American conscience, thanks in great part to two multiple-disc albums of music from the festival and the Michael Wadleigh–directed concert film. As we approach the event’s 40th anniversary, the time is right to revisit this signpost that pointed the way from the polite rock and roll that defined much of the Sixties to the unrestrained hard rock that infiltrated, then permeated, America’s mores and psyche in the early Seventies. In this exclusive oral history, Guitar World looks back at the memorable guitar performances that took place that weekend—from Richie Havens’ legendary opening set to the Who’s thrilling and triumphant conquest of an American audience to Jimi Hendrix in one of his most memorable and incendiary onstage moments.