Woodstock Scholarship: An Interdisciplinary Annotated Bibliography/Introduction
The importance of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair cannot be overstated. Three days of music on a New York farm in August 1969 generated an ethos and a mythology (Denisoff, 1986); but was it merely a media contrivance? Depends upon who is asked. The importance is self-evident; the reason is elusive.
Throughout the 1960s, popular music became increasingly reflective and suggestive of the rising political and social consciousness of the youth culture. Examples can be seen in the development of the protest song genre within the folk music boom of the early Sixties and the marriage of lifestyle to music first reflected by The Beatles with fashion, followed by psychedelic music with the emerging drug culture. Woodstock was where these themes coalesced, thus becoming the “defining and last great moment of the 1960s” (Bennett, 2004). However, Woodstock also represented, in the same instance, an abundant amount of “experiences and ideas and moments” (Street, 2012). Thus, when exploring the complicated accounts and numerous facets of America during the turbulent Sixties one discovers scholarship on the key subjects, such as the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights Movement, often considering and debating the importance, relevance, and epic nature of Woodstock. Multiple narratives emerge: a radical engagement of the hippie movement, an overt commercial exploitation of youth culture, a political statement (Street, 2012).
Jimi Hendrix’s performance provides just one example of the complexities encountered when trying to reach a definitive understanding of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. A lot of ink has been used to analyze Hendrix’s performance, a lot of ink. His rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the event mattered to others in significant ways―artistically, socially, and politically. Hendrix delivered one of the most important rock performance in the history of popular culture (Diltz, 2006). Floyd (1995) describes his execution style coming from the “practice and proclivities of numerous ancient and modern African and African-American music makers.” Murray (1989) offers Hendrix’s recital as “a compelling musical allegory of a nation tearing itself apart.” Clarke (2005) provides a second-by-second breakdown of the performance, describing musical notes and their rendering throughout the performance, claiming nationalism and counterculture are both “simultaneously and antagonistically specified in the sounds of the performance.” Others attempt to insert intent into the act which was “informed by a Zeitgeist and part of a larger critique of American involvement in the Vietnam War” (Fast and Pegley, 2012).
When asked directly why he chose to perform “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, Hendrix himself responded only with, “Oh, because we’re all Americans. We’re all Americans, aren’t we? It was written and played in a very beautiful way, what they call a beautiful state. Nice, inspiring, your heart throbs, and you say, ‘Great. I’m American.’ But nowadays when we play it, we don’t play it to take away all this greatness that America is supposed to have. We play it the way the air is in America today. The air is slightly static, isn’t it?” (Steven, 2010). This seems to fall short of being a “stunning political critique” (Waksman, 2011) or moreover a dismantling of “the central ideas and mythologies of the United States” (Bass, 2002).
When it comes to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, perception is everything. Popular music is created and managed by the music industry and acquires meaning through consumption (Street, 1986). Woodstock is often viewed cynically as just another manifestation of commercialism. Yet, to the more radical members of the 1960s counterculture, it was viewed as the beginning of a utopian political youth movement that, ultimately, was short-lived (Anderson, 1995). Woodstock may have provided a visualization of a primitive tribal bonding lifestyle, but the event did not, in fact, signal a cultural paradigm shift in any direction (Fischer, 2006). But how close did such a shift come to being realized? If the festival had continued indefinitely, would a social order similar to contemporary society have established itself with capitalistic mechanisms, policing rules, and corrupt citizens (Howard, 1980)? While attending the Woodstock concert likely conveyed one was opposed to the Vietnam War, favored the legalization of marijuana, and supported the Civil Rights Movement, the expression did not develop into a permanent movement because there was a lack of leaders willing to establish an ideology and transform the energy of the event into political action (Rahman, 1996). “Perhaps it is asking too much of such a heterogeneous set of events to display a great deal of coherence―or, at least, to display a coherent philosophy of life, of action, or even art.” (Moore, 2004).
The contexts surrounding the Woodstock Music and Art Fair paralleled the larger American cultural wars of the 1960s: the difficulties the festival promoters had in securing a site for the event and their successful and unsuccessful efforts at fostering positive community relations to that end; the local political maneuvering used in attempts to stop the concert; the local and state impact of the festival on elections, the legal system, and on legislation designed to prevent future large-scale events unless all issues of health, food, sanitation, crowd control, and safety were addressed; how the festival was viewed at the time in moral terms, by both proponents and opponents (Helfrich, 2010). Each instance a case study in the youth movement and the pushback from the establishment, liberalism versus conservativism, and socialism versus capitalism.
Historical texts consider Woodstock as a series of discreet events: the story of how Joel Rosenmann, John Roberts, Artie Kornfeld, and Michael Lang (the four promoters of the festival) came to form Woodstock Ventures; securing a site which eventually leads to a meeting with farmer/businessman Max Yasgur; managing the event as a series of last minute activities and the consequences regarding traffic control, food, and security arrangements; surviving the weather; facing post-event financial issues and the eventual success of the motion picture Woodstock (Brant, 2008). Chronicled are rich personal accounts from individuals who attended, performed, or worked the festival, offering unique and insightful perspectives on the phenomenon. Typically, treatises conclude with a discussion of the impact on the music industry, performers, and subsequent music festivals. Often included are appended discussions devoted to Woodstock ’79, Woodstock ’89, Woodstock ’94, and Woodstock ’99. Other texts place Woodstock within the larger context of 1960s America (e.g., the rise of a counterculture) and the role of music in shaping society during that time period (e.g., Bob Dylan, The Beatles). Balanced treatments examine how the festival influenced an evolving popular music culture both as a commodity and as an art form (Hillstrom and Hillstrom, 2013).
Interestingly, the iconic nature and cultural importance of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was not initially realized, emphasized, or reported by major news media. One study examined six daily newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Cincinnati Enquirer) and three magazines (Time, Life, and Rolling Stone) through the lens of framing theory to determine the prominence of the news event, the sources of information used to compile the coverage, and the extent to which the cultural aspects were given attention. The findings indicate each publication used primarily official sources such as law enforcement representatives, as opposed to consulting actual attendees. As a result, the coverage focused mainly on the problems created by the festival rather than the broader social implications and overarching significances (Sheehy, 2012). Initial postmortem analysis focused on then contemporary youth as a positive social force evidenced by the relative peacefulness of the festival or as the noble savage (Denisoff, 1986).
Ultimately, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair is a meaningful event, if nothing more, in the personal histories of baby boomers with many reflecting on the utopian symbolism and few on the music itself (Street, 2012). Personal histories reveal boomers who “seem to date their life using the festival as a major milestone” (Makower, 2009). The idealism of a generation is manifested symbolically in the phenomenon of Woodstock. The strong antiwar movement created a desire among many young people to reject the representations of the military-industrial complex and the associated political infrastructure. This led to an increased interest in “establishing self-sufficient communes” (Perone, 2005). Woodstock was the brief manifestation of this idealism, whether accurately or not, on such a large-scale as not to be soon forgotten.
The festival was, and continues to be, experienced by both attendees and non-attendees due to mass media and the subsequent film and sound recordings. The impact continues through all the subsequent years, from serving as a short-handed description of an entire youth movement to the anniversary concerts and their own attendant issues. This collection of all relevant research and essays, as well as significant primary and secondary sources, should serve well students, scholars, researchers, and news outlets. The contents will facilitate teaching, learning, and research. Vetted for relevance and accompanied by detailed informative annotations, this resource directs readers to notable scholarship on an “intense, extensive, and transitory” gemeinschaft-gesellschaft (Fine, 2012).
- A recording of the performance is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?vf=TKAwPA14Ni4