Townspeople look back on the mega-concert that came to symbolize the spirit of the '60s
WOODSTOCK, N.Y. — IT'S Sunday here in Woodstock. The village green is buzzing with activity. An American Indian sits on a bench eating lunch with a friend. Yuppies stroll to the rhythm of a banjo at one end of the green and a boom box at the other. Kids are hanging out, playing Frisbee, or just sitting around. Two tables are set up across the street - one selling raffle tickets for the library fair; another soliciting support for the pro-choice abortion forces. We're in the midst of the 20th-anniversary month of the historic Woodstock Festival (Aug. 15-17, 1969), which was preceded by much hype in the media: Witness MTV's ``Woodstock Minutes,'' for example.
As it turns out, the anniversary may be the anticlimax of the year. Plans for major concerts commemorating the event fell through. At this writing, the only concert is one scheduled for Tuesday through today at the Imperial Resort in Swan Lake, N.Y., about 10 miles from the original site. A spokesman for the resort said performers would include John Sebastian, Johnny Winter, and Ravi Shankar. The only other festivites here will be a smallish ``love-in'' organized by a local group of Woodstock-generation folks who call themselves Rainbow.
It's old news now that the 1969 festival didn't actually take place in Woodstock at all - that eager promoters had used the name ``Woodstock'' on the tickets before they dreamed that they would run into opposition from a town that has had a reputation as an arts community for almost a century. So even though the festival was shunted off to Bethel, a farm community about 60 miles from here, the Woodstock name stuck.
The event drew some half-million people to a farm prepared to accommodate far less. Performers such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Joe Cocker, together with groups like the Who, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were flown in an out by helicopter, because the local country roads were clogged to three times capacity. Some say the festival marked the beginning of rock as big business, as mega-event, but it was even more significant as a symbol of, and swan song to, the '60s.
The Woodstock Festival embodied the decade's mood of openness and camaraderie, together with its strong anti-war and anti-establishment sentiment. It also reflected the widespread experimentation with drugs and sex, along with an innocent faith that music and protest were enough to make the world more peaceful and honest. The many facets of the festival were chronicled in Stephen Wadleigh's 1970 film documentary ``Woodstock.''
Some of the townspeople who opposed the festival are still around, and they were just as opposed to a 20th anniversary replay. Some locals feel that the event changed the town forever, perhaps not for the better.
``The festival didn't have too much to do with Woodstock,'' says local folk singer and weaver Sonia Malkine. ``All the hippies and groupies wanted to see Bob Dylan in his habitat [he owned a house here], and that did it! The only hippies that stayed were the hippies that had money; so the rent doubled, and the stores went out of business. The whole town changed. It became a tourist-geared town. Now the musicians can't find any place to play here. ... Half the houses belong to weekenders.''
Some say, however, that the festival was merely a cog in a wheel that was already spinning. Town historian Alf Evers explains that Woodstock became an arts and crafts colony, famous for its glassblowers, back in 1902, ``as a protest against the Industrial Revolution. It was a society that was against child labor, against polluting the environment, and many other things that have taken larger and different forms today,'' he says. ``So some of the ideas that were behind the Woodstock Festival were part of the feeling of the original Woodstock colony.''
Evers goes on to describe the artists who settled here at the turn of the century. ``They were young people, and they were very irreverent. They wore odd costumes. Some of them had their heads shaved completely, or they wore long hair. They turned hand springs on the village green. They would bang and play instruments. They had big parties, and they enjoyed life. This was the kind of thing that went into the Woodstock Festival - that kind of hedonism. Many of them worked very hard, but they had the habit of having big parties, where they would shed their inhibitions, and there were clashes with the law.
``There was a story about someone getting his shirt torn accidentally at one of these parties, and this led to everyone tearing off each other's clothes,'' Evers continues, ``and the sheriff came and investigated the charge of nude dancing. [In] 1910, that was a pretty big deal.''
BRIAN HOLLANDER, who attended the festival, is now Woodstock's town supervisor. Commenting on the event and its connection to the town, he says: ``It's been kind of a love-hate relationship down through the years. First of all, the name `Woodstock' became instantly recognizable to millions of people around the world. Then a lot of people misconstrued what the town was all about.''
He adds that people coming to Woodstock, thinking that the ghosts of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix roam the streets, will be mighty disappointed. ``They'll leave without seeing what this special place is all about.'' But Mr. Hollander does recognize the festival's symbolic importance as an event that reflected the thinking of a generation.
``I think the consciousness will keep growing and keep maturing. The values of the `Woodstock generation' were against crass materialism, against the idea of hype and selling out.
``There's no product to sell here,'' he adds. ``Are they selling a feeling? Are they selling a consciousness?''
Apparently the consciousness, the feeling, or perhaps just the ghost and the memory live on in the hearts of some who attended the '69 event, and in the hopes of promoters who wanted to carry the torch around the arena one more time. But Hollander describes Woodstock as ``an artistic, fiercely independent, sophisticated yet rural community, where disparate types live alongside one another. It does not need the fame that accrued because of the festival to be uniquely attractive.''
Nevertheless, Hollander welcomes the inevitable visitors to Woodstock on this 20th anniversary, asking only ``that they respect our home,'' and that they ``enjoy it for its own merits.''