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Woodstock won

Woodstock leave-taking, 1969 (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Woodstock won

New CD set shows the culture of the 1969 rock event has become the culture of America

One overriding impression emerges from Rhino’s new 10-disc Woodstock: Back to the Garden, 50th Anniversary Experience.

It isn’t that the music has aged badly. Those parts that seem to have weren’t considered all that good to begin with. Besides, there were mitigating circumstances: the era’s outdoor-concert technology, for example, and the fact that many of the performers, like much of the crowd, weren’t entirely sober.

Happenstance also played a role. Richie Havens meandered (at one point do-be-doo-dooing his way through “With a Little Help From My Friends” as he didn’t know the words) because the delayed arrival of the band Sweetwater required him to play twice as long as he’d planned. John Sebastian meandered too, but he wasn’t supposed to play at all: Having been asked to improvise an acoustic set until the rain-drenched stage could be electrocution proofed, he complied.

The box’s overriding impression also isn’t that a lot of the music sounds surprisingly good considering the aforementioned obstacles. Not so much the folky first day and a half—there’s a reason that Woodstock is remembered as a rock festival. But once bands started plugging in, they delivered the visceral, Dionysian thrills that the hippie hordes were gladly enduring rain, humidity, mud, hunger, and bad sanitation to experience.

Even acts that’d been signed simply because their relative obscurity made them affordable to promoters who’d already paid a fortune for Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, the Who, and Jimi Hendrix—acts such as the then little-known Mountain and the still-unknown Keef Hartley Band—achieved cruising altitude at one point or another.

The overriding impression isn’t even that the more things change the more they stay the same, although the emcee Edward “Chip” Monck’s increasingly exasperated requests for festivalgoers to get off the scaffolding make him sound like a schoolteacher overseeing unruly students on a field trip. “If your determination [to climb down] was the same as your selfishness,” he says at one point, “we’d be able to have gatherings like this every week.”

No. The overriding impression is that what was once limited to a long weekend on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm now runs rampant throughout much of the United States 24/7. Despite half a century of epitaphs bemoaning its demise, in other words, the Woodstock generation has won.

Exhibit A: profanity. Country Joe MacDonald’s anti–Vietnam War “Fish Cheer,” Abbie Hoffman’s pleas on behalf of John Sinclair, and Janis Joplin’s ’tween-song patter sent a clear message: Only the uptight are bothered by bad language. Vulgarity is now the lingua franca.

Exhibit B: no walls. Woodstock organizers expected 200,000 attendees. More than twice that amount, most of them without tickets, showed up. They trampled the fences—defied border security as it were—and were granted immediate “citizenship.”

Exhibit C: free everything. Most of Woodstock’s food, medical care, and recreational drugs were provided gratis. A growing portion of the populace thinks that they—and everything else—can and should be free as well. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” and all that.

Exhibit D: “One sometimes gets the impression,” wrote George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, “that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them … every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist and feminist in England.” With the possible exception of the Quakers, Orwell described the Woodstock crowd to a T. It’s a crowd known nowadays as “special-interest groups.”

And, tail though they may be, they wag the dog.

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  •  Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Sun, 08/11/2019 10:51 am

    The tail is as old as humanity where "everyone does what is right in their own eyes."