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Woodstock music festival: Fifty years on

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta | Updated on August 16, 2019 Published on August 16, 2019

The turn-out: The Woodstock festival featured over 30 performances by some of the world’s most influential artistes and musical groups of the time   -  RICHARD GORDON/THE MUSEUM AT BETHEL WOODS/VIA REUTERS

Seventy two hours of music with 400,000 people in attendance. Woodstock Music & Art Fair opened in a lush farm in New York on August 15, 1969. Half a century later, it has became the most important festival of its kind for the manner in which it mixed music and politics.

An allegory on the loss of innocence of an entire generation of popular musicians in the West, Don McLean’s song American Pie, written and sung for the first time in 1971, had these lines: “Oh, and there we were all in one place, a generation lost in space, with no time left to start again.”

McLean steadfastly refused to explain the rich symbolism in his long and extremely popular song. But few had any doubts about what he was referring to when he wrote these lines. It was an event that took place two years before his song — half-a-century ago today — in a lush farm located in upstate New York, exactly 22 years to the day that India became politically independent.

The occasion was formally designated the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. It opened on August 15, 1969, and ended on August 18 — spanning 72 hours of music and exuberance. The organisers — primarily a group of four men connected with the American music industry — initially expected no more than 50,000 people to attend the cultural extravaganza held in farmer Max Yasgur’s privately-owned, 600-acre holding.

They became optimistic and printed 200,000 tickets — but more than twice the number, or over 400,000 people, turned up. The festival featured over 30 performances by some of the world’s most influential artistes and musical groups of the time.

They included protest singer Joan Baez, who was pregnant then, rock and blues singer Janis Joplin, path-breaking electric guitarist Jimi Hendrix (Joplin and Hendrix died just a little over a year later), Latin rock-guitarist virtuoso Carlos Santana, British rock band The Who, radical Left-leaning Country Joe McDonald, folk-rock band Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and rockers Creedence Clearwater Revival. British blues-rock singer Joe Cocker was there, as were the albino blues singer Johnny Winter, jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears, and popular rock groups such as the Grateful Dead, The Band, Jefferson Airplane and Ten Years After.

There were many more who had received invitations to perform at the Woodstock festival, but stayed away for some reason or the other. Among them were big names such as Bob Dylan (who, ironically, was then living very close to the venue of the festival), Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Frank Zappa, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin and the Moody Blues.

Song on: John Sebastian performs at the Woodstock Music Festival   -  BARON WOLMAN/ THE MUSEUM AT BETHEL WOODS/VIA REUTERS

 

In retrospect, the event arguably became the most important festival of its kind because of the manner in which it mixed music and politics. Opposition to the involvement of the US government in the war on Vietnam was peaking. Civil society was to find its voice and Woodstock became what it was because the gathering was spontaneous, and spectacularly so. Attempts were made to replicate the event several times over in different parts of the world. But nothing came even remotely close to the three-day, mud-splattered orgy of drugs, public nudity and protest music.

Most recently, one of the original organisers of the festival, Michael Lang, sought to commemorate Woodstock’s 50th anniversary at a Formula One racetrack in upstate New York. He failed miserably when the advertising bigwig Dentsu pulled out of the project after $32 million had been paid as talent fee to a host of artistes including Santana and popular performers such as Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, The Killers, Chance the Rapper and Imagine Dragons.

One-time wonder: One of the original organisers of the festival, Michael Lang, sought to commemorate Woodstock’s 50th anniversary at a Formula One racetrack in upstate New York. But he failed miserably   -  BARRY SERBEN/THE MUSEUM AT BETHEL WOODS/VIA REUTERS

 

What happened? It perhaps goes beyond sponsorship money, although that too played an important part. Did the music die, as McLean asked again and again in his song?

By the time Hendrix performed the last act of the festival, the crowd at Woodstock had thinned considerably. However, those who stayed back were amazed at what he demonstrated with his guitar.

A stunned silence swept over the farm as he played an inspired rendition of America’s national anthem The Star Spangled Banner. His performance became an elegy for an entire generation. The strings of his guitar screamed like the siren of an ambulance. His plectrum plucked out sounds that mimicked the explosions of napalm bombs. The wah-wah pedal attached to his guitar spat out bursts of gunfire.

As the camera in the 1970 documentary film on the festival spanned across heaps of junk and fluttering pieces of garbage, what remained were just the debris of a dream that could never recur. Woodstock was about hope. The festival extolled the virtues of idealism and cooperation, which may mean little today to many in Donald Trump’s US.

“Come on all you big, strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again. He’s got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Vietnam. So put down your books and pick up a gun, we’re gonna have a whole lot of fun.” So went the sarcastic lines of Joe McDonald, whose parents chose his first name after their idol, Joseph Stalin!

He began Vietnam Song by exhorting the audience to chant the “Fish Cheer”, which went: “Gimme an F, gimme a U, gimme a C, gimme a K… What’s that spell?”. The crowd roared back the answer.

When I first watched the documentary film (called Woodstock) as a young teenager, in a run-down cinema hall in central Kolkata in 1970, I was stunned when the four-letter word was shouted out by hundreds of thousands at the festival. The Indian censors had let the expletives go while chopping off the more contentious scenes of full frontal nudity. I recall, however, that not everybody in the upper gallery of New Empire Theatre was tolerant when Cocker rendered his version of The Beatles’ With a little help from my friends. A section of the audience started howling like the rocker, drowning his screams with theirs.

Past forward: A memorial stands above the original site of the Woodstock Music Festival   -  REUTERS/LUCAS JACKSON

 

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Woodstock had a strong India connection. The festival started with a speech by Swami Satchidananda, who was Tamil film actor and producer Rajinikanth’s guru and on whom he made the film Baba. Then there was a short lecture on, among other things, transcendental meditation by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was then still being lionised by The Beatles.

Some have claimed that Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Allah Rakha’s performance at Woodstock was a “decisive moment” that led to a greater appreciation of Indian classical music in the West. When the audience began to clap after Shankar had just finished tuning the strings of his sitar, he had to remind them that his recital had not yet begun.

He was to later lament that more people apparently got high on drugs than on listening to him play Raga Puriya Dhanashri. He said Indian musicians worshipped their instruments and was appalled that Pete Townshend of The Who smashed his guitar at the end of his performance while Hendrix burnt his guitar. These were parts of their acts that he found terribly distasteful.

The much-married Shankar, like Townshend, was also appalled that Woodstock — instead of celebrating music, non-violence and love — degenerated into an orgy of promiscuity and drug abuse, and came to epitomise the excesses of the ’60s. This view was reinforced by the untimely deaths of Joplin, Hendrix and Jim Morrison (of The Doors) that were linked to substance and alcohol abuse.

But Woodstock was much more than sex and drugs. It symbolised an era when the youth, not just in the US but also across the globe, including India, believed that political, economic and social change was not just required but possible and feasible as well. It was a phase when people believed not in art for art’s sake but in art that could transform society.

“I came upon a child of god, he was walking along the road... I asked him where are you going and this he told me: ‘I’m going down to Yasgur’s farm to join in a rock-’n’-roll band. I’m going to camp out on the land… try and get my soul free. We are stardust/ Billion year old carbon/ We are golden/ Caught in the devil’s bargain/ And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

These lines are from the song titled Woodstock, composed and first sung by the Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell (who was asked to but did not perform at the festival) two years after the event had ended.

Today, popular Indian music (and not just classical music) has become international. But this was not the situation in the ’60s and the ’70s. It is easy to scoff at the idealists of yesteryear and mock at their unfulfilled aspirations, especially at a time when right-wing populism and majoritarian politics hold sway in the two countries that are considered the world’s “oldest” and “largest” democracies, respectively.

For some Indians, Woodstock may just be the name of an educational institution located near Mussoorie in the Himalayan foothills. However, for parents of young men and women in this country, the event that took place 50 years ago in faraway New York (which we could never hope to be a part of) was an occasion that would remain indelibly ensconced in the recesses of our memory for all time to come for its incredible fusion of cultural life and politics.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is an independent journalist, author, publisher, educator, documentary film-maker and consultant

Published on August 16, 2019
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