40 Years Later, Taking Stock of Woodstock

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.

Part of the cultural history of the baby boomers, the generation of Americans born after World War Two, is Woodstock.


The Woodstock Music and Art Fair took place forty years ago this month. More than four hundred thousand people came from around the country to a farm in Bethel, New York. The event was advertised as "an Aquarian Exposition" and "Three Days of Peace and Music."


That was Country Joe McDonald and the Fish with a song protesting the Vietnam War, a big issue in nineteen sixty-nine. In all, about thirty acts performed at Woodstock, ranging from Arlo Guthrie to Jimi Hendrix to Ravi Shankar. The opening act was Richie Havens.


Much has been said about Woodstock, real or imagined. After all, the influence of drugs at the concert led to the saying that if you can remember Woodstock, you weren't there.

This much is true: The organizers named the event after Woodstock, New York, a town known for the arts. They wanted to hold it there but could not find a place. Instead, the festival was held eighty kilometers away on a milk farm owned by a farmer named Max Yasgur.

How it got there is the subject of the book "Taking Woodstock" by Elliot Tiber. He helped secure the deal, which faced objections from a rural community unprepared for huge crowds.

Now, a lighthearted film based on the book and directed by Ang Lee is about to be released.


MOVIE: "The word is getting out that maybe we'll have a few more guests than we originally thought. The New York State Thruway has been backed up all the way from the George Washington Bridge. It's basically a parking lot."

The Newseum, a museum of news in Washington, D.C., has an exhibit called "Woodstock at 40: The Rise of Music Journalism." Woodstock is described as a moment when the news media first recognized music and entertainment as a cultural and commercial force.

But it was also a news event as hundreds of thousands of young people flooded into the area. News stories told of concertgoers sharing food, meeting new people and feeling part of a group.

Not everything was beautiful, though. Food and water were in limited supply. Rain interrupted the festivities. People lived in tents in the mud. Two deaths were confirmed. And hundreds of people were treated for bad drug reactions.

Still, the Woodstock experience added up to what Time magazine called "History's Biggest Happening."


"What the youth of America — and their observing elders — saw at Bethel was the potential power of a generation that in countless disturbing ways has rejected the traditional values and goals of the U.S. Thousands of young people, who had previously thought of themselves as part of an isolated minority, experienced the euphoric sense of discovering that they are, as the saying goes, what's happening."


And this was how the New York Times described Woodstock:


"Bethel townspeople gazed in awe at the streams of hippies, but they murmured 'PEACE' to the visitors, offered free water and returned smiles. Everyone arrived to find the whole show was free. As the weekend went on, the miracles kept coming — the kindness of the scattered police, the 'food-drop' by an Army helicopter, and flowers from the sky. ...

Before it became the greatest hippie demonstration of unity, the music was the focus of the festival. Friday was the folk night but the playing was plagued by rain and delays. … Joan Baez closed the evening in the rain ... "


On the second day, Saturday, more people arrived. They brought more cars to the roads and more tents to the fields. The Times reported that the closing series that day "must be one of the great shows of rock and roll history."

It was the Grateful Dead, Credence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, the Who, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin.


The music ended on Sunday night -- or, rather, the early hours of Monday, August eighteenth.


"The strength of the crowd seemed strongest in the hard rain on Sunday afternoon. To the banging of the cans, dancing hippies gave all of themselves. Instead of despairing at the discomfort of rain and mud, the crowd rejoiced in its power to resist the weather..."



"What began as a symbolic protest against American society ended as a joyful confirmation that good things can happen here, that Army men can raise a "V" sign, that country people can welcome city hippies. One of Hendrix's last numbers was "The Star Spangled Banner." Yes, most everything happened up on the farm."


Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. Our readers were Faith Lapidus and Mario Ritter.   I'm Steve Ember. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs are at voaspecialenglish.com. We hope you join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.