When the Apollo 11 astronauts walked on the moon in 1969 it was broadcast live on TV. Millions of people watched with bated breath as man’s greatest space adventure played out before their eyes. Only a month later, half a million people converged on a muddy field outside Bethel, NY for the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. Today we know it as the music festival to end all music festivals. But it’s lasting cultural impact was as unlikely an event as people bringing rocks home from the moon.
Woodstock was a one-in-a-million cultural event that became the touchstone of an era. The myth we know today was not so quickly born. Early news coverage of the festival was mostly negative. Newspapers focused on city council attempts to prevent the show from happening and the policemen hired for security who quit beforehand. It was a snarling traffic jam with nothing at the end of the road but hippies mired in mud. What the editors missed was that somewhere on the road to Woodstock a gentle breeze was sweeping across mainstream culture. Millions of people were about to begin seeing the world with new eyes.
The legacy grew slowly over the months and years that followed. The seminal film, Woodstock, came out in 1970. The same year, Joni Mitchell, who missed the show entirely, released her song “Woodstock,” which was based on what her boyfriend Graham Nash told her about the festival. The song, covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in 1970 is like the “A Million Little Pieces” of Woodstock lore. It already has perspective that those at the show might not have had.
For all intents and purposes, Woodstock was a music festival and the lasting impact wouldn’t have been felt without the unifying spirit of the music. Some of the era’s biggest bands had their career defining performances: Santana, The Grateful Dead, CCR, Janis Joplin, Sly & The Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, The Band, Johnny Winter, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Jimi Hendrix.
Woodstock was a who’s who of rock music in 1969. The noticeable absences include Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, The Beatles and Frank Zappa – all of them could have conceivably played Woodstock. But it’s fitting that a band like The Beatles weren’t there – after all, the times were a changin’ and the sixties were quickly getting out of the way for the seventies. A new kind of music would follow, providing a different soundtrack for the new views of the world. Counter culture would no longer be known as counter-culture. The young people returning home from the weekend in Bethel had something to teach and share with older generations as well as younger ones.
No doubt it takes an extraordinary person to walk on the moon. The Woodstock Festival showed us what ordinary people can do. It helps us remember that ordinary people do have the power to change the world. They always have.