By Courtney Suciu
Perhaps more than any other event of the era, the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival embodied the spirit of the late ‘60s counterculture movement. For the 50th anniversary, we take a look at five extraordinary behind-the-scenes stories from the iconic celebration of peace, love and music – and consider the lasting legacy of that tumultuous time in American history.
On August 15, 1969, a little known African American folk-soul singer in a bright orange tunic stood before 500,000 counterculture revelers at Woodstock. His name was Richie Havens, and he wasn’t scheduled to open the festival.
But with many of the top-billed performers stuck in traffic on the local highways, harried organizers put Havens on the stage. The mesmerizing musician managed to hold the audience enraptured for over three hours – and dreamed up a new song on the spot to close his set.
Speaking to a reporter in 20091, Havens explained how it happened: “To tell you the truth,” he said, “I had sung…all the songs I knew, and I am going ‘What am I going to do now?”
Havens had to keep going – there was no one else there yet to perform. So, inspired in part by the gospel tunes he grew up listening to in Brooklyn, NY, and by “the camaraderie and free-spiritedness” of the Woodstock audience, Havens started chanting the word “Freedom” while strumming a song improvised from the old spiritual “Motherless Child.”
Concert footage shows a wave of concert-goers rising to their feet, swaying along and digging the vibe. “Freedom” would become one of his best-known works.
Post-Woodstock, Havens’ career soared through the ‘70s. He continued making music, as well as doing commercial work, a bit of acting and performed at the inauguration of President Clinton before his death in 2013.
Through it all, he remains best-known for that iconic Woodstock performance.
One artist who felt decidedly out of place at the Woodstock hippie love-fest was world-renowned classical Indian musician Ravi Shankar.
Shankar suddenly catapulted to international pop stardom when his path crossed with The Beatles and he developed a close relationship with guitarist George Harrison.
“George was so special,” Shankar told The Indian Express2 in 2009. “He would corner me and ask me about the relation between spirituality and music, religion and music. He met me a few times and I started teaching him. And that news spread all over.”
Shankar said he was “not happy at all” as “young people, bearded, long hair, wearing beads, and not normal” wanted him as a guru. “You know, that was a strange time,” he explained. “At that time I found such talent but there were those dumb ones too.”
Woodstock was pretty much the last straw for the “Sitar maestro.” Scheduled to play after folk-star Joan Baez, Shankar recalled that it started to drizzle during her set. Concerned that the rain would damage his instrument, Shankar reluctantly took the stage.
“That experience was the experience that changed my whole view. Because, there were half a million people. It was raining, there was mud all over. And who was listening to music? They were all stoned,” he recalled.
“All of the young people who were flocking, admiring and loving me so much – I told them not to smoke and behave like this,” Shankar added. “And that is what kept my audience away for a few years. But I did not mind. I was back in my classical fold.”
Before concert-goers began lighting up shows with their cell phones, they lifted the flames of their Bics and Zippos to signal approval of their favorite songs.
That convention can be traced back to Melanie Safka’s set at Woodstock.
Better known professionally simply as Melanie, the then-obscure, shy singer-songwriter was dropped off at the festival by her mom, she told Lee Zimmerman of Goldmine3 magazine in 2013.
“I can’t tell you how terrified I was when I played Woodstock,” she said. “I drove up with my mother. I had no clue. I didn’t hear any of the hype or build-up or anything.”
She continued, “When I appeared at Woodstock, maybe a small percent, if that, had ever heard of me. I’d never been in a magazine or on TV or anything. I went up an unknown person and walked off a celebrity.”
According to the article, Melanie’s best-known song, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” was inspired by that performance when she looked out over the dark, rain-soaked crowd “and saw a sea of glowing lighters and matches” that members of the audience held up to show their appreciation – “much to Melanie’s horror.”
“I couldn’t take a compliment,” she told the reporter. “I didn’t know how.”
She had to learn quickly, though. Zimmerman noted that her Woodstock set heralded “a catalog of dozens of albums, including a string of 11 LPs that cracked Billboard’s Hot 100 between 1969 and 1974.”
Maybe the most famous performance from Woodstock was the festival’s closing act by guitar god Jimi Hendrix.
By the time Hendrix took the stage on the last day, the crowd of weary revelers had dwindled down by more than half. But those who braved the storm-blasted weather witnessed a screeching, history-making rendition of the American national anthem that remains controversial to this day.
In his 2014 article for the Journal of the Society for American Music4, scholar Mark Clague included this assessment from music journalist Charles Shaar Murray: “The Hendrix [‘Star-Spangled Banner’] is probably the most complex and powerful work of American art to deal with the Vietnam War”; in contrast with this observation from Pete Johnson of The Los Angeles Times: “His National Anthem…is meaningless and constitutes the cheapest kind of sensationalism.”
Clague pointed out that Woodstock wasn’t the first time Hendrix riffed on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In fact, he wrote:
Rather than a single, ecstatic improvisation, Hendrix’s Woodstock Banner is more revealingly thought of as part of a simmering process of mourning, celebration, critique, and activism brought forth in more than sixty performances, spanning August 1968 (over a year before Woodstock) to August 1970 (a month before the guitarist’s death). A broader analysis reveals Hendrix’s Banner…as sonic snapshots, taken repeatedly and often to catalog the state of the nation and to call for change.
While Clague went on to carefully examine the different contexts and meanings behind Hendrix’s various interpretations of the anthem, Hendrix himself was enigmatic about his intentions.
In a 1970 interview with the Atlanta Constitution5, Hendrix referred to his Woodstock performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as “The Star-Spangled Spaghetti,” and told reporter Jared Johnson that he hadn’t planned on playing the song; rather, “we just felt like playing it at Woodstock.”
When asked if there had been any particular message behind his interpretation, he said, “No…its psychedelic…it’s fun to play. And I just play it the way I feel it, anyway, you know…the same old story.”
Chances are, the song that springs to mind when thinking of Jefferson Airplane is their trippy classic, “White Rabbit” (or worse, “We Built This City,” released under their 1980s incarnation Starship.)
With such a legacy, it’s easy to forget that during their heyday, the band was one of the radical leaders of the 1960s rock ‘n’ roll revolution.
Consider the vehement antiestablishment call-to-arms, “Volunteers,” which Jefferson Airplane debuted as part of their 8am “morning maniac” set at Woodstock.
The album of the same name, which would be released a year later, was simpler and “rootsier” than the likes of “White Rabbit” (for reference, Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead played steel guitar on one of the tracks of Volunteers). According to Patrick Burke6, “in these songs, the band adopted comparatively accessible formal structures and chord changes.”
Airplane’s angsty message was distilled in the song’s fiercely belted chorus: “Got a revolution/got to revolution.”
Unfortunately, it’s a message that went awry later that year. While the Woodstock festival was notable for being a peaceful celebration, the disastrous Altamont Free Concert was its antithesis. During Jefferson Airplane’s set at the December 1969 show, one member “was punched unconsciousness during his band’s own set by a Hell’s Angel serving as security,” Burke wrote.
If Woodstock endures in rock mythology as a symbol of peace, love and music, the Altamont concert is remembered, according to Burke, as “’the death of innocence’ for 1960s rock culture.”
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu