BETHEL, N.Y. - About 400,000 rock fans gave peace a chance Aug. 15-18, and it worked. For them and the overwhelmed residents of this Catskills resort community, things will never be quite the same. Overcoming problems of traffic, shortages of food, water, and bathrooms, and two rainfalls which reduced everyone to the same muddy level, the amorphous crowd achieved a happy and peaceful revival unprecedented in this history of human gatherings. The huge turnout made the event a tribute to the power of underground music. Some of the most popular groups who played, including Ten Years After, the Grateful Dead, and the Incredible String Band have never had a Top 40 record. The festival, called An Aquarian Exposition, represented the best of the music industry.
One of the effects of underground music has been the emergence of performers and entire record companies the same age as the audience. The promoters of the festival, Woodstock Ventures, Inc., consisted of four under 39 music entrepreneurs whose only fault was their vastly low estimate of the mass attraction they offered. What other branch of the music business would suffer because of understatement? It is honesty as well as quality which gives the music its appeal.
The crowd was so big that no one was responsible and so everyone became responsible, as the event became an unexpected culmination of the "hip" movement. The movement had become diffused and scattered plagued by factions, identity problems and inevitable compromises which social realities have demanded. It is impossible to say whether the music was a cause or a result of the culture, so intertwined are the people with their sound, but barriers were forgotten. Gone was the mass embarrassment that frequently prevails at large gatherings; gone also was the tension of irrational authority, the Kafkaesque fear of arrest that often chills, as troopers forgot those laws that are so hard to enforce and became members of the crowd, helping where they could, and gaining love and respect previously only found in the lives of storybook cops. In short, the often omnipresent "we-they" paranoia which usually divide hippies from "straights," cops from crowds, performers from audience and insiders from outsiders disappeared.
At the center of it all was the best group of musicians ever assembled. Everyone went over well since the audience was the real star of this show. Friday, folk night, opened the festival with Richie Havens and his familiar interpretations. Standing out was Joan Baez, pregnant and semitragic as she sang songs which brought to mind her imprisoned husband. Her soft sounds seduced the crowd whose first loyalties had been to loud electric rock. Also featured was Arlo Guthrie, whose jokes are funny only the first time they are heard, Tim Hardin and Ravi Shankar. Saturday's standouts were the Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater, whose precise renditions of their well known hits was greeted with overwhelming applause; Sly and the Family Stone, who brought the crowd to their feet, and the Jefferson Airplane whose popular California rock took the bleary-eyed crowd into Sunday morning. Sunday's stars were Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, Johnny Winter; Crosby, Stills & Nash, Country Joe & the Fish, the Band, who played some new material equal to their classics and showed that they are still one of the most talented and creative groups ever assembled, and Jimi Hendrix, who ended it all with a psychedelic "Star-Spangled Banner." Others in the festival were Bert Sommer, Sweetwater, Keef Hartly, Santana, Mountain, Quill, Incredible String Band, the Who, Janis Joplin, Iron Butterfly; Blood, Sweat & Tears and Sha Na Na. Never appearing on stage but entertaining thousands in surrounding areas was David Peel and his group, the Lower East Side.
The music, while being at the center of the storm, was not the storm itself. The spirit of cooperation was at times more remarkable than the music that inspired it. Encouraging this was a sense of excitement and emergency. The desire to sustain the festival on a positive note, accompanied by the feeling that a whole culture was at stake, resulted in an incredible patience from those who claimed the crowd as their own. Traffic going toward the site was blocked as early as Thursday night. It was the festival's first crisis but its first glory as well, as thousands of cars stood traffic jammed without the sound of one blowing horn. Other emergencies came and went. Food and water shortages were dealt with as locals on their summer vacation quickly helped.
The rainfall had a paradoxical effect of reducing the fear of disaster despite making conditions less comfortable. The feat was that if anything happened, nightmare would result. Saturday's vicious downpour seemed like an affirmation from the heavens of the spirit and the peach. It got everyone wet but didn't stop the show. There were, of course, some discomforts and injuries but it must be remembered that the population made this a major-sized city. Comparison of these problems to those of a similarly sized metropolis makes Woodstock stand up very well. And if the muddy living conditions feel short of the average city slum, the absence of a law and order problem did much to compensate for the soggy ground.
Lack of Security
One of the factors that made Woodstock such a giant social and musical success was lack of security that allowed tens of thousands to attend free. As a result, festival promoters have a reported deficit of over $1 million. This will probably be made up from the sale of film rights but the dubious financial gains make a repeat unlikely. History is impossible to duplicate, anyway.
The largest grouping of Americans in history has to be taken as a political event. Political without the fear, clichés, and martyrdom of other political events. Its candidate was music and peace. Woodstock was a celebration of joy which wiped out, at least temporarily, the persistent feelings of meaninglessness that permeate our culture, it was perhaps, the dawning of the age of Aquarius. Questionable as a business venture, it was, at least, a moment of triumph for the better side of man, in a time when the devil seems so often to be winning.