Woodstock at 50: lasting impact of a tribute to peace, music and love

University of Sydney American studies, music, and human geography experts explore what the Woodstock Music Festival meant in its sociopolitical context, and why efforts to recreate it are controversial.

Rock and roll and folk music’s zenith, a triumph of youthful counterculture, or a free love and drugs frenzy? However you frame it, there’s no denying Woodstock’s iconic status and historic significance.

Held at a dairy farm in New York and attended by an estimated 400,000 people, Woodstock marked a cultural moment.

With the festival’s 50th anniversary approaching on 15 August, a commemorative concert, Woodstock50, was planned, and then subsequently cancelled, due to financial and logistical issues.

Festival fail

Cultural historian and literary critic Dr Aaron Nyerges, a Lecturer in American Studies at the United States Studies Centre, is glad Woodstock50 didn’t go ahead. “Ironically, by failing to take place, Woodstock50 might have more successfully lived up to the legacy of the original Woodstock,” he said, indicating that billed performers like Miley Cyrus and Jay-Z aren’t quite valid stand-ins for Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix.

He added that the cultural impact of Woodstock50’s failure, however, is noteworthy, as it “helps consolidate something of a ‘festival fail’ meme genre”, in the style of Fyre Fest.

“Today Woodstock is best commemorated by festivals that don’t bear its name: Burning Man in terms of its creation of a social alternative; Coachella in terms of its capturing of the zeitgeist of popular music.”

Two young men sitting on the grass at Woodstock Music Festival, August 1969

Woodstock wasn’t just about music – it was a celebration of youthful counterculture. Credit: Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell.

The end of the 60s

Dr James Wierzbicki is an expert in 20th century music at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, who is currently writing a book on 1960s American music, remains in awe of Woodstock’s success.

“It’s almost a miracle that Woodstock – with so many in the audience – happened as smoothly as it did,” he said.

“To realise how special Woodstock was, one only has to think of the tragedy that happened just a few months later at Altamont [marked by violence including the stabbing death of an attendee]. Altamont, many historians would say, marked the end of the Sixties, for sure.”

Human geographer from the Faculty of Science, Professor John Connell, also recognised Woodstock’s uniqueness. “It showed how people might work together to build a festival from nothing and cooperate on such basic things as making sandwiches. There was so much good will – and hope,” Connell, the author of Outback Elvis: the story of a festival, its fans, and a town called Parkes remarked.

“It was one of the last festivals where marijuana triumphed over hard drugs.”

There was so much goodwill – and hope

Professor John Connell

Professor Connell, an expert in the intersection of music festivals and regional development, explained how Woodstock was a joyful reaction to the emotional events of the decade: “It was a big year – the end of the 60s, the era of peace and love in opposition to the Vietnam War, [and] perhaps even the memory of Bobby Kennedy’s death the year before. Woodstock was so much a response to that – very many people just enjoying some good music without tensions.”

“And another good thing: Woodstock helped to pave the way for Australia’s first major rock festival in January 1970, when 11,000 people turned up at Ourimbah on the NSW Central Coast.”

‘I hope I get old before I die’

Unlike Dr Nyerges, Professor Connell, who was a young man travelling in Persia when the original Woodstock took place, is disappointed that Woodstock50 is not proceeding. He noted that most of the attendees would now be in their 70s, and would have enjoyed the nostalgia, “and indeed, maybe the last chance to hear some of the remaining veterans who played at Woodstock.”

“A commemorative event would have also enabled the return of old rockers to pay gentle sets amongst the vineyards,” he added.

“While The Who sang ‘I hope I die before I get old’, not everyone holds this conviction.”

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