Monday, August 10, 2009

Remembering Three (Actually Four) Days of Peace and Music

Next Saturday will be the 40th anniversary of an important cultural event in America.

On Aug. 15, 1969, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in White Lake, N.Y. — known to history as the "Woodstock Festival" — began "3 Days of Peace and Music." Because of bad weather, it wound up extending into a fourth day.

Literally and figuratively, the 1960s were coming to an end — and not entirely in keeping with the peace and love mantra popularly associated with the young people of the time. By mid–August of 1969, the decade had about 4½ months remaining. The Manson family had just killed seven people a week earlier. Before the year was over, a concert–goer would be stabbed to death by a Hell's Angel during a Rolling Stones concert. In the last three years of the 1960s, nearly 40,000 Americans died in Vietnam.

Against that backdrop, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair convened for three days of peace and music — and, against the odds, met its goals.

Maybe that is why, as Jon Pareles wrote recently in the New York Times, "Baby boomers won't let go of the Woodstock Festival. ... It's one of the few defining events of the late 1960s that had a clear happy ending."

Roughly half a million people attended the festival. Originally, there was an admission price, but when so many people showed up, organizers quickly decided to make it a free show.

And those who stayed were treated to nearly three dozen of the era's best musical acts, although there were some noteworthy performers who chose not to attend, even though they were invited — Bob Dylan, the Doors, the Byrds, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, the Moody Blues, Joni Mitchell.

Richie Havens opened the show at 5:07 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 15, 1969. Not very well known at the time, Havens developed a following after his appearance at Woodstock. In 1971, John Lennon, for example, told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone that Havens "plays a pretty funky guitar."

You can see for yourself in the attached video clip.

Bigger names were yet to come, but Havens' performance was followed that Friday by Melanie, Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez — as well as Ravi Shankar, a nearly 50–year–old Indian musician whose work was introduced to Western audiences by George Harrison of the Beatles.

Sanitation was bad, food was in short supply, and the weather was poor at times. But in spite of the obstacles, it was a remarkably peaceful event, considering that preparation was inadequate for the huge turnout. There were two deaths — one a heroin overdose, the other a person in a sleeping bag who was run over by a tractor in a nearby field. There were also two births and a few miscarriages.

For a few days in August 1969, a spot in rural New York was truly a city, with births, deaths, even a marriage (I think) — but without the crime, the violence and the cultural clashes that plagued real cities then and still plague real cities today.

Forty years later, it stands as a monument to what people of good will can achieve.