How Woodstock Became a Symbol of U.S. Counterculture
By: Valeria Ramos
The 1960s and 70s in the United States were eras whose counter-cultures were defined by war, racial tensions, and a population of youth defying their government.
The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, which took place in 1969 in Bethel, New York from August 15th to the 18th, was a cultural playground overrun by drugs, sex, and rock and roll that came to symbolize the political and social climate of the United States.
Leading up to this three-day event of “peace, love, and music,” several events took place that shaped U.S history and increased tensions between an already divided nation. The Vietnam war was in full swing by the time Woodstock organizers were planning what would soon become an iconic landmark of the 60s.
The anti-war movement was growing in the U.S due in large part to the fact that, for the first time, Americans had a front-row view of the gory reality of war. Dubbed “The Television War,” the public witnessed conflicts in Vietnam first-hand, terrifying the nation.
Woodstock became an event where all antiwar, pro-drug Americans could gather to release the tensions of their country through music. Antiwar movements were supported by many 60s artists who used music as a means of protest against the conflicts in Vietnam.
Another focus of the era was the civil rights movement. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in the U.S, hate crimes against African Americans were still common and the Black Power movement was in full swing.
Late 1960s hits like James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and Proud” and Nina Simone’s “Young Gifted and Black” became anthems for African Americans who had been underrepresented and disrespected in the United States.
The assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at this time heightened racial tensions, resulting in riots and social unrest.
“With everything that was going on in the late 1960s…we rallied and relied on strength in numbers. We came together communally to be heard and to be acknowledged,” stated musician Richie Havens, who performed at the festival.
Music as protest
By taking the stage at Woodstock, African American artists like Richie Havens and Jimi Hendrix symbolized an era of change for people of color. Towards the end of his setlist at Woodstock, Hendrix performed a psychedelic rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner that featured the sound of bombs dropping. With a performance that left people around the country shocked, Hendrix’s version of the national anthem captured the political spirit of Woodstock, making it a fitting end to the three-day festival.
Woodstock kicked off with a musical performance by Richie Havens, who captivated the spirit and freedom of the young crowd gathered before him. At a time when people were so focused on the war happening in Vietnam, Havens’ performance of “Freedom” became a spiritual experience encouraging peace.
What began as an improvised performance using a simple word quickly became an engrossing experience for every audience member watching; Haven’s delivery of the word Freedom was so powerful that it captivated a feeling every person gathered in Bethel was yearning for. On the inspiration behind his performance, Havens told Rolling Stone, “I looked out at all of those faces in front of me and the word “freedom” came to mind.”
Another artist who used music to express her political views was Joan Baez. At the time Baez took the Woodstock stage, her husband sat in a Texas prison for refusing to fight in Vietnam. Her performance of “We Shall Overcome” left people at the concert feeling inspired.
According to Baez, the crowded and muddy onlookers of Woodstock ”were relieved to have somebody say the things that they felt were important to hear.”
Country Joe & The Fish was another memorable group to perform at Woodstock. Although the majority of Country Joe’s setlist consisted of non-protest songs, Joe McDonald and his band were central to the politico-protest movement happening on the West Coast in the mid-1960s.
The band’s rendition of “The Fish Cheer/ I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die-Rag” embodied the counterculture movement and became an anthem for Americans in opposition to the Vietnam war.
The lyrics of this song incorporated political satire, insinuating that politicians and corporations were benefiting from the lost lives of young American soldiers. “There’s plenty good money to be made, by supplying the Army with the tools of the trade, just hope and pray that if they drop the bomb, they drop it on the Viet Cong,” McDonald sang.
It was clear that Woodstock was about more than just music as artists openly addressed political issues of the era while challenging their listeners to do the same.
The hippie lifestyle was another factor that influenced the counterculture movement taking place in the United States at this time. Hippies advocated for love and nonviolence, with a mantra (“make love, not war”) that characterized the spirit of Woodstock.
Both folk and rock music were essential to the movement. Bands such as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were closely associated with the hippie culture. Their experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, such as marijuana and LSD, was also part of the 1960s movement that challenged traditional social roles.
Hippies were characterized as young people who embraced drugs, long hair, nomadic lifestyles, and sexual freedom. To this day, 1960s American culture is automatically associated with images of Woodstock attendees: long-haired youth wearing bright clothing and dancing with flowers in their hair.
Woodstock impacted United States culture by giving a voice to the often overlooked community of hippies and legitimizing the anti-war sentiment they were experiencing. In short, hippies symbolize counterculture; so much so that the two words are almost synonymous.
The hippie culture grew out of a distaste for the suburban lifestyle of the 50s that came before them. Religion, conservative thinking, traditional gender roles, and predetermined education and career paths were all aspects of typical American lifestyles hippies rejected.
Seeking alternative ideas and ways of living, young Americans turned to the radio to find answers. Music became the new religion for hippies, with artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan viewed as idols. John Lennon of The Beatles publicly denounced the war in Vietnam while also claiming that “the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.”
When scouting a location for a festival of thousands of hippies, one’s first thought would not be the farm of a pro-Vietnam war conservative. However, when the organizers of Woodstock were introduced to Bethal farm owner Max Yasgur, they realized there was no better person to host the event.
While Yasgur was conservative concerning his political beliefs, he championed free expression and had no intention of opposing others simply because they did not have the same beliefs as him. Receiving backlash from some of his Bethel neighbors did not hinder Yasgur, but only motivated him to help make the festival come to fruition. “If the generation gap is to be closed, we older people have to do more than we have done,” Yasgur told the New York Times.
Shortages in food, water, and toilets were bound to cause trouble among the thousands of people packed together on Yasgur’s dairy farm. However, the opposite happened. Yasgur supplied free water while volunteers from nearby farms donated and distributed food to the hordes of hungry teens in attendance. For attendees under the influence, medical tents were set up for those who needed help coming down from hallucinogenic “trips.”
Despite the odds stacked against the success of Woodstock, there were only two fatalities throughout the entire weekend; one resulting from a drug overdose and another from a freak tractor accident. Despite the multitude of challenges Woodstock organizers faced, the festival became a symbol of unity. The fact that a largely anti-war event took place on the land of a pro-war conservative encompasses exactly was Woodstock was all about.
Woodstock organizers Michael Lang, Joel Rosenman, and Joel Roberts never expected their rock n’ roll concert to become one of the most iconic cultural events in American history. The original plan was to open a recording studio in upstate New York that would eventually be funded by a two-day festival.
However, as the concert date quickly approached, they realized that an audience of more than 50,000 people would soon be arriving. At the peak of the festival, the crowd amounted to over 450,000 people.
There was order within the chaos, however, as the citizens of Bethel, festival organizers, and attendees alike contributed food, parking space, blankets, and overall kindness to each other. While those inside the festival grounds were experiencing a musical utopia, the nation’s perspective on Woodstock as a whole was extremely divided.
Those in support of the festival pointed to the peaceful and helpful behavior of the “hippies” that were so frowned upon by mainstream media. Those against the festival, however, condemned the drugs, nudity, and chaotic traffic that resulted from the three-day event.
The drug culture of the 60s was an undeniable aspect of Woodstock as many musicians and audiences were under the influence of marijuana and LSD. Drug experimentation led to the rise of psychedelic music made popular by bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. In particular, Jefferson Airplane’s performance of “White Rabbit” at Woodstock became a decade-defining song, illustrating the drug experimentation of 1960s America that led many young people to “feed [their] heads,” as the song puts it.
Woodstock is remembered as an iconic event in both musical and American history. For years to come, event planners and music enthusiasts attempted to recreate and capture the spirit of Woodstock, but none came close to reaching the lasting impact left behind by the three days of “peace, love, and music” in Bethel, New York.
In August of 2019, Michael Long, co-founder of the original event, was in talks with several companies to finance and plan “Woodstock 50,” a three-day musical event on the 50th anniversary of the 1969 event. Despite an official lineup for the 2019 festival being launched, issues with permits, legal proceedings, and financing led to the demise of Woodstock 50 before it began.
Many criticized the event planners for attempting to recreate the original event and all it encompassed. David Crosby, an attendee of Woodstock 1969, shared he felt the “magic” of the original festival could never be remodeled and criticized the intentions behind Woodstock 50. “It had nothing to do with anybody feeling good about each other. It had to do with certain people making a huge amount of money,” Crosby said “It’s not a motivation that brings out the very best in people.”
As Crosby pointed out, part of what made the festival a success was the genuine motivation behind the event; young Americans across the country were responding to the unequal, war-torn state of their country by uniting in song.
Without the historical and social context of its time, Woodstock would not have been as impactful and influential as it was. The political tensions in the United States mixed with a generation of young people defying the status quo encapsulated the counterculture of 1960s America which ultimately became synonymous with Woodstock.
One of the most powerful outcomes of the festival was the country’s realization that people had the power to alter the course of history. Woodstock became a platform for the counterculture movement of the 60s, legitimizing young people’s perspectives on the Vietnam war, civil rights, and freedom.
Abbie Hoffman, a political activist of the era recalled the impact and bravery of her generation during this time: “We ended the idea that you could send half a million soldiers around the world to fight a war that people do not support,” Hoffman said. “We were young, self-righteous, reckless, hypocritical, brave, silly, headstrong, and scared half to death. And we were right.”
Woodstock was a three-day snapshot of 1960s America and the population of youth whose most rebellious, countercultural acts consisted of opposing war, listening to rock music, and living liberally. Not only did the rock and roll festival come to symbolize the counterculture of the 60s, but it also became a historic landmark with real political and social outcomes; a feat which seems could happen only in America.