Everybody’s heard of Woodstock, even if they were born long after the rock festival occurred. Woodstock has become the linguistic shortcut for saying hippies and peace, sex and drugs, and the associated values of the ’60s. The truth about Woodstock has disappeared. Interviews with concert goers reported mud and boredom more than love and good tunes, but as Director John Ford noted long ago in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It really doesn’t matter if the people who attended Woodstock had a grand time, if the music played suffered from poor quality sound systems and drugged out performers, and that the ideals associated with it really weren’t present.
What matters more is the documentary film and its soundtrack, which has been seen and heard by many millions more than the 250,000-plus kids that went to Max Yasgur’s farm that weekend. The long length of the movie and its unprecedented triple-album companion album give the impression of what the fest was really like, even though these artifacts only reveal snippets of what was going on and mix things up chronologically for artistic reasons. That’s irrelevant. People think they know what Woodstock was because they saw authentic footage and heard live recordings of the event.
The triple-album Music from the Original Soundtrack and More: Woodstock was wildly popular at the time of release, going multi-platinum and topping the charts for four consecutive weeks back in 1970. It contained music from a wide variety of acts, stage announcements, the clatter of the crowd, and other incidental noises to give the listeners a “you are there” experience. The success of this artifact spawned the release of Woodstock 2 that included additional music by many of the same artists from the first album, as well as two new inclusions, Mountain and Melanie. The second album was not as successful as the first, but still sold well during its original issuance in 1971.
Rhino Records has just re-released the two Woodstock soundtracks as two double-CDs, with additional artwork and re-mastered audio for better sound quality. The quality still suffers from the difficulties associated with making a live recording in somewhat primitive circumstances in 1969, but that’s not the biggest problem. The real issue is how much of the music is lackluster.
The Woodstock Festival featured some of rock’s biggest acts of the ’60s: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Crosby, Stills & Nash, etc. Some of the artists, such as Hendrix, gave great performances. These days, you can buy a more complete CD or DVD of Hendrix’s concert at Woodstock and not have to settle for these truncated clips. The Hendrix material is the best thing about both of these double Woodstock CDs
Other important artists, like Joplin, the Incredible String Band, and the Grateful Dead, were not included on the Woodstock albums for various reasons. As the recently released Janis Joplin: The Woodstock Experience makes clear, this was not because of the quality of the performances. Some apparently fine material never made the album, while lesser artists who offered less-than- stellar songs (i.e. Sha Na Na,) were prominently featured on the albums.
The saddest aspect of the two albums are extended songs by big name artists who are at less than their best at the fest, which may be due to a number of reasons beyond their control as this was an unprecedented live event, such as the Butterfield Blues Band’s embarrassingly tedious nine minute “Love March”. There’s no reason to document the mediocre on the two albums, other than to note the inclusion of too much of it appears here.
Instead, it is more useful to focus on the larger themes here to try and explain why these albums resonated so heavily with audiences at the time. These recordings of live music in 1969 were received nostalgically and with affection by youth in 1970 and 1971 because the artists themselves were aware of the transition happening in American life and had a sense the good times were ending. The Summer of Love was two years passed. Richard Nixon recently was elected President of the United States by a large majority. The war in Southeast Asia was expanding. Civil rights protests had become more violent.
No wonder so many songs here were escapist in nature. John Baez and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young evoke the romantic past (i.e., “Sweet Sir Galahad”, “Guinevere”) as a better place. CSN&Y go as far as to introduce “Wooden Ships” as a song about “escaping the holocaust or whatever it may be and leaving it behind.” John Sebastian sings about having a dream and painting rainbows over your blues. On the record Jefferson Airplane and the Who preach revolution while Arlo Guthrie and others offer drugs as an alternative. No one sings about living in the present and how groovy it is. Instead, the Woodstock Festival itself is seen as a refuge from the problems of the world.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock”, but Mitchell herself was not at the concert. As farmer Max Yasgur says to the crowd on the album, the festival showed the world that kids could get together and just have fun and music. No major crimes were reported as the myth of Woodstock became more important than the event itself.
However, the fact that no major crimes were reported just shows that the police were too busy with the overwhelming numbers of people who needed assistance than deal with other issues. The question of whether sexual assaults took place against people too drugged up to protest, violence by and against those who tried to profit from drugs, food and water, and other issues has never been systematically studied. Anecdotal information from oral histories suggests the Woodstock Festival was not the idyll portrayed in the movie and soundtrack. But “When the fact becomes legend….”
That’s not to say that there isn’t some fine music on the two double CDs. Ten Years After’s evocation of ’50s rock and the spirit of rebellion in “I’m Going Home” and Richie Haven’s heartfelt “Freedom” from the first Woodstock album still give chills 40 years later. Hendrix’s contributions to both albums make it clear why he’s still revered, while Jefferson Airplane’s sets on both albums show them as a great, guitar-driven live monster.
These two double CDs may not be essential listening because of the dross included, but they still have lots of music worth hearing. But don’t believe the hype. Woodstock wasn’t paradise and the music wasn’t always great.