50 years of Woodstock: How the festival became an event that defined a generation

The festival’s legacy endures five decades later, perhaps because it was the last youth movement that wasn't then easily bottled and sold

Fans at the East stage at Woodstock 99 in Rome, New York. The Woodstock 99 festival will feature over 45 bands on four stages on July 23,24,and 25th.  Crowd estimate for the first day was 250,000.  (Photo by Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect/Getty Images)
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This week marks 50 years since close to half a million hippies and hedonists were camped out on a muddy field in Bethel, New York, for what was billed as "An Aquarian Exposition", but which is remembered as Woodstock, the nexus of the counterculture movement and most famous music festival that ever was.

From high street boho-chic to twee "Wedstock" weddings, the festival's legacy endures five decades on, precisely because it was the last youth movement that wasn't easily bottled and sold. Brought of age by the "Summer of Love" two years earlier, North America's hippie movement is said by scholars to have died before the year was out. Remembered as "the anti-­Woodstock", The Rolling Stones' infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival in December 1969 was marred by widespread violence and a stage-front killing, at the hands of the Hells Angels, captured on film for all to see.

It wasn't the world's first music festival, but its legacy was huge

But thanks to a different movie, 1970's three-hour Woodstock documentary, the term "Woodstock generation" would come to define millions of Americans who never set foot near Max Yasgur's upstate dairy farm. The gathering's greatest legacy was instilling the concept of a music festival in the popular imagination, of idealising the image of thousands of like-minded souls wallowing in the mud, absorbing an eclectically curated stream of acts under the sun. This once-niche pastime is one that millions of people now actively seek out every summer.

Fans sitting on top of a painted bus at the Woodstock Music Festival, Bethel, New York, 15th-17th August 1969. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Fans sitting on top of a painted bus at the Woodstock Music Festival in New York in 1969. Getty.

For many of the 32 bands that performed at the event, which ran from Friday, August 15 until Monday, August 18, 1969 – such as Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar, The Band, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – the association guaranteed a sense of notoriety, and an endless stream of misty-eyed interview questions for decades to come. But as one baby boomer cliche goes: if you remember Woodstock, you weren't there.

Woodstock's ragtag cast of organisers didn't invent the festival concept. The Newport Jazz Festival was founded in 1954, and in 1961 Britain hosted its first National Jazz and Blues Festival – a precursor to today's annual blockbuster Reading Festival. Woodstock's greatest star, Jimi Hendrix, rose to fame in 1967 when he set fire to his Fender Stratocaster at the Monterey Pop Festival, where Joplin and Otis Redding also performed before appearing at Woodstock. (The Doors passed on the latter, because they feared it would be a "second-class repeat" of Monterey).

And while Britain's first Isle of Wight Festival was staged a year before Woodstock and attracted only 10,000 people, it was the 1970 event which, inspired by Woodstock's mythmaking, welcomed crowds of more than 600,000 to hear sets by many of the same stars who headlined in Bethel a year earlier, including The Who, Joan Baez, Ten Years After and Sly & the Family Stone.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Peter Tarnoff/Mediapunch/Shutterstock (9853935a)
Jimi Hendrix
Woodstock - 18 Aug 1969
Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969. Shutterstock. 

In part because of his death a year later, Hendrix has been remembered as Woodstock's greatest performer, but with good cause. His short-lived sextet, billed as Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, closed the festival to a depleted crowd of stragglers a little after 11am on August 18 – the morning after the festival's intended climax – due to organisational mishaps. Hendrix's feedback-drenched, instrumental take on US national anthem Star-­Spangled Banner sparked patriotic outrage, but his rendition also inspired electric guitarists for decades to come. "I thought it was beautiful," Hendrix later said on The Dick Cavett Show. Millions disagreed.

'Hippies Mired in a Sea of Mud'

While Woodstock is today remembered as a bucolic ideal – an event endlessly referenced, ridiculed and appropriated – America's contemporary culture disapproved of it. That 186,000 ticket holders were joined by about 250,000 fence-breaking, freeloading revellers was the sign of a minor insurrection, not the youthful free-for-all remembered today. New York's Sunday News ran a headline at the time that declared: "Hippies Mired in a Sea of Mud." The same mainstream media titles that now celebrate Woodstock as a moment of innocent fraternity and ideological unity frowned at the poor sanitation, disruptive weather, unashamed hedonism and, yes, mud. Those are also all part of the festival experience many people actively seek out when buying a ticket for similar events today.

Woodstock Music & Art Fair 1969. Bethel, NY. Phoot by Baron Wolman
Over 250,000 people crammed into the Woodstock Music & Art Fair in 1969. Photo by Baron Wolman

Yet modern big-budget music festivals bear little resemblance to our collective memory of summer 1969, the halcyon ideals of peace and love thoroughly cracked under the reality of big box capitalism. By the 1980s, Woodstock's financers Joel Rosenman and John Roberts slammed the "greedy promoters, unruly crowds and sky-high fees for performers" that ruined their "home-grown" festival spirit. CSNY's The Cost of Freedom has been barcoded at the till and tallied up to spiralling ticket prices, us-and-them VIP areas and distractingly heavier branding and sponsorship.

From Woodstock to Glastonbury, ethical music festivals are now hard to come by

While delivering a Ted Talk pointedly titled The Walmartisation of Music Festivals, experienced event organiser Kevin Lyman identified "a second generation" of music festivals created in the early 1990s, by which time the iconography and ideals of the "counterculture" lifestyle had been thoroughly consumed, co-opted and sold back to music lovers.

While Britain's Glastonbury Festival remains ethically noble, it has grown from a fringe event which attracted only 12,000 people in 1979 to an annual televised spectacle watched by 20 million. Rather than existing for an initiated few at the edges of society, for better or worse, festivals today defiantly cater for all demographics and are presented as a necessary rite of passage for experience-hungry young adults, as well as a source of bottomless nostalgia for sentimental elders who missed all the fun the first time around. This summer both my 70-something mother and EDM-loving teenage niece found festivals that suited their tastes.

"It's become ingrained in our culture that we are going to go to festivals," says Lyman, who in 1995 founded the Vans Warped Tour, a one-day touring festival event that attracted audiences of 750,000 annually across the US. "We are going to go and enjoy that tribal experience – and use our student loan money."

A fitting epitaph for cash co-opting the hippie dream

While Woodstock famously lost money – later recouped by the movie's cinema success – cash hunger has plagued the brand's numerous revivals. The 30th anniversary Woodstock in 1999 was widely criticised for charging $4 (Dh15) for bottled water amid a heatwave, while the plug has finally been pulled on a 50th anniversary event after financial backers walked away.

Last month, organisers announced that Woodstock 50 was officially cancelled, the final nail in months of coffin hammering.

Originally announced to wide fanfare in January by original Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang, the endeavour was beset by a sad string of calamities. First it lost investors, then its planned venue, then the permit for a new one, and finally its headliners. Jay-Z, Santana, Miley Cyrus, Dead & Company, The Raconteurs and The Lumineers had all dropped out by the time news officially broke late on Wednesday, July 31, that Woodstock 50 was toast.

If you were looking for a fitting epitaph for cash co-opting the hippie dream, then look no further. A final piece of irony? Cash-flush listeners can instead relive every sweaty second of the original Woodstock weekend through a newly assembled 38-disc, 432-track box set called Woodstock – Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive, which is selling for $800 a pop.