Woodstock: Looking Back on 3 Days of Peace and Music Part II

September 2nd, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

The lineup of talent at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair was significant at a time when “rock” music was establishing its own identity well beyond the initial country music inspired “rock -‘n-roll” and “doo-wop” sounds of the 1950s and the progression of pop-rock combinations earlier in the decade. Once Creedence Clearwater Revival, who had gained a rapid rise in popularity with hits such as Proud Mary, committed to the festival other acts, thirty-two in all, fell into place. Notable exceptions—Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and Joni Mitchell (who wrote the song) to name a few—did not attend the festival for various reasons. Some who declined—The Doors, Spirit, Tommy James and The Byrds—stated later they wished they had been part of the experience. Yet when it came time for the music to start on Friday, August 15, 1969, nobody wanted to go on.

“Look at all those people!” Michael Wadleigh, director of the Oscar-winning film Woodstock – 3 days of peace and music, remembers fondly the words of Janice Joplin at Woodstock. “You have to remember no one,” says Wadleigh, “no musician anywhere in the world had performed before that many people. An hour before the first performer went on there was a flurry of activity backstage where the producers of the festival asked, ‘Okay, who’s going to go on?’ Frankly, nobody wanted to go on, they were all scared. They just didn’t know how well the material would translate to that many people. This one guy, an African American who had actually been to Africa, Richie Havens said, ‘I’ll go on, I’m not afraid.’ If you watch his performance in the movie, you see he hardly even looks at the audience—he was used to performing in cafes. He defocused and concentrated on his performance. The whole audience stood up for Richie and clapped along with him, when he didn’t even make a big thing about ‘clap your hands.’ I think that was really influential for the performers that we were watching from the back of the stage there and they said, ‘Gee this is a friendly audience. This is an audience that’s positive and therefore I can go out there and do my thing and not worry about it.’

Despite the positive beginning, great effort was put into the logistics of getting the musicians to perform. Chip Monck, the production/stage manager who had also designed the lighting and was acting as emcee, recalls, “The schedule just went absolutely to pieces. Richie Havens kept coming off the stage saying, ‘I finished my set’ and I said, ‘No you haven’t.’ (Laugh) Sometimes the stage waits were up to an hour which was somewhat embarrassing and difficult, but maybe half an hour of that was finding who the next act was.”

According to Monck, the stage system was originally designed for ease of transition, with six semi-circular turntables allowing for set-up of one band while another was performing. But these gave way very quickly when artists, coming on stage to escape the soggy ground and then onto the turntables to get better views of what was going on, collapsed the wooden structures early on. Another technical problem was the amplifiers used by the Grateful Dead. The unique design of these units caused them to gain hum from the oscillations of the Super Trooper arc lights. But generally, the sound system, specially designed for the event, performed very well. Another problem was not so easily overcome.

“God decided that there would be rain, there would be a deluge. There would be flood and pestilence (Laugh),” says Wadleigh. “The greatest technical problem was caused by the rain. It really caused problems in the Éclair cameras and caused us a great deal of difficulty. Of course it also caused the major fear of the event which is that people would be killed by the Super Troopers which were on the towers and weighed a thousand pounds each. If one of them had come down and into the audience, I’m sure people would have been gravely injured and probably a couple killed. But on the other hand, what great scenes it produced. Without the rain storm, you wouldn’t have had nature coming in and biting us in the ass. Many people comment on the kids out there—how charming it was that, rather than fighting, they enjoy it, sliding in the mud, banging on the cans and chanting.”

“As you can see,” says Monck, “everything was not as we had desired. The fact that we did run 24 hours of music, I think was a blessing. The rain was absolutely a blessing, although inconvenient for everyone…it actually was a unifying factor and we also managed to break the barrier between performer and public. Everybody was just the same as everybody else. And this sort of strange sharing and politeness, and caring for each other just grew out of that.”

Along with some memorable performances by the likes of Mountain, Country Joe and the Fish, Ten Years After and Santana (who, according to Wadleigh, as a little known act at the time was only paid $50 for their set), to name a few.

Next, the movie, the recordings and what we’ve learned from Woodstock.

Read Part I of Woodstock here.

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