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

September 9th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

More than forty years have passed since performers, stage crews, filmmakers, festival workers and some 456,000 spectators left Max Yasgur’s farm and the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. With many who were there now in their sixties and beyond, one might think the legacy of the event would pass into that of fondly remembered nostalgia. But the Woodstock legacy continues to grow.

The event has been preserved since shortly after its conclusion via audio recordings and a documentary film. The two original LP sets, Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More and Woodstock 2, were recorded under technically difficult circumstances but were eagerly anticipated when first released. Since then they have been re-mastered and made available in every listening form imaginable. Archived unreleased songs from the event continue to appear.

The Oscar®-winning film Woodstock, still occasionally shown in its original wide screen format in theaters, is widely available in various home video packages: the latest being Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music The Director’s Cut 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition with bonus features such as added scenes and interviews. An increasing number of books, photo essays, websites, memorabilia, and a museum on the site – even a new Ang Lee film – give the Woodstock phenomenon a sight, sound and tactile presence. The opportunity exists for current and future generations to get an idea of the experience without having been there.

But what about the feel and meaning of Woodstock? The promotional bonanza has not escaped the attention of two key participants personally interviewed for this GreatHistory.com series. They recognize some of these keepsakes as an opportunity to expand the reach of Woodstock’s music and message. But the lasting cultural implications of three days of peace and music are omnipresent and include the impact on how popular music is presented live and on film or video.

Before Wadleigh, Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker and others began the mammoth task of editing hundreds of thousand of feet of film into a big screen presentation, Wadleigh set the tone for how the music and the event would be treated on film:

I really gravitate to not only good musical performances, and good music, but to the message that’s coming through the words. One of the things that made the camera work so effective to me is that I lectured to myself and the other twelve or fourteen cameramen, “Don’t make it a move or zoom to celebrate the technique of the effect. Listen to the sound, listen to the lyrics, really involve yourself in the content and the performance and let your selective lens, zoom, move and so on serve what the music and the artist and lyrics are saying.” So when Jimmy Hendrix played the U. S. National Anthem not with a single vocal word but with sound effects in his guitar, that sonic screaming and anguish counts as well. It was a lyrical expression of language, a sonic one.

Wadleigh differentiates between the performances that were captured on film at Woodstock and the highly produced concert and music video performances of today:

You have someone like Joe Cocker on stage, that’s an example of a great performance by somebody who has no backdrop, no make-up, no hair style, no nothing. Today with all of their hairdos and with all of their choreography, all of the carefully lit stuff, is that what a performance is all about? I don’t think so, I think it’s really a raw entertainer or communicator to the world, getting up there and doing their thing.

Managing the stage, performers and audience announcements still allowed Chip Monck time to appreciate the ground-breaking performances of the festival. Noting the periodic celebrations of Woodstock, he looks ahead to the fiftieth and wonders how the original could ever be outdone. “It may very well be because of my age and because of my musical tastes, I don’t hear anything anymore that’s as good as we had there. Is it an act that’s going to make you tremble? Those did.”

Immediately following Woodstock many other events attempted to duplicate the non-stop music and festival atmosphere. Over the decades large musical gatherings have lessened. They have become more sophisticated and must compete with multimedia concert experiences, but they are still relevant. The Coachella Valley Music Festival is one. Wadleigh talks about another.

There’s this famous festival (in the U. K.) called the Glastonbury Festival that started one year after Woodstock and that’s a direct result of Woodstock. I went this year because they were doing homage to Woodstock and it’s a fantastic festival. Who was the star act Friday night? Neil Young. And how old was the group watching him? Young. That was a performance right out of Woodstock. The next night, Crosby, Stills and Nash. Then a guy who’s pushing sixty, Bruce Springsteen. He went on for 2½ hours, with no break in between. I think what the audiences get is these people are the real thing, playing music for themselves, and not writing it to have hits. I think that’s contemporary proof that this is successful stuff.

And the social implications of Woodstock? Perhaps the long-standing “generation gap” closed just a little because of the non-confrontational theme of Woodstock. “One interesting vignette,” says Monck “was about one of the Monticello police officers. An older man who’d been on the force for about 35 years, he said that he didn’t really agree with their dress, or with their length of hair and the way they looked, but that he had never in all of his years on the force met a more courteous and flexible group of young people. And he said, ‘It was a delight to take off my gun belt and my hat and put on a T-shirt and help cook hot dogs.’”

Wadleigh sees the social awareness raised by the counter-culture forces of the Woodstock era still relevant today as the world struggles with environmental and economic concerns, for which he is now actively working toward awareness and solutions:

Today’s problems really tie back to the major questioning of the 1960s and I would point out to you that a Nobel laureate, a great guy named (Dr.) Steven Chu, who (President) Barack Obama had the great intelligence to appoint as head of the Energy Department, has been giving very “Woodstockian” interviews. You will hear the words come out of his mouth that could have come out of the mouths of the counterculture of the 1960s. Steven Chu is right there with the same ideas.

Indeed, the legacy continues to grow.

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