44 years ago today Woodstock happened. Officially billed as the Woodstock Music & Art Fair: An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music, this now historic cultural marker was captured in all its beauty and ugliness in Michael Wadleigh’s iconic documentary. This film provides us with much of the iconic music and imagery of a troubled decade that gifted us with a canon of brilliant music and divided us in turbulent political unrest. Woodstock, both the festival and film, captures the end of decade and a profound cultural shift in America.
I could recite for you here a brief list of facts, figures, and performers from the festival and film, but you can also look that up on Wikipedia. What still excites me about Woodstock is the music. Countless bands gave their defining performances. Established bands secured their place in rock history and unknown bands became superstars. So I went to Freegal, the library’s free and legal music downloading service and compiled a playlist of my favorite songs from the festival. I’ll post my list here and if anyone wants to put together their own Woodstock playlist, go ahead and post it in the comments; the combinations are endless. Here’s my list in the festival’s chronological order:
- Tim Hardin – Simple Song of Freedom
- Arlo Guthrie – Coming Into Los Angeles
- Joan Baez – Sweet Sir Galahad
- Country Joe McDonald – Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag
- Santana – Soul Sacrifice
- Mountain – For Yasgur’s Farm
- Janis Joplin – Piece of My Heart
- Sly & the Family Stone – Dance to the Music
- Jefferson Airplane – Plastic Fantastic Lover
- Johnny Winter – Tobacco Road
- Jimi Hendrix – The Star-Spangled Banner
Hendrix’s performance is the image that has constantly flashed in and out of my consciousness for the last 40 or so years. Insisting that he close the show, the peak crowd of 400,000 had, due to torrential rain and lack of adequate food, shelter, and bathrooms, dwindled to 30,000 by the time Hendrix took the stage at 9:00 Monday morning. In the film, masterfully edited by then-unknown Martin Scorcese, Jimi’s set cuts between the guitarist, regaled in blue velvet pants, red headband, and an elaborately beaded and fringed white leather jacket (his own embodiment of the red, white and blue), playing his you-know-what off, and two young men sitting in the mud, sharing what’s left of a watermelon with their dirty bare hands and a pocketknife, nearly oblivious to Hendrix’s exquisite playing as he transitions from the Star-Spangled Banner into Purple Haze. Hendrix’s deconstruction and reconstruction of the National Anthem, juxtaposed against the filth, hunger and exhaustion of two concert-goers, is continually revelatory. No matter how many times I watch Woodstock’s final performance, I still get chills as I am again reminded that the zeitgeist of the 1950’s has been fully put to rest. Hello 1970’s.
I will leave you with some little known facts about about the legendary “aquarian exposition.” Joni Mitchell passed up the opportunity to perform because she wanted to make her national television debut on the Dick Cavett Show. The helicopter carrying Graham Nash nearly crashed. The man cleaning the porta-potties sued the filmmakers for invasion of privacy. Only three women performed solo sets — Joan Baez, Melanie and Janis Joplin. Then unknown, Santana only performed because they won a coin toss; their performance catapulted them to mega-stardom. It was only the second concert ever for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And truth be told, their performance (sans Young who only participated in two songs) of Suite: Judy Blue Eyes is my favorite performance in the film.