Turn on Tune in and Drop Out! By John Evans Music
Two years before I was born an estimated 500,000 people descended on the small town of Bethel in New York State for three days of ‘peace love and music’. They would endure all weathers and come together in what could be heralded as one of the biggest and most culturally important gatherings of youth music culture up to that date. The event epitomised the term Hippie and defined a generation of people both at the event and subsequently through its folkloric affect both in America and across the globe.
My inspiration - My Brother and his American friend David at 11 yrs old
My first exposure to the Hippie American Culture and Woodstock event began when I was a young boy around 11 or 12 in the late 70`s early 80`s and my elder brother was working in the United States. He was driving tourists around places like the Grande Canyon and Salt Lake in a campervan in and around California. At this time an american friend of his came over to the UK and called in on our family home. The whole family were very happy to see him and he ended up staying with us for a few days. I remember he was very tall and used to put me on his shoulders and lift me up to our first floor landing! A very exciting thing for a young innocent 11 year old! At this time it happened that they broadcast the film of Woodstock on the BBC and I was immediately hooked. I guess thats where most of my inspiration to get into music came from and from those days I began my musical journey to becoming a musician and songwriter inspired by the west coast rock and folk influenced bands such as Joni Mitchell, James Taylor Lynyrd Skynyrd and so on.
During my time at University one of the first assignments we were given was to write an essay on a topic of your own choosing so for me the Woodstock event was my first choice. This is a rewritten condensed version of that essay...
I`m not sure that David, my brothers friend, realises what an influence those times had on me when we both sat down to watch Woodstock all those years ago? Perhaps one day we might meet again but I don`t think he`ll be putting me on his shoulders again! My brother sadly is no longer with us but he lived a life fuller than most people I know in his relatively short time with us and he was a huge influence on me musically, being a very talented musician and Music teacher himself. We all wish 'Paul' was still with us, The good always seem to be taken from us when we least expect it but his memory we all still keep.
The Hippy movement or rather counterculture of the time had been born out of the Hait Ashbury scene in San Francisco and was heavily associated with Drug culture perhaps most significantly marked by the use of the then legal drug LSD at such events as the acid tests in the U.S. But Hippies and the counterculture of the time were not only concerned with self exploration and hedonism. They were also often politically motivated and there was a strong sense of peace activism that pervaded throughout the movement and anti war themes. This ideology heralded by many of the artistes of the time was epitomised at Woodstock with Country Joe and the fish performing their anti war song ‘Next Stop Vietnam’. The Hippy counterculture was set against the political backdrop of the time of a nation at odds with their leaders fighting a war in Vietnam that the masses did not want and the counterculture kicked against, especially when young men were being drafted into the war to be sent to their deaths at the time in a far off land and an unwinnable war.
The feeling was that music could change the world as long as the people wanted change and it was time to turn on, tune in and drop out.
The people behind Woodstock were Michael Lang, and Artie Kornfeld. Lang and Kornfeld were good friends and both prominent music producers. In Kornfelds words “Never did I think that what started as an idealistic conversation among friends would become part of history” and what Rolling Stone magazine describes as one of the top moments ‘That Changed the History of Rock & Roll’. (www.artiekornfeld-woodstock.com). The event very nearly didn’t happen and it was through a chance reading in the New York Times that the pair secured a meeting with financial backers John Roberts and Joel Rosenman two venture capitalists looking for a great idea to inspire them. The meeting was a success and the four men formed a company ‘Woodstock Ventures’. The next thing to do was to find a suitable venue for the site. Woodstock in New York State was a haven at the time for Artistes such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez among many and it was thought this would make an ideal venue however after sinking a good chunk of their capital into setting up the event at Woodstock the plug was pulled by the local council who refused to issue a licence for the event fearing repercussions and trouble from the event. So whilst all the posters had been printed, many contracts signed and logistics in place Woodstock Ventures had to relocate. The salvation of the event came in the form of one Max Yasgure who had a farm in Bethel still in New York state and having heard of the events difficulties in Woodstock offered the four men a deal to use his farm for the show. Tickets were sold and promotion went into full swing as the company setup its HQ in a small motel in the sleepy town of Bethel.
A note about security
Communes were a big part of the counterculture lifestyle through leanings towards communist and Marxist teachings and one of the most notable icons of the movement at the time was Hugh Romney aka Wavy Gravy who had attended the acid tests on the west coast and who had befriended many musical icons of the time such as the Grateful Dead through his humour and peace loving attitudes. Wavy had set up a commune in New Mexico called the Hog Farm and many movers and shakers of the time had links with Wavy and the Hog Farm. Who better to head up security than the iconic clown of hippie Dom than Wavy and the Hog farmers to instil a sense of community at the festival. Wavy became famous for his speech on the Saturday morning when the commune had organised a soup kitchen proclaiming ‘What we have in mind Ladies and Gentlemen is breakfast in bed for 400 thousand!’ (Young men with unlimited capital, Joel Rosenmam and John Roberts, 1999)
Three days before the event was due to start on the Friday people had started pouring in from all over the country with many people managing to get on to the site without buying a ticket because the late relocation of the event had delayed logistics for the site and turnstile and fencing of the arena were not in place adding to the sense of free love and peace man because this meant free music as well! Woodstock ventures would subsequently lose money and face bankruptcy after the event due largely to this oversight but would recoup their outgoings and avoid financial disaster due mostly to a late deal struck with Warner Brothers to make a film of the event.
The first to take to the stage was Richie Havens who had been flown in from the Headquarters in Bethel for to play first for two reasons, one being they had the least equipment to transport in the small helicopter available to them and the second that the other bands hadn’t turned up due to transport difficulties. By this time the main New York state freeway was blocked for miles around and traffic was at a standstill.
So Richie played his set and then when still no other bands had turned up he played some more songs and some more until eventually he had played everything he knew and still he had to pull something out of the bag till the next band arrived. The moment was probably the highlight of his career as he stepped on to the stage one last time and actually wrote the song Freedom right there and then. It would become an anthem for Woodstock and one of his most famous songs. Many other acts followed including Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Santana, putting in Legendary performances and providing a line up to end line ups of the time. Richie sadly passed away last year Richard Pierce “Richie” Havens (January 21, 1941 – April 22, 2013) Long may his music live on…
Although a financial disaster Woodstock was culturally one of if not the most important cultural phenomenon to come out of the 60`s proving that a generation could come together on mass in a peaceful way to experience themselves and the music of Woodstock. There is only one mention of violence at the whole event which was peacefully broken up before it even started and remember there were 500 thousand people in attendance that weekend.
‘Woodstock has become synonymous with counter-culture, drug use and hippies but ask those in attendance and they will tell you that it was so much more than that. It was a movement of a counterculture who were more in tune with worldly events then at any other time. It was message of peace, harmony and love in a world that was in such a mess. In many ways that message has now been lost forever by a new world of crime, greed, corruption and burglaries… but we can still have the memories and dream of Woodstock.’( www.articlesbase.com )
Many Acts missed out on playing the festival such as Led Zeppelin and the Beatles not realising the huge cultural impact it would have on a generation but one most notable exception was Joni Mitchell who wrote the hit song titled Woodstock from second hand reports from friends who were there including Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills fame who played the event. Nash was Joni’s boyfriend at the time and Mitchell says that being deprived of the experience first hand only inspired her more when writing the song.
In conclusion I it could be said that Woodstock 1969 was one of the most culturally significant events of the 20th century and inspired an entire generation of people to live up to the hippy ideals of peace love and understanding. Never before or since has a musical event captured the hearts and minds of so many people in such a profound way. Woodstock`s legacy lives on through the people who shared in it and subsequent generations. Helping to further this posterity and bring it to the attention of an even wider audience though is the film of the event, ‘Woodstock, 3 days of peace love and music’, directed by Michael Wadleigh and distributed by Warner Brothers which ultimately saved the organisers from financial ruin.
‘Young men with unlimited capital’, Joel Rosenman and John Roberts, 1999
Written by John Evans. I am a musician and have been greatly influenced by the singer songwriters who emerged during this hayday of music and political idealism. Please visit my website at http://www.johnevansmusic.co.uk to listen to my music… I look forward to hearing from you!