In the wake of the canceled Woodstock 50th anniversary at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, you may wonder what was left to celebrate. After five decades, haven’t we learned that Woodstock can’t be replicated? Although many opportunists looking to make a dollar have tried, they have failed: After the 1969 event, there were numerous festival mimics that met their fate by court injunction or community backlash. The search for permits and locations, the concerns of residents and the theater of community meetings, and the hasty planning that ultimately led to the cancellation of Woodstock 50 all place this latest attempt at a revival in the continuing tradition of the original event.
Logistically, the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair was an accident waiting to happen. Working on a tight schedule because of a last-minute site change, crews were faced with a flurry of production calamities right up until show time. From a failed roof structure, adverse weather, collapsed fences, overwhelmed sanitation and a lack of food, it was no wonder that New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican, was champing at the bit to send in the troops. That he didn’t was a bit of a marvel — and in an even greater surprise, Woodstock turned into a cultural and historical watershed instead of the disaster it was shaping up to be. For the 1960s generation who attended and are still living, some still must miss that weekend of utopian ideals, suspended societal norms and a respite from the Nixon administration’s warmongering.
Certainly, by current standards of contemporary festival systemization and planning, Woodstock 1969 is a good example of what not to do. So why did it not merely work but become a revered part of American cultural history? The answer lies in the difficulties that doomed Woodstock’s imitators.
When I asked him why the original Woodstock festival worked so well, emcee and light designer Chip Monck said that being naked and rain-soaked was the great “equalizer” at Woodstock. Everyone was brought down to a similar level. The exposed Woodstock audience of 400,000, and how they behaved under less-than-ideal conditions, ultimately, became the festival’s most important performance. By unifying and relying on each other, they sustained four arduous days without hostility or anger. The world was watching, and the festivalgoers set a powerful example.
Asked why they thought Woodstock worked out so well, one attendee reflected: “At Woodstock, a miracle happened. It was that one person being generous and creating an atmosphere where everybody would share.” Another said: “The vibe was wonderful. I felt safe. The people who were there were all good people. We were all feeding each other.”
What should the current generation expect from the dove and guitar? Being exposed to the elements like the Woodstock boomers of old may not sit well for today’s festival-going youths who raise gleaming iPhones rather than candles in the rain. Surviving a weekend without proper organization and leadership doesn’t seem like a reality or desire for today’s pampered concertgoer.
But there’s more to this story than being coddled by contemporary festival luxuries. Is there a venue where a diverse audience can come together and enact the ideals of the original Woodstock festival in such a polarized and divisive world? With so many overwhelming problems, should promoters be more in tune with the concerns of our youth? What is significant to them, and what is it that they want to see changed? If there is still an opportunity to build on the legacy of Woodstock, perhaps we should start by asking the right questions.
In theory, Woodstock is, and was, an idea that’s still admirable. It really has nothing to do with farms or fields or planning or overcoming technical mishaps. It was the commonly held convictions of a well-educated group of vulnerable, perhaps naive, young people who empowered one another through a visceral kind of connectedness. This is something that no opportunistic promoter can schedule or sell. You cannot repeat Woodstock.
John Kane is the author of “Pilgrims of Woodstock.”