Of the rock festivals of the sixties, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was by far the most famous. Held on a 600-acre dairy farm near Bethel, N.Y. on August 15–17, 1969, the festival is the iconic representation of the drug-addled culture and sexual revolution that upended American life. This August marks the fiftieth anniversary of the era-defining event. Some have called for celebrating with another concert.
The occasion is hardly a cause for celebration—so many of the cultural changes after Woodstock had catastrophic consequences. Most do not know that the concert was a disaster—even from an organizational point of view.
What Went Wrong
Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.
The organizers planned an event for 200,000 people. Nearly 400,000 people crashed the gates where they demanded and received free admission. Security fell apart. The highways were clogged with cars trying to get to the event. Heavy rains created a sea of mud that mixed with the promiscuity, drugs and marijuana that dominated the festival.
John Fogerty, from the rock group Creedence Clearwater Revival, described an early morning scene as “sort of like a painting of a Dante scene, just bodies from hell, all intertwined and asleep, covered with mud.”
The “establishment” that the hippies condemned saved Woodstock. Professionals had already arranged to attract concertgoers by promising a star-studded cast that included Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Santana, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and the Jefferson Airplane. A sympathetic media turned the logistic and moral disaster into a hippie legend by repackaging the event as “three days of peace and music.” When order broke down, the government stepped in with personnel from nearby Stewart Air Force Base. They flew in performers and put men on the ground to keep things from descending into total disorder.
Capitalizing on Woodstock’s fiftieth anniversary, promoters hoped to recreate the “magic” of the original festival. It seems they only managed to recreate the disaster. As in 1969, everything has gone wrong. However, this time, the establishment did not come to the rescue. Even the media were nowhere to be found. Scheduled for August 16-18, Woodstock 50 was abruptly canceled on July 31.
Woodstock—A Symbol of What Went Wrong With the Sixties
Woodstock is symbolic of all that went wrong with the sixties. The mud fest of sex, drugs and music represented a cultural revolution that destroyed morals, customs and manners. What happened at Woodstock would later be mainstreamed across America so that today the radical behavior manifested there is generalized and accepted.
The atmosphere of nudity and indecency at the festival, for example, prefigured the destruction of modesty and propriety seen in today’s fashions. The unbridled passions unleashed at Woodstock pushed the envelope of what causes scandal so that today nothing seems to shock anymore.
However, the worst was the spirit of Woodstock that soon permeated everywhere. Its hippie generation fled from things that were reasoned, structured and systematized in favor of all that is spontaneous, carefree and impulsive. The civilization of the image and sensationalism replaced intellectual effort and abstract thought. People rejected discipline and restraint and called for an end to all rules.
“It is forbidden to forbid!” shouted the student protesters at France’s Sorbonne University in 1968. Across the Atlantic on the trash-littered fields at Woodstock, a generation embraced an anything-goes culture where you could “do your own thing.”
The Woodstock Illusion
The myth of Woodstock claimed the event was all about a new age of freedom, love and peace. Without the restraints of Christian morals and social structures, people could “imagine” a perfect world and live together in harmony without property, authority and God.
However, as in all utopic fantasies, reality crashes through the illusions. A Woodstock world is a nightmare. Indeed, without courtesy and propriety, society becomes full of friction and discord. When all is spontaneous and undefined, there can be no certainties and convictions. Where there is no restraint, the tyranny of unbridled passions rules.
Woodstock represented what America would eventually become—a broken and dysfunctional society. It shows what happens when “you do your own thing” without self-restraint.
Why Woodstock 50 Is No More
Thus, the logic of Woodstock makes the cancelation of its anniversary predictable. Woodstock 50 failed because a Woodstock society cannot function in the real world. The festival could not imagine itself into existence.
In a do-your-own-thing world, Woodstock 50 suffered from the difficulty of generating interest beyond those things that absorb the individual lives of people.
Between nostalgic baby boomers and curious millennials, promoters hoped for an intergenerational audience of 150,000. The event organizers spent more than $32 million booking more than 80 acts. They paid handsomely for top names: Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, Santana, Imagine Dragons and others were scheduled to perform. Even some of the rock groups present in 1969 agreed to come on board.
A Do-Your-Own-Thing Affair
However, like the original event, plans soon fell apart when no one wanted to make the necessary commitments to make it work. Financial backers and festival partners backed out of the deal. Promoters failed to secure the needed municipal permits. The venue changed three times. No one wanted to touch the event.
Town officials in two small towns in upstate New York opposed the plans fearing they might be overwhelmed by logistic nightmares like those that happened at the first event. It soon became apparent that Woodstock could no longer be held in New York. A smaller venue was finally secured at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md.
With the smaller venue so far from the original site, the top stars that draw the great audiences dropped out of a downsized event that failed to match the size of their inflated egos. Soon, lesser acts also began to jump ship.
Even a last-minute attempt to turn the affair into a benefit for HeadCount, a nonprofit that registers voters at concerts, failed miserably.
The establishment failed to come to the rescue of the doomed reenactment.
In the end, apathy and individualism trumped peace and love.
The Failure of Woodstock
Woodstock and Woodstock 50 failed because the promises of peace and love were empty and meaningless. As the original event, Woodstock’s promotion of the sexual revolution was a disaster despite the establishment’s efforts to rescue it. Society has broken down because doing your own thing comes at a cost for others, including unborn babies, and the breaking of family relationships and healthy communities. Above all, Woodstock denied God and enshrined the individual as a god.
If America is polarized and directionless today, it is partly due to the cultural revolution that emanated from Woodstock. The solution is not to recreate Woodstock fifty years after but to reject it as the cultural and moral disaster that it was.