The History They Didn't Teach You in School--an occasional series. August 15-17, 1969 Woodstock Music Festival

On the weekend of August 15, 16 and 17, 1969, over 500,000 people from all over the U.S. traveled to Woodstock, in upstate New York, for what would become the most famous music festival ever. Woodstock was a stridently antiwar spectacles, but its message was diluted by the media. Rather than focus on the political statements made, mainstream cultural commentators talked about hippies, long hair, and nudity. The movement, as it were, had lost its teeth amid a co-optive and homogenizing media culture that ignored real politics and substituted image and sensationalism.

Woodstock featured some of the more memorable acts of the Rock & Roll era––Richie Havens, Joan Baez, John Sebastian, Arlo Guthrie, Santana, Mountain, Canned Heat, CCR, Janis Joplin, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Grandpa Simpson's favorite band that day––Sha Na Na, The Band, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, CSNY, and Country Joe and the Fish and Jimi Hendrix, who offered his memorable version of the Star-Spangled Banner.

Woodstock signalled the merger and ambivalence of the counterculture and protest. The festival was billed as "three days of peace and love," in contrast to the war and hatred in Vietnam. Festival organizers pointed out that anyone buying a ticket was contributing to a united front against the Vietnam War. Scores of acts played and made antiwar speeches, with Country Joe exhorting the crowd that "if you want to stop this fucking war, you'll have to sing louder than that." "Movement leaders" and other activists took their turns at the mike and "some of the young men destroyed their draft cards in protest of the Vietnam War." Yet, the media images and memory of Woodstock focus on the celebrative aspects of it: the rain, the music, nudity, drugs, free love.

Obviously, the counterculture's political message was too dangerous and had to be sanitized and softened for the American public. Like the New Left, the counterculture developed a critique and alternative to the society in which they were raised. Where the political youth joined SDS or took over campus buildings, the cultural opposition dressed differently and dropped acid. Often, the two movements converged. Many hippies were indeed political and counterculture behavior was endemic in the antiwar movement. But often, the New Left saw hippies as apolitical, and hippies saw the political youth as bureaucratic and uptight. In the end, though, the challenge they both posed to American society was resisted, or channeled into acceptable avenues, co-opted and commodified so that the images of protest and resistance became ways for Madison Avenue to sell products.
 

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