This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. The historic music festival was held August 15-17, 1969 on Max Yasgur's dairy farm outside Bethel, NY. You're going to see various stories and articles reliving those "3 days of peace and music," others comparing/constrasting the America of yore with that of today, and still others asking, "what lessons have we learned?"
What you're not going to see is another festival. The planned "Woodstock 50" celebration was conceived by original Woodstock promoter Michael Lang and scheduled at Watkins Glen International racetrack (in New York). When that fell through, it moved to Merriweather Post Pavilion (in Maryland), shrinking from three days to one before its ultimate cancellation on July 31. It appears the answer to the lessons learned question —- at least when it comes to organizing a music festival — is "not much."
Half a century is a long time, to be sure, but it's been interesting to watch the contrasting attitudes toward another event celebrating its semi-centennial this year: namely, the 1969 Apollo moon landing. That milestone was commemorated all over TV, with nationwide celebrations, widespread media coverage, and cool stuff like NASA TV replaying the entire launch and landing in real time.
For Woodstock's 50th, there will be events at Bethel Woods, including concerts by John Fogerty, Ringo Starr, and Carlos Santana. This is a scaled-down version of the original Bethel Woods Music and Culture Festival that was canceled without fanfare earlier this year, well before "Woodstock 50" was shelved. PBS is also airing Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation this weekend.
And ... that's pretty much it, aside from the expected puff pieces. The official Woodstock site is laughably sparse, with the two most recent entries being a reminder to enter the Woodstock 50th Anniversary sweepstakes (grand prize includes a guitar, LP set, and T-shirt) and an announcement that the U.S. Post Office is issuing a commemorative stamp.
You can buy a "Don't Eat the Brown Acid" T-shirt, however. Shameless money grabs being one of the things all ex-hippies can agree on.
In fairness, the moon landing unified the country (with some significant exceptions) in ways a bunch of dirty youths smoking the reefer in a muddy field never could. This wasn't said youths' fault (entirely): television coverage of the Apollo 11 mission meant nearly 600 million people worldwide saw Neil Armstrong's first steps off the lunar lander. There was no coverage from inside Woodstock, and media reports were notoriously unflattering.
Woodstock wasn't the first music festival, far from it, but it remained the largest ever free one for a time (Pennsylvania's Musikfest took that crown a while back). Its legacy will always be as a watershed moment marking the perceived passing of the torch from one generation to another with radically different values. That, and for not the attendees not cannibalizing each other (with assistance from local residents and the National Guard), but it's long been supplanted in public consciousness (in this country anyway) by the likes of Coachella, Bonnaroo, JazzFest, and many others.
Besides, we've already done the "Woodstock anniversary" thing. Four times. Woodstock '89 was more of a hangout than an official concert, while Woodstock '94 was even muddier than the original, but widely regarded as a success. Woodstock '99 ... not so much. Arguably more has been written about that debacle than the original fest, and it's understandable that promoters wanted to repair the Woodstock brand, marked as it was by rioting and sexual assault.
'99 was such a disaster it effectively ended any chance of a 40th anniversary show, with 2009's "Heroes of Woodstock" ending up as a number of original WS acts reuniting at venues across the country.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
The muted reaction to 50 also makes sense in the wake of last year's disastrous Fyre Festival and the organizers' reluctance to replicate those mistakes. And while people mocked Fyre — with good reason — they were incorrect in hinting that Woodstock 50 might turn into some sort of "Fyre 2.0." If anything, the original Woodstock, with all its logistical nightmares, inadequate planning, and near-distastrous inclusion of Sha Na Na, and its 1999 incarnation were the true antecedents to Fyre.
Ultimately, maybe the reason no one's making a big deal of out Woodstock's 50th anniversary is that nothing ever came of the "movement." Sure, 400,000 people managed to spend an unwashed weekend crammed together without killing each other. It's an admittedly Herculean achievement to this writer, who can barely stand sitting on the tarmac in an airplane with other human beings for 20 minutes, and I salute them for it.
But if the decades since that mythologized weekend have taught us anything, it's that the so-called "Woodstock Generation" hasn't done a hell of a lot to live up to the ideals it once championed. The planet is boiling thanks to the prioritizing of profit over environment, income disparity has worsened disastrously, and "F*ck you, I got mine" has replaced "Om Namah Shivaya" as their mantra of choice. Instead of threatening audiences with the likes of Imagine Dragons and the Lumineers, Lang and company should've just dumped a pile of money on stage and set it on fire. It would've been more on brand.
So this is the way the 50th anniversary of Woodstock ends: not with a kerrang, but a "meh."