Peaceful yet polarizing is one way to describe Woodstock. The 1969 music festival (which truly defies repetition) has been monumentalized by history, but it was once reviled by those who just didn’t get it. For the generation who lived Woodstock, and all who came after, a mystique remains. So many festivals have taken place since then—Coachella, Burning Man, Lollapalooza, to name a few— yet none have captured the same sense of community and collaboration that the 3 day event in upstate New York did.
For Brooklyn-based music writer and author, Daniel Bukszpan, the opportunity to write a book about the festival — all that it was, and all that it would in time become, was not one to be missed. Woodstock: 50 Years of Peace and Music, released this year to coincide with the event’s 50th anniversary, features never-before-seen images and original interviews from performers, attendees, and people behind the scenes. MainSpring caught up with Daniel to get his thoughts on the event and how it’s still impacting pop culture and people today.
1) What impact do you think the event had on those who performed, those who attended, and society at large?
As far as the performers, some of them walked onstage as unknowns and walked offstage as superstars, like Santana. Others got no boost from it whatsoever, for one reason or another. I gave equal space in the book to them anyway, just because I thought they deserved a little better than just being footnotes. For the people who attended it was also a mixed bag. There were people I spoke to who said the event had completely changed their lives, and other people I talked to who were miserable the whole time. There was a lot of sleeping in mud and rain that tends to get overlooked in all the hagiography.
As far as society at large, that's hard to say. The festival wasn't actually reported on much while it was going on, except in terms of how it affected local traffic. It was impossible to get onto the grounds once it was in full swing—there was about 10 miles of abandoned cars completely choking up the only major road to the site—so newspapers and TV couldn't report from the scene, with the exception of a couple of outlets that had the foresight to plan ahead and get there ahead of time. It was mostly reported on after the fact, and I think if it had any effect on society at large, it was more in terms of myth-making than anything else.
The biggest effect it really had was on the music industry, who saw that half a million people would sleep in mud for this music, and it turned into a much more commercial enterprise after that. That's not to say the music business wasn't already a commercial enterprise, but it became a lot more corporate after that. That wasn't the intention of the organizers at all, and I think most of the people who participated would have been horrified to learn that that's what the music business was going to take from it.
Why do you think it's so important to remember the event, and why do you think attempts to re-launch it by generations after have failed?
The thing that I think is most important to remember is how the audience handled themselves. There wasn't enough food, there was only one toilet for very 267 people, it rained constantly, and the audience kept it together and kept it peaceful the entire time. If anything had the potential to turn into a riot or something even worse, that was it, and there was no violence the entire time. That's a huge thing that tends to get overlooked, and it deserves much more attention than it gets. It had real potential to turn into Lord of the Flies, and it didn't.
If you contrast that with today, where well-fed people sitting in an air-conditioned stadium go outside and flip cars over because their hockey team lost, you can see how much that one event deserves to be held up as an example of people thinking of the collective good. So attempts to re-launch it may not have worked in part because people are different and society is different.
Another reason it didn't work out to re-launch it this time is because of all the laws and regulations that were put in place after Woodstock to basically prevent it from ever happening again. Getting all the necessary permits these days and all the regulatory hurdles you have to jump through are completely different from how it was 50 years ago, and if you don't basically have everything in place a year in advance of the event, you're going to run into problems. The documentaries on Hulu and Netflix about the Fyre Festival show what happens when you don't plan everything out the right way. That event was a fantastic example of what not to do.
What's the one thing that surprised you most while compiling the book?
What really surprised me the most, and what really dictated the direction of the book, was the lack of audience perspectives that are out there. Everybody already knows about the people who played, the organizers, all that stuff, but there just weren't a lot of audience accounts out there and that just seemed crazy to me. There were half a million people in that field and all of them had something to say, and I was kind of floored that more books don't feature their accounts. No two of them were alike either.
What is the overarching feeling about what the legacy of Woodstock is—or should be?
My feeling is that it was this wonderful aberration that happened once and luckily went well that one time, and you can't really do that twice. It was a unique event and a unique moment, and you can't really recreate those things. You can be inspired by them or use them as examples or blueprints, but you can't just churn out an identical event.
If you think of the happiest and most treasured moments in your life, you know that they were the unique result of a confluence of factors, and that doesn't lend itself to being repeated. Even when you cook something, even if you follow the same recipe every time, it's going to be a little different every time. It's not like assembling IKEA furniture. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing either, it just means that people today need to find new ways of expressing themselves.
Do you think the legacy of Woodstock today connects younger and older generations in any way?
Not exactly. The "let's all get together at a music event for a few days" part absolutely carried over, so that part made it into this generation. What didn't make it was the political idea that motivated the festival, at least from the point of view of the organizers. Michael Lang, who was one of the organizers, told me that he wanted the festival to help recapture the idealism of the 1960s, which by 1969 he felt was already slipping away. Another organizer, Artie Kornfeld, told me the point behind Woodstock was to prove socialism could work. You also have to keep in mind that there was a huge anti-authoritarian streak going through every person in that crowd, and half of them were terrified that they were going to get shipped off to Vietnam at any minute. So the "let's have a festival" part carried over but not much else, just because times and circumstances have changed.
by Stephanie Schwalb