Woodstock is a small, unremarkable town in New York state. Or at least it was half a century ago.
Today, it’s still small, with less than 6,000 residents according to the latest census from 2010, but mention the name “Woodstock” and people around the world will instantly recognise it. The reason they do is because of its association with arguably the most famous (some might say infamous) rock music festival in history.
Tomorrow marks 50 years since the start of Woodstock, which featured the likes of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joe Cocker, Jimi Hendrix, Santana and The Who.
It was billed as three days of “peace and music”, but has since become synonymous with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and images of hirsute young men and women dancing naked in muddy fields.
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Woodstock is famous for lending its name to the festival, though it was actually held at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm almost 60 miles away in Bethel. It wasn’t even supposed to be held in or near the town; instead, it was initially planned for Wallkill, near New York, but moved to Bethel after Wallkill withdrew.
Around 186,000 tickets had been sold on the eve of the festival, but as word spread, hordes of young revellers made a beeline for Bethel, and as they swamped the site, breaking through the flimsy fences and ticket barriers, the organisers announced the concert was free - this prompted thousands more to descend on the area which caused huge traffic jams on the surrounding roads.
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In the end, it’s estimated that more than 400,000 people turned up, making it the largest rock concert of the decade. On the last day, Max Yasgur addressed the crowds, saying: “You have proven something to the world... that half a million kids can get together for fun and music and have nothing but fun and music.”
So what is Woodstock’s legacy? Dr Simon Warner, a rock music researcher at the University of Leeds, believes it is a significant cultural landmark, but in ways it hadn’t intended. It wasn’t the first, or the biggest, rock music festival. “There was Monterey [Pop Festival] in 1967 and the Watkins Glen festival in 1973 saw around 600,000 people go and watch the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead, which was more than were at Woodstock,” he says.
However, the Woodstock festival became a catalyst for the way the rock and pop industry worked. “It showed that the counter culture and the hippie movement was a bigger commercial proposition than many people realised and it lit the touchpaper for the record industry, which started to move away from pop singles and saw the huge earning potential of rock albums.”
A film of the concert was released the following year fuelling its growing mythical status as Woodstock became synonymous with flower power, the hippie culture and anti-Vietnam war protests.
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It can be argued, though, that Woodstock was the last hurrah of this fledgling movement. A week earlier, Charles Manson directed his followers, known as the “Manson Family”, to go on a killing spree that claimed seven lives, including that of Hollywood actress Sharon Tate, the wife of Roman Polanski.
Then in December that year, a Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, in California, ended in tragedy when fighting erupted and one fan was fatally stabbed.
As Warner says, Woodstock didn’t bring an end to the Vietnam War and it didn’t force Richard Nixon out of the White House (that would come later), but it did change the way the music business operated and it paved the way for the likes of Glastonbury and the huge rock festivals that exist today. “Woodstock was the springboard for all of these that followed.”