Legendary Protest Songs from Woodstock: Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe & More Perform Protest Songs During the Music Festival That Launched 50 Years Ago This Week

This year’s big event to cel­e­brate the 50-year anniver­sary of the most famous music fes­ti­val in the world has died an igno­min­ious death. As Vari­ety wrote in a scathing “obit­u­ary” last month, “Wood­stock 50 passed away today at the age of 7 months, fol­low­ing a brave and very, very long bat­tle with can­cel.”

Not a few peo­ple have said good rid­dance. What could the tribute—to take place not in Wood­stock but in Baltimore—have in com­mon with its name­sake, save a small hand­ful of the still-liv­ing orig­i­nal per­form­ers? The use of “Wood­stock” as a brand seems cyn­i­cal, but then again, we’ve also grown leery of the leg­end of Wood­stock 1. What was it about? Clas­sic rock stars on a farm? Stoned, naked hip­pies flail­ing in the mud? What jus­ti­fies the fifty years of hype?

Wood­stock was about much more than drug­gy flower chil­dren shag­ging in bedrag­gled tents, yet this stereo­type was prop­a­gat­ed from the start. The fes­ti­val “was a stri­dent­ly anti­war spec­ta­cle,” online his­to­ry project All About Wood­stock explains. “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.” A belat­ed wed­ding par­ty, Wood­stock sym­bol­ized “the merg­er and ambiva­lence of the coun­ter­cul­ture and protest.”

The mar­riage may be in sham­bles in the time of Wood­stock 50 but it held on for sev­er­al decades. Wood­stock “was the ‘com­ing out’ par­ty of the rock ‘n’ roll gen­er­a­tion,” writes NPR. Folk singer Richie Havens, the festival’s first per­former, remem­bers it as “the begin­ning of the world, as far as I was con­cerned.” Booked for a 20-minute set, Havens end­ed up play­ing for much longer when San­tana couldn’t be found, ad-lib­bing “Free­dom (Moth­er­less Child)” as his clos­er.

“The word ‘free­dom came out of my mouth because this was our real par­tic­u­lar free­dom,” he says in an inter­view with NPR’s Tony Cox. “We’d final­ly made it to above ground.” A few months lat­er, in Decem­ber, the decade closed on a much dark­er note, sym­bol­ized by the Rolling Stones’ bloody Alta­mont Free Con­cert. But for three days that year, August 15–17, 1969, it seemed like music fes­ti­vals might change the world.

Maybe they did. Wood­stock orga­niz­er Michael Lang thinks so. “I think Wood­stock proved the world that it was pos­si­ble for peo­ple to live peace­ful­ly,” he said in a 2015 inter­view. “It gave cre­dence to the posi­tions we as a young gen­er­a­tion took on per­son­al free­doms, end­ing a war we felt unjust, respect for the plan­et, the fight for civ­il rights, women’s rights, and human rights in gen­er­al. The impact on soci­ety con­tin­ues to this day.”

The fes­ti­val was also, of course, a mas­sive­ly star-stud­ded event filled with career high­light per­for­mances like Hendrix’s rad­i­cal, blis­ter­ing “Star-Span­gled Ban­ner.” Not every act showed up to make a state­ment. The Who were pret­ty sour about the gig, Lang remem­bers. “They were not part of the ‘hip­pie’ thing and Pete Townsend had to be talked into tak­ing the date.” But those who came to make a state­ment weren’t shy about it. Jef­fer­son Air­plane called for vol­un­teers for the rev­o­lu­tion in their anti-war anthem “Vol­un­teers.” Coun­try Joe and the Fish end­ed the sec­ond set on Sat­ur­day with their satir­i­cal “I‑Feel-Like‑I’m‑Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” an explic­it­ly anti-Viet­nam War song that asked, “what are we fight­ing for”?

Joan Baez, six months preg­nant at the time, sang tra­di­tion­al folk songs, Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” and Gram Parson’s “Hick­o­ry Wind.” Her clos­er, spir­i­tu­al “We Shall Over­come,” bridged the music of the Civ­il Rights move­ment with that of the anti-war move­ment, pro­claim­ing in her glo­ri­ous sopra­no, “We shall live in peace some­day.” The moment, fifty years ago this week, can nev­er be recre­at­ed, no mat­ter how much mon­ey orga­niz­ers throw at Wood­stock retreads. But we don’t need mil­lions to remem­ber what the orig­i­nal Wood­stock stood for. Sex, drugs, and mud got all the press, but the festival’s inten­tions were to protest war over­seas and hatred and mur­der at home with three days of peace and music—a vision, as Havens extem­po­ra­ne­ous­ly sang out, of anoth­er kind of free­dom.

The orig­i­nal fes­ti­val, “essen­tial­ly a mass move­ment pro­mot­ing peace,” gets yet anoth­er look in a new Amer­i­can Expe­ri­ence doc­u­men­tary, Wood­stock: Peace, Love and Music, which pre­miered last Tues­day on PBS. (Stream it free here.) With “nev­er-before-seen footage” and tes­ti­mo­ni­als from “those who expe­ri­enced it first­hand,” the film doc­u­ments the even­t’s highs and lows, includ­ing the many “near dis­as­ters” that “put the ideals of the coun­ter­cul­ture to the test.” Also see the New York Times arti­cle, “How to Relive Wood­stock From the Com­fort of Your Couch,” which fea­tures “six movies, 12 album col­lec­tions, two songs and 17 books that will take will­ing trav­el­ers back to August 1969.” This includes, of course, Michael Wadleigh’s icon­ic doc­u­men­tary, Wood­stock: 3 Days of Peace and Music.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jimi Hen­drix Live at Wood­stock: His­toric Con­cert Cap­tured on Film

David Cros­by & Gra­ham Nash at Occu­py Wall Street; Echoes of Wood­stock

Wattstax Doc­u­ments the “Black Wood­stock” Con­cert Held 7 Years After the Watts Riots (1973)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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