Forty years ago, for three days in 1969, spread across 600 acres of farm land, with over 500,000 youth in attendance, this was the closest humanity ever got to world peace and transcendental harmony. Woodstock, one of the biggest and most debated counterculture events that spanned a culture and generation of its own, has now become one of the textbook events in planning and management studies.
Not to mention the film of the event, which has become an institution in documentary filmmaking. Over 120 hours of film was shot in documenting the festival and filmmaker Michael Wadleigh’s first cut, edited by newbie Martin Scorsese ran at 16 hours.
The music began at 5 pm on Friday the 15th of August and it continued till noon on Monday the 18th, and in those 91 hours 500,000 people saw 33 legendary musicians play their heart out in intense performances they never could replicate ever again. And it makes me very, very proud to say that our very own Pandit Ravi Shankar was one of the performers as well.
So at 5 pm, folk singer and guitarist Richie Havens opened the festival with eight rousing songs and closed his set with the liberating Freedom/Motherless Child. And thus began the 91 hours that would change everything forever, be it music, concerts, songwriting, performances, filmmaking and the way the world perceived popular music as a whole.
This was a time when music existed for the sake of the music alone and all the performers were but instruments of propaganda, the propaganda being the enjoyment of music and unconditional surrender to the will of peace and harmony.
Now although the organisers went ahead and announced the festival with a few musicians, they never expected the audiences to turn up in such large numbers (they were expecting 60,000 people at most). So after awhile when the numbers began to increase, they had no choice but to declare it a free concert.
Some of the legendary acts that were asked to perform but declined for various reasons were, The Byrds (didn’t want to do it for free), The Doors (Jim didn’t want to play large venues), Led Zeppelin (didn’t want to be just another band on the list) Jethro Tull (Ian Anderson didn’t want to spend his weekend in a field of unwashed hippies) and Bob Dylan who was living nearby but couldn’t attend due to his son being ill.
Well, as we all know, it was their loss entirely, and instead we got Janis Joplin singing her heart out, Santana’s scorching tribal performance, Joe Cockers radical renditions, The Who proving their mettle and Jimi Hendrix closing the festival with his Star Spangled Banner. And in between all that we discovered, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, Ten Years After and much much more.
Woodstock was a life changing experience for all that were there. There were two deaths, two births and four miscarriages. A total of 54 doctors and nurses treated over 6,000 people. 500 policemen were at hand to control 500,000 people. 400 people freaked out on bad LSD trips, 600 portable toilets were used. 450 cows were ‘employed’ and 1,300 pounds of canned food, sandwiches and fruit were flown in by emergency helicopters.
There were yoga camps, meditation sessions, mud-sliding competitions, Pranayam zones, discourses by Swami Satchidananda, anti-war protesters and vietnam veterans, gays/lesbians and anti-gay activists, legalise drugs advocates and ban drugs advocates, rednecks and black militants, anti and pro-government advocates and yet no untoward incident occurred inspite of all this. And it rained as well!!
And although by Monday mid-morning, around about the time Hendrix took the stage, more than half the audiences had left, the world had tuned in and the impact of what had just taken place was about to be felt. The resonance is still being felt 40 years later.
So today, if anyone were to ask me as an Indian, what does Freedom mean to you. I would give them a copy of Woodstock the film and let them go figure.. if I may say so.