The Woodstock that wasn't

Woodstock t-shirt and special issue of Time magazine One of the most celebrated and significant musical events in American history almost didn’t happen. Even 50 years ago, permits were needed when large groups of people wanted to assemble. The original event location, for which Woodstock was named, denied the permit for the event and organizers were forced to find another venue. They were fortunate enough to find a farm in Bethel, NY, that was available and able to host the event just weeks before it was supposed to occur. Organizers would not be so fortunate a second time, though. Not only were permits denied for the massively anticipated 50th anniversary, but there were a series of issues that led to the large-scale celebration to be canceled (including ticketing and monetary issues).  Even though the bigger plans fell through, a smaller and controlled Woodstock celebration is taking place in Bethel, NY, to commemorate the 50th anniversary. Vicky Santos, director of news and media services in the College of Liberal Arts, spoke with Dr. George Plasketes, professor of media studies and popular culture in the School of Communication and Journalism, about the significance of the original Woodstock, the events leading up to it, how it influenced future generations, and how likely it is to occur again. 

Vicky:              We've established that you were not at Woodstock 50 years ago because you were too young, but you have been very familiar with the original Woodstock for a very long time. I found a quote where someone said that in 1969 Woodstock was about amateurism and idealism, and now it's about professionalism and realism. I was just curious if you thought that was true, and if so, why?

George:          Yes, that's a truth. That's one of the things I think with cultural studies that we're all kind of Agent Scully and Mulder from the tv show “The X-Files,” the truth is out there, and there are a lot of truths out there. How we interpret cultural events, and activities, and people, and places, and things, that's just part of it. But I think that's certainly valid. I think that's one of the views of the 1969 Woodstock, that it was about idealism. And you had the counter culture and the hippies and we were dealing with grief from assassinations, and the Vietnam war, and then landing on the moon. Just all these remarkable events, for better or worse. And it'd be a weird thing if we were 50 years later, still in the same mode. The world is just a dramatically different place.

Vicky:              It is. Do you think the modern or current culture of how these events are put together may have interfered with the large-scale concert that was planned to celebrate Woodstock? 

George:          That was part of it. The collapse of the 50th, the permits were messed up and apparently tickets never went on sale. I think the other things people talked about in terms of the 50th not happening, even though the intentions were good, was, "Oh, we have to commemorate this." The whole festival scene is just too crowded now. Lollapalooza, for example, was a few weeks ago. And if you think of the whole summer schedule, like Hang Out Fest, and Coachella, and Bonnaroo, and Austin City Limits and all these things, it’s a lot to compete against. Some of the things I’ve read about, "why did Woodstock 50 fail?" people mention that there are too many festivals. There's so much competition. So who's the audience that's going to go to that? Because actually the festivals aren't cheap. And I can attest to that, having been to three fairly big concerts this summer, because I would of liked to have seen the Stones but it was kind of out of my budget. So I think people with festivals, you have to pick and choose.

Vicky:             What other factors do you think contributed to the big celebration not working out? 

George:          Well, one of the other things that I think I saw somebody mentioned was, because they did a Woodstock, there was one in, I want to say '95, and then another '99 and they were fairly catastrophic.

Vicky:             Oh really? That's not good.

George:          Riots, and fires, and sexual assault, and things like that really gave this stigma that was so counter to the harmony and the idealism of the first one that people wondered if even that stigma from 1999 Woodstock was still lingering. That gave it a much different vibe. And so many things too, again, the world and the culture is so different, so are the values and the idealism. I think that was one of the things in '99 that people started rioting because they are charging them $9 for a bottle of water, which totally went against, "Hey, it's free man." And you just can't do that these days. That marketing, and branding, and all those things are automatic.

Vicky:             Before our interview began, you mentioned the myth of Woodstock. What is the myth? And what is the myth versus the reality? 

George:           That's always the question. That's kind of how myth works culturally. That you have this really fascinating relationship between myth and history. Woodstock took place. It was a historical event. But then myth, myth is basically our beliefs, our assumptions, and what we believe and perceive. And there is, coming back to Scully and Mulder, there is some truth in that. It took place on this farm and all these people showed up, and these bands played, and the hippies are skinny dipping and you know, all of that stuff. And the Vietnam war was going on. All that's fact. But then there’s the stories and the narrative and the conspiracy theories. Woodstock is the same  -  we had the music and we had the harmony and we had these things happening. Even if you looked at some of the news stuff that CBS  did a week or two ago, when you hear Graham Nash talk about, and John Fogarty, talk about, "Oh, this was the only time people got together and there was all this harmony and that's what it all is about." That perpetuates the myth of the 60s and Woodstock and that.

Vicky:              Speaking of the 60s, I recently watched a documentary about the Vietnam war and all the discord among Americans and those who really didn't think we should be there. That really made me think about it being over 50, 60 years ago and how divided people were about it. And you think that division is such a new thing to our country, but it's not.

George:           Yeah, not at all.

Vicky:               No. I know, but you don't think about it.

George:            A fundamental of democracy.

Vicky:               Right.

George:          Yeah. So that's kind of how myth works. And sometimes it replaces the truth. We buy into the myth just as much or more than the history. Or it's always one of those questions, can myth replace history? What about the facts and factual fiction and fictional fact? What really ultimately matters is what we believe. What we believe Woodstock was like.

Vicky:             What do you think it was like? And what does Woodstock mean to you? 

George:          I think initially from all accounts, the organizers weren't expecting there to be half a million strong, like Joni Mitchell sang. I think they were expecting, “Oh, some kids are gonna show up.” Word traveled without the internet. Word just traveled by word of mouth and posting recipe cards on bulletin boards. It's pretty amazing in retrospect when you think about how if you want to compare it to a flash mob or whatever of today, but without the technology. Woodstock is just one of those things historically, and culturally, that's a marker. I wasn't particularly invested in it, because I was too young when it happened. But I’m probably more interested in it as somebody who studies culture in music and all those things. So it was a time and a place ... and a mythical time and place. Again, there are, gosh, there was so much going on in that era. And it's kind of interesting too, if you've seen Tarantino's new movie, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” he deals with similar things with that era. A mythical time in Hollywood.

Vicky:              What is the likelihood of another Woodstock happening? 

George:          We can say history repeats. To some degrees it does, but usually, just because of context, we couldn't have another Woodstock because we're not in another era where we lost two Kennedys, and Martin Luther King, and there was a Vietnam war, and we're landing on the moon. Those things were unique to that time frame. And so here's this event that took place. And those things are always interesting culturally to read them and interpret them and see how they hold up historically and how they evolve.

Last Updated: August 21, 2019