Neither the concert organizers nor the government officials of this small upstate New York community were prepared for the number of people who gathered for the three-day concert. Called together for a musical celebration of peace and love, the watchwords of the counterculture, individuals and groups of all descriptions poured into Woodstock from all over the United States. As the song later written by Joni Mitchell to commemorate the event suggested, most of the participants thought of themselves as coming together with other young people who were "stardust" and "golden." Observers from outside the counterculture, however, formed an entirely different impression.
The 500,000 people who showed up for the concert quickly overwhelmed the supply of food, the provisions for sanitation, and various other health services. There was no apparent shortage of drugs or alcohol, however. Planned as a camping event, a torrential rainstorm turned the occupied 600-acre area into a huge sea of mud. In spite of these and other inconveniences, including a 20-mile-long traffic jam, the gathering ended without violence and was a huge success in the minds of most participants.
Press coverage focusing on the nudity, drug consumption, and casual sex enjoyed by many participants who often overlooked the real reason for the gathering: the music. There were well over thirty bands at Woodstock that managed to play in spite of enormous technical difficulties. The concert brought together folk, rock and roll, blues, and uncategorized musicians from the western, eastern, and southern United States as well as many groups from England. Several performers were well known when they arrived, while for others, Woodstock launched their careers. Musicians delighted their followers and made many new fans. Among the well-known musicians were Joan Baez; Sly and the Family Stone; Jefferson Airplane; the Who; the Grateful Dead; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; Santana; Jimi Hendrix; Janis Joplin; Country Joe and the Fish; and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
With such a diversity of artists present, the musicians coalesced into something much closer to a movement than had been the case among disorganized countercultural elements before Woodstock. A similar phenomenon occurred with most of the crowd as well. Yet in many ways, Woodstock was the last innocent celebration of the counterculture. Not long after the event, the ravages of the drug culture became more obvious with the deaths of Hendrix and Joplin (among others), who had turned in two of Woodstock's most memorable performances. At the same time, Woodstock's very success alerted recording companies and other business ventures to the massive market potential of the counterculture, whose messages of peace and love were gradually diluted by commercialization.
Spencer C. Tucker
Francese, Carl, and Richard S. Sorrell. From Tupelo to Woodstock: Youth, Race, and Rock-and-Roll in America, 1954–1969. 2nd ed., rev. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall Hunt, 2001.; Spitz, Bob, and Robert S. Spitz. The Creation of the Woodstock Music Festival, 1969. New York: Viking, 1979.