Why the 50th Anniversary of the Woodstock Festival matters

Nick and Bobbi Ercoline, the couple on the cover of Atlantic Records' original 1970 Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More.

Here at SiriusXM, we’re celebrating the 50th Anniversary of one of the seminal moments of the 1960s – Woodstock. Check out Deep Tracks Channel 27, Classic Vinyl channel 26, Classic Rewind Channel 25 and Classic Rock Party channel 715, just to name some of the channels where you’ll hear the music of the groups that made that gathering at Max Yasgar’s farm in 1969 so legendary.

Just some observations from a guy who was a kid at the time…..

Forget the politics of the time. I know that American society was experiencing social, racial, and political upheaval in the summer of 1969. I know that cities, suburbs, rural areas, and every point in-between across the U.S. had experienced some kind of disturbance that led so many to think that the country was coming apart at the seams. But as a 9-year-old kid growing up in Toronto, Canada I remember that for about a week late in the summer, the American newscasts stopped being filled with footage of violence, unrest, racial strife, and film of the war in Vietnam. For that brief period what you saw so often was film and photos of young people of just about every description converging on a farm in upstate New York near a place called Woodstock, for a huge music festival. It was supposed to be a celebration of freedom and music, featuring a lot of the biggest acts in rock-and-roll. The perspective on the event ended up going from one end of the spectrum, calling it the biggest, most successful concert in history at the time, a gathering of people looking for peace, love and brotherhood, if only for a weekend, or all the way over to the other end, calling it nothing but an unlawful gathering of dirty hippies, listening to the music of the devil.

Either way, for a brief moment it took the focus off the brutal, but necessary, changes society was going through. In retrospect, Woodstock helped me understand “the Generation Gap” that I was always hearing about as a child. Having an older brother and sister, I got to hear their friends whispering about how “cool” it would have been to be able to go to the event. I heard backyard and basement rec-room jokes about how great it would have been “to get high and see Hendrix in person.” I also heard my father and mother’s friends, and other adults in my family, talking about “there was no damn way OUR kids would ever get near something like Woodstock! What kind of parents let their children near something like that?”

Another aspect that struck me then, and later when looking at the film of the event, but I wasn’t able to articulate it until years later, was seeing black and white people together with no boundaries. Oh I know, we were all supposed to be free of racism and bigotry by the time the ’60s rolled around, but the Civil Rights movement, to say nothing of my own life experiences, taught me to know better than that. But the reports I saw on the news showed young people of every shade enjoying that music. And it was the same with the artists, as everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Joan Baez played Woodstock. It was the first time I had seen integrated audiences, not just the acts. I had seen black and white performers before, but usually, the audiences were segregated, whether by law or by choice. This time the film showed everyone just sitting together listening, or dancing, to the music. It was a revelation to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I learned of the reality years later, but to 9-year-old eyes then……this was shocking. An in-your-face lesson that “that’s just the way it is. Some things will never change”, the words of Bruce Hornsby’s classic anti-racism song, wasn’t set in stone.

Woodstock wasn’t just an event or a rock concert. It was a cultural turning point. A cultural touchstone. You could often tell a person’s politics by how they felt about Woodstock. It was one of the defining events of the tumultuous period known as “The ’60s”, and 50 years after, I’m hoping it gets remembered for more than just the music heard there.

So try to catch some of the Woodstock tribute on the SiriusXM stations I’ve mentioned, and if you do, I hope you remember to put that music and the event where it was played, into some kind of historical context. Do a little research, or if possible talk to someone who might have been around at the time. It’ll give you a much better idea of why the event is being celebrated 50 years later, and you might just find yourself enjoying the music even more.