This year marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, a three-day music festival held under a banner of peace and love. The festival’s genesis came at a time when violent protests were commonplace and war raged overseas.
More than 400,000 people — most of whom were college-students — trekked to the town of Bethel in rural upstate New York to bear witness to the biggest festival of the day. The film documenting the festival, “Woodstock,” released in March of 1970, cemented it as the pinnacle of 1960’s counterculture and helped unify a polarized nation. While it garnered significance in 1969, the evolution of American music and changes within the political climate complicate whether Woodstock is worth the time of college students in 2019.
Professor Jonathan Sanders, a professor at the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University, was a college student at the time of Woodstock.
“In 1969, looming over all young males was the fear of being drafted and put through the meat grinder of an insane war in Vietnam,” Sanders said.
Having supported anti-draft efforts in his youth, Sanders explains that those who performed at Woodstock were “cultural ambassadors” who allowed the anti-war cry of America’s youth to be heard by the entire nation. His position is epitomized by what many consider to be the festival’s quintessential moment: Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
The guitarist played a solo worth a thousand words. He composed a sonic force that reproduced the bombs and sirens that ravaged the war-torn nation of Vietnam. Hendrix augmented his performance by infusing “Taps,” the melody performed on a single bugle at funerals for soldiers, into his instrumental. His message was received across the nation through Woodstock’s theatrical release. In the years that followed, American’s approval of the war continued to plummet until fighting concluded in 1975.
The Black Lives Matter movement is one of the various fervent conflicts in America today. Kendrick Lamar has championed it with “Alright” from his 2015 concept album “To Pimp A Butterfly.” Its provocative music video visually depicts the violence African Americans have encountered at the hands of the police throughout the nation’s history, and its lyrics have become an anthem recited at peaceful protests.
Miles Marshall Lewis, a music journalist who interviewed Lamar for “Ebony” and is currently writing a book about the young artist, discussed his interpretation of the song’s pre-chorus with “NPR.” He explains the lyrics detail a young man who “might trade in the Martin hat for the Malcolm hat, and have to defend himself” in the face of police brutality. However, he concludes the song is uplifting, as the chorus declares “we gon’ be alright” with the hope of an end to the conflict between African Americans and the police.
Lamar’s song upholds the protest power of music exemplified by Woodstock and Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner.” However, the sociopolitical atmospheres that charged Woodstock and contemporary hip-hop differ regarding extreme responses to protest.
In the 1960s, the free speech movement and opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft routinely led to violent clashes with the police. Professor Charles Haddad, the Associate Dean of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism who attended Woodstock at age 14, vividly recalls how “police were throwing tear gas at Berkeley students on a weekly basis,” which would make headlines as an abnormality in America today.
Police brutality was also a staple of America’s political climate during the time of Woodstock, when the issue led to the rise of the Black Panther Party. Haddad remembered when the Chicago police who attempted to suppress the movement, murdered leaders of the Black Panther Party in their sleep, he also remembered the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
“I don’t know why your generation would care about [Woodstock],” Haddad said, who considers the political climate of the 1960s far removed from the experiences of Generation Z.
Music festivals are still attended by young Americans today, including the acclaimed Coachella in California. The festival, organized into two three-day weekends with identical lineups, is attended by nearly 100,000 people on each of the six days. Compared to Woodstock, Coachella “is a bit more mainstream,” said Thomas Traube, a freshman computer science major. He notes how Coachella’s performers represent a variety of popular genres, from indie rock to hip-hop to electronic dance music.
Woodstock only represented the politically charged folk and rock music prevalent in the counterculture of the time and omitted other genres popular in the 1960s like R&B. Traube’s peer, Ryan Hayward a sophomore doctor of musical arts candidate, agrees and contends that a ticket to Coachella is “a status symbol”— a costly purchase to a celebration of popular music — whereas Woodstock was a platform for anti-establishment music.
If today’s college students attempt to experience the music of Woodstock for its landmark anniversary, the violent atmosphere that necessitated the festival may be incomprehensible and makes the moment in music history irrelevant. However, today’s students may identify with the use of music as a medium to protest, a power recognized by generations throughout time.