‘By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong’ – a famous line from the song Woodstock. Strictly speaking, these few words have a number of inaccuracies. First, it should really have been, 'By the time we got to Bethel’, the place where the festival was actually held. Second, the number that attended will never be accurately known but 400,000 seems the most quoted figure (400,000 , of course, wouldn’t scan. For similar reasons, Tennyson opted for 600 entering the Valley of Death in The Charge of the Light Brigade, instead of the actual 673).Third, the song’s author and original singer, Joni Mitchell, never got to the Woodstock festival. Though invited to perform, her manager had opted for her to appear on the Dick Cavett show on TV instead.
Being pedantic about Woodstock, however, misses the point, as its significance as mythology has long transcended factual detail. The song itself is, of course, more about an event than a place but it is to the geographical site that people still go to claim a bit of history. The version here is the one by Matthews’ Southern Comfort that was the Number One hit in Britain in October 1970, a softer and more melodic and pastoral version than the American hit by Crosby, Stills and Nash (who had been at Woodstock) and drenched in the pedal steel guitar work of Gordon Huntley that gives a slightly ethereal feel at times. Ian Matthews had been in Fairport Convention for a time, singing alongside Sandy Denny and contributing to their classic album What We Did on Our Holiday before forming his own country rock group, It was their only hit, and came unexpectedly for them, the popularity of the song influenced by the release of the feature film Woodstock the same year, a film that mediated-and kept alive- the event for most people. I suspect that the whole ‘Woodstock experience’ was more significant in America than in England, where it was judged more through the music captured on film and record.
This distance in time and space from the event perhaps gives this version an extra dimension, as it appears more of an optimistic observation and less of a lament for a lost cause, and it does something to overcome the two particular dangers with the lyrics of the song. They can seen as embodying that which some of punk dismissed as self-satisfied hippy utopianism.- ’we are stardust, we are golden’ . A surreal example of this clash of cultures was seen at a Deeply Vale Festival in Lancashire in 1978 when Sid Rawles, self-appointed ‘King of the Hippies’, became so enraged by the punk group Wilful Damage’s taunts at wishy-washy hippies that he pulled the singer off the stage, breaking his wrist.
They can also be read as defeatist ,a wistfulness for a lost Garden of Eden , nostalgia for a moment of opportunity that had already passed . Part of this may have come from Joni Mitchell’s regret at missing Woodstock when she penned the lyrics. However, it also comes, I think, comes from a tendency to view history in terms of self-contained decades, which can distort what is being looked back at.: the sixties meant this, the seventies that. Thus, Woodstock came at the end of the decade so must represent the end of what the sixties meant, with Altamont in December 1969 being the final nail in the coffin.
However, it makes more sense to see the period of political and cultural change of which Woodstock was part as running from about 1963 to 1976, with Woodstock not the planned culmination of a decade but an accident that managed to crystallise something significant for a fleeting moment, partly because of demographics. Trying to repeat it with later versions of Woodstock is rather like the attempt to re-create Princess Diana’s funeral procession the year after it took place-it demands the question ,’What’s the point?’. Woodstock, too, could easily have been a disaster. A cautionary example is supplied not just by Altamont but, more prosaically, by the 3-day Krumlin Festival held exactly a year after Woodstock on hills near Halifax in West Yorkshire. The weather was atrocious with torrential rain, many of the bands billed never appeared, a large marquee collapsed in the night on all those huddling inside, one person died of exposure and the promoter was seen wandering off onto the moors like a demented latter-day Heathcliffe.
There is no doubt that the idea of Woodstock retains a huge significance for many people, with the music and re-issues of the film keeping interest alive, though like the Sex Pistols first gig, the numbers now claiming to have been there greatly exceeds the actual numbers possible. The film can still be watched for its artists - the exhilarating drumming of 19-year old Michael Shrieve on Santana’s Soul Sacrifice; Joan Baez looking simultaneously out of time in the context of the film yet oddly now more contemporary than many of her colleagues; the old eyes of Country Joe as a revamped Fish launch into Rock and Soul Music. You can also look at the crowd of young faces and get the feeling you can get from an old photograph and see the people looking out. You know what they don’t: the future.
You can visit a Woodstock Museum at Bethel Woods now, with exhibits, films, concerts and a small coffee shop. One late October day a couple of years ago I visited it with my daughter, driving up from New York through the autumnal colours and a sprinkling of early snow. It was quiet and peaceful, with snow starting to melt in the sun from the roofs of the buildings and the laid-back contemplation of the Matthews’ Southern Comfort recording would have suited the views. Ian Matthews left the group whilst Woodstock was still in the charts but has continued making music for the past 40 years, with this record a long way away. I get the impression that he doesn’t often look back.
Link to song