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Woodstock fifty years on: legacy celebrated despite lack of official anniversary event

Woodstock fifty years on: legacy celebrated despite lack of official anniversary event
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Fifty years ago, the landmark Woodstock Festival was taking place in upstate New York.

Originally planned for 50,000 paying attendees, it expanded nearly ten times over and became a free event.

It took place on a farm in Bethel, New York state - actually 70 kilometres from Woodstock – and set the course for much of the next half century of music history.

This included the invention of the template for open-air music festivals the world over, not least the UK’s famous Glastonbury Festival which began a year later.

Woodstock also lined up what are still some of the most famous names in rock history including Jimi Hendrix, Santana, The Who, Janis Joplin and – making only their second performance together – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Graham Nash, the only British member of the new supergroup, had already had a successful career with the Hollies.

He remembers the festival expanding in the run up to their appearance:

“When we committed to doing it, there were going to be 25,000 people, then two weeks before, there was to be 100,000 people and the day of the show? A lot of people.”

Among that “lot of people” – around 450,000 all told – was a young music fan called Mick Richards. For decades afterwards, Mick didn’t think too often about the festival, but then his teenage son asked him about it.

This simple query began a process which led to his new documentary, ‘Creating Woodstock’:

"Our teenage son came home from high school and said to me 'Dad, you were at Woodstock, what was it about?'

“Woodstock was very uneventful for me so I started doing some research and picked up (Woodstock co-creators) John Roberts and Joel Rosenman's book 'Young Men With Unlimited Capital' and as I read through it, I realised what an intriguing story it was and it prompted me to start doing more and more research on it.

"A lot of people (remember) it as a disaster, that it was completely unplanned and nobody knew what they were doing.

“Our film completely debunks that thought."

Anniversary gig for 2019

Several artists, including Woodstock veterans Santana are playing live at the original 1969 site in Bethel on 15-18 August 2019. But this and other tribute events are not allowed to refer to Woodstock in case they incur the legal wrath of Michael Lang. He is another of the co-creators of the original festival and also of the official 25th and 30th anniversary versions. His attempt to stage a 50th anniversary festival ran into various issues and was called off earlier this year.

Despite the happy memories of the innovative original event, the 30th anniversary festival in 1999 is not fondly remembered, to put it mildly.

20 years ago, the effects of the extreme onsite temperatures were worsened by festivalgoers being overcharged for bottled water and the fact that many trees had been felled before the event to, it was alleged, cut down on the amount of shade from the sun. Portable toilets were knocked over and fires lit across the site in protest. Vanity Fair writer Kenzie Bryant called it “a living Bosch painting for the Y2K generation’.

None of this damages the legacy of the original Woodstock Festival; while the 1969 occasion was of course originally planned to be significantly smaller than the hundreds of thousands who actually turned up, the hundreds of festivals which take place worldwide every summer all these years later still owe this pioneering event and its organisers a debt of gratitude.