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Culture Re-view: Why is Woodstock still so iconic 54 years on?

Woodstock attendees catch a nap on top of a car, 1969
Woodstock attendees catch a nap on top of a car, 1969 Copyright Bettmann Archive/Getty
Copyright Bettmann Archive/Getty
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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On this day in 1969, arguably the most legendary music festival of all time kicked off, catching the attention of those looking for an escape from a tumultuous world.

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Woodstock Music and Art fair may have kicked off a staggering 54 years today, but its impact lives on.

Commonly known as Woodstock, the music festival ran on a dairy farm in upstate New York, some 40 miles southwest of the town itself.

Billed as an “Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music", it attracted over 400,000 attendees, making it one of the largest music festivals in history.

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Concert-goers sit on the roof of a Volkswagen bus at WoodstockAP

Flocking to see some of the biggest acts of the time, like The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Sly and the Family Stone, attendees saw the event as an escape from a frightening world.

In 1969, America was deeply into the controversial Vietnam War, a conflict which many young people were strongly against, and the civil rights movement. Woodstock was a chance for those struggling with modern life to escape into music and community while spreading a message of unity and peace.

Despite bad weather, a lack of sanitation and food shortages, the vibe at Woodstock was mostly harmonious, with those who attended often considering it one of the best experiences of their lives.

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Rock music fans sit on a tree sculpture as one leaps mid-air onto a pile of hay at WoodstockAP Photo

Run by relatively inexperienced organisers, it was expected that no more than 50,000 ticket holders would turn up. Instead, a lack of security meant that more than eight times that number attended, with many simply walking onto the site without question.

Despite the festival being remarkably peaceful, there were three fatalities - two drug overdoses and a 17-year-old was run over by a tractor.

It was estimated that between four and eight miscarriages happened during Woodstock, with unconfirmed reports that two babies were born during the event.

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Hundreds of rock music fans walk along the wet highway leading from Bethel, New York as they try to leave Woodstock in the midst of terrible conditionsAP1969

Max Yasgur, who owned the dairy farm, put it best when he commented that the festival had seen nearly half a million people spend three days with music and peace on their minds.

"If we join them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of America today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future”, he was quoted as saying.

Wrapping up the already legendary festival was Jimi Hendrix. Due to complications caused by heavy rain, he took to the stage at 8.30am on the Monday morning.

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Grass and leaf huts are used as makeshift living quarters for some of the attendees at WoodstockAP Photo

Woodstock was due to come to an end the night before and the numbers watching the iconic Hendrix is thought to be a relatively tiny 30,000.

In the intervening years since the festival, the event has become widely regarded as a truly pivotal moment in music history and as a defining event for the counterculture generation.

Even for those of us born years after Woodstock, it remains one of the most famous happenings of all time.

It’s long since infiltrated all aspects of pop culture too, with its significance reinforced by a documentary in 1970, a song written by Joni Mitchell and a soundtrack album, to name just a few examples.

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Music fans relax during a break in the entertainment at WoodstockAP1969

Over the years, Woodstock tribute concerts have been put on for the anniversaries of the festival and it’s been named as number 19 of the 50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll by Rolling Stone magazine. 

In 2017, the festival site itself became listed on the National Register of Historic Places and, two years later, an official postal stamp went on sale to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the unforgettable, generation-defining festivities.

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