THE READING ROOM: Recommended Reading as Woodstock’s 50th Anniversary Nears
As we embark on the music festival season with MerleFest this weekend, it’s a good time to look back to that time 50 years ago when hundreds of thousands came together for a weekend of peace and love on Yasgur’s Farm in upstate New York. It’s a good time to look back not just because Woodstock turns 50 this year — and an anniversary celebration (Woodstock 2019) has been announced — but also because the world is now a far different place than it was 50 years ago.
America was divided back in 1969, riven by war and protests against it that sometimes tore families apart, as it did with mine. But, divided as the country was, there seemed to be an undercurrent of optimism and hope flowing beneath the hatred and prejudice and political arrogance and mulishness that fueled the division. Music brought people together to celebrate our common bonds as humans and to embrace love as the way forward against the decidedly unloving policies of spraying nonviolent protesters in Alabama with water discharged from firehoses and sending young men to die in a foreign land in a war being plotted and driven by men who, lacking all compassion, treated those young men as pawns in a game.
The Woodstock Music & Art Fair, which took place Aug. 15-18, 1969, was a moment in the final summer of a decade that witnessed this disorder. The festival was a bright, shining moment in an otherwise dark time that illustrated the power of music to bring people together to celebrate their common humanity. Did all the festivalgoers emerge more hopeful for the state of the world? Some did; many didn’t, but mainly because they were there for the sex, drugs, and rock and roll. As we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Woodstock — and prepare for the decidedly more corporate, selfie-plagued Woodstock 2019 (assuming it takes place) — here are a few books that take stock of the original festival.
Michael Lang, Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music (Reel Art Press) – Lang, the festival’s organizer, draws from his archives to provide previously unseen materials about the festival in this lavishly illustrated edition. We see set lists, his correspondence with the artists, as well as photos from the festival’s only official photographer, Henry Diltz, who was there from the beginning of the festival — before the stage was ever erected — to the end. Lang’s book comes out in July, just in time to get a glimpse of the days before, during, and after the original festival.
Michael Lang, with Holly George-Warren, The Road to Woodstock (Ecco) – In this lively memoir, Lang retells the story — some of it already well known — of the halting steps that he and his partners took to develop the greatest rock concert of all time. Lang regales us with the tales of struggles with small-town political leaders who opposed the festival, the kindness of Max Yasgur, and the gargantuan task of feeding and taking care of a community the size of a large city. With the gritty insights of the ultimate insider, Lang weaves interviews with performers and others into his memoir, providing a glimpse of the madness, frustration, happiness, and sheer euphoria that turned Woodstock into a memorable music festival.
Mike Evans and Paul Kingsbury, editors, Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked the World (Sterling) – Editors Evans and Kingsbury provide a moving pictorial overview of the festival, with interviews from the musicians, festivalgoers, and organizers. The book offers a glimpse at the times leading up to the event, as well as the organizers’ attempts to market the event, a look at the festival itself that focuses on each of the 32 acts that appeared over the three days, a reflection on the legacy of Woodstock, and a commentary on the now-famous documentary that brought the festival to a wider audience.
Baron Wolman, Woodstock (Reel Art Press) – One of the photographers at Woodstock, Wolman focused less on the performers than on the crowd. These stunning black-and-white photos, many never seen before and published here for the first time, provide a very different perspective than the one we usually see, and the one we often associate with the festival. As Wolman writes in the introduction, “The thing to remember about the ’60s, even near the end in ’69, was that everything was totally different, the behavior was new and unexpected. Plus, the 1960s were simply wildly photogenic in every way imaginable … the changes that were taking place in the heads of the people were visually manifested. I mean, how could you not take pictures?”
Bob Spitz, Barefoot in Babylon: The Creation of the Woodstock Music Festival, 1969 (Plume) – Journalist Spitz offers deep social and political background to the festival in sections titled “a nation at war” and “a nation at peace” before providing a detailed overview of each of the three days of the festival. He provides profiles of everyone involved, from the organizers to the musicians. Spitz’s book and Lang’s two books are the best places to start.
Mike Greenblatt, Woodstock 50th Anniversary: Back to Yasgur’s Farm (Krause Publications) – Woodstock attendee Mike Greenblatt brilliantly captures the power of music’s greatest performers such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Santana, and the Who, while sharing stories both personal and audacious from the crowd of a half million who embraced not only the music but each other. Greenblatt’s book arrives in mid-July.
Daniel Bukszpan, Woodstock: 50 Years of Peace and Music (Imagine) – Longtime music writer Daniel Bukszpan offers insights on how the festival is still making an impact on pop culture, while candid interviews, set lists, and beautiful photographs relive the beautiful chaos and once-in-a-lifetime performances at Yasgur’s farm. Bukszpan’s book arrives in June.
As the 50th anniversary of Woodstock approaches, more books are likely to appear, but the books on this list offer a good place to start getting back to the garden.