The times have changed, but those of a certain age still perk up a little--maybe feel stirrings of pride or nostalgia--when they hear the word “Woodstock.” In this new book, we are reminded that Woodstock, generally synonymous with the 1969 festival that attracted 400,00 stoned spectators, spawned a movie and created another ripple in the hippie tidal wave, is first, last, and always--a small town in upstate New York.
Long before the hipsters of the 1960s, the iconic bands, singers and songwriters, made it their base, Woodstock was a noted artist enclave, from the Hudson River School of painting in the late 1800s to the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 1900s. Painters escaping out of the cities fell in love with the soft landscapes. Poets found it a quiet space to gather thoughts. Social misfits were accepted there. And those creative types were enchanted with the folk/protest music movement, drawing many 1950s/early 1960s icons like Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary to regional, small festivals. Then came the cultural explosion of the mid-1960s. It could even be said that the Woodstock festival that took the town’s name (though it was actually held about an hour away) came at the tail end of an already waning comet. Through it all, the little burg rolled with the punches.
Music historian Barney Hoskyns (Hotel California) looks at Woodstock from both sides: from its legendary status as the magnet for many great and lesser-known artists in the heady
Sixties; and from its evolution since the turmoil of the hippie incursion. His highly readable story includes a line-up of titans--Dylan, Baez, Joplin, Butterfield, Jagger, Yarrow, Helm, Lundgren, Hendrix, Muldaur--but popping up over, around and through them all is the less remembered name of the man who made many of them famous: Albert Grossman. Grossman was an entrepreneur who heard the potential of the folk-themed rock
'n' roll sounds emanating from the hippie musical mélange. Fortuitously he started the Bearsville Recording Studio near Woodstock in the fated year of 1969, then promoted and profited from the talent that gravitated to the town.
The original ’69 gathering has been replicated in subsequent, ever dwindling events. Now the town can be seen as everything from a retirement village for has-beens, to a still active recording venue off the beaten track, to a haven for “scenesters” fleeing New York City
(especially after 9/11), to a curiosity shop for tourists hoping to catch a whiff of the village’s former glory. Like lots of small towns, Woodstock, with a population of about 6,000, wrestles with real estate ups and downs and struggles with its image. It has a problem of teen drug use that may have less to do with its bohemian heritage than with American society’s current fractured values—though those values are arguably the most parlous legacy of the Woodstock generation. In his well-researched, almost day-to-day account of the meteoric rise and slow slippage of Woodstock from our cultural firmament, Hoskyns observes that, “Over the many years since 1969, Woodstock has become a kind of themed village of 60s hippie life, the combination of the pop cultural nightmare that Bob Dylan dreaded it would be.”