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April 10, 2009

Steve WaksmanNORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Look up "Woodstock" using any reference tool and the description will likely read "a music and art festival."

But this year, the 40th anniversary of the 1969 event provides a moment to reflect upon the significance of "a music and art festival" that drew a half million concertgoers to a dairy farm in a rural New York town.

"The anniversary is an occasion to look back on the connection between rock music and the counterculture of the 1960s," said Steve Waksman, associate professor of music and American studies. "But it’s also an opportunity to think about the ways in which rock music, or any form of music, can create a sense of collective purpose."

Waksman's most recent book "This Ain't the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk" takes the decline of the 1960s counterculture as its
starting point. He recently answered questions about the historical significance of that rainy, muddy weekend when Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and others entertained the masses.

What is the meaning of the anniversary?

The anniversary is an occasion to look back on the connection between rock music and the counterculture of the 1960s. In part, it’s an opportunity to recall a lot of great music and musicians, some of whom are no longer with us anymore, such as Jimi Hendrix, and some of whom are still very much with us, such as Carlos Santana and Neil Young. But it’s also an opportunity to think about the ways in which rock music, or any form of music, can create a sense of collective purpose. To what extent did the roughly half a million people who attended Woodstock share a common social or political vision? To what extent was their connection grounded in something more than rock music itself? These are questions about which it’s easy to be either nostalgic (“We were all one, man!”) or cynical (“Just a bunch of hippies getting high and listening to rock!”). The real answer to those questions, though, is not a simple one, and it’s something to take seriously, because it has a lot to tell us about how music shapes our values and maybe makes it possible for us to relate to each other in ways we wouldn’t otherwise.

What was the significance of Woodstock?

The late cultural critic Ellen Willis described Woodstock as the culmination of a dream of mass freedom that had arisen in the years after World War II and was connected to rock and roll. Mass freedom meant that people believed they could best achieve their fullest freedom in the context of a group, rather than isolated, as individuals. At Woodstock, it was precisely the coming together of so many thousands of young people that gave the event its power, and that power was at once symbolic and real. People there felt a sense of connection, and felt that the connection was tied to something bigger than the fact that there was a big rock festival going on. It was tied to youth, above all, but it was tied to a particular image of youth as a part of the population who could transform the existing cultural and political order, could potentially create the basis for a culture in which peace was valued over war, in which pleasure was valued over productivity, and in which rules and conventions were not to be followed if they were found to be corrupt.

At the same time, Woodstock also showed, in a less utopian vein, that one could gather enormous crowds of young people together at once and not have a catastrophe follow. This was an important lesson for the music industry, which at the end of the 1960s was still trying to figure out how best to capitalize on the enormous audience that existed for rock. After Woodstock, rock concerts grew larger and larger in size; there was less need for festivals after a certain point, because concerts were routinely happening in arenas and stadiums that held thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people. So Woodstock also contributed to the further incorporation of rock into the profit-making structures of the music industry.

What happened to rock music in the years that followed?

Well, most immediately, about four months after Woodstock came Altamont, the large festival outside San Francisco organized by the Rolling Stones, which was marked by some bad vibes due to the presence of a row of Hell’s Angels in front of the stage, and culminated in the widely publicized death of a young black man, Meredith Hunter. Altamont made the achievement of Woodstock seem to many a fluke, and made crowds of young people seem dangerous again. The shift from festivals to arena and stadium concerts that occurred in the 1970s was in many ways driven by concerns over crowd control as much as by concerns over profit. It’s easier to maintain order in a space that’s enclosed and has clear boundaries around it, where people sit in rows.

More broadly, rock’s connection to its young audience changed. This was partly because some of rock’s audience was no longer so young; people who had come of age through the countercultural years of the late 1960s were now entering their 20s and were looking for music that was still rock but that was more “mature.” Meanwhile, younger fans were looking for something they could call their own, and so a generation gap of sorts began to emerge within rock rather than between rock and other styles of popular music. This is where new genres like heavy metal and punk come into play, as forms of rock that are still very much concerned with the relationship between rock and youth, and that try to reimagine what kinds of communal or collective identity rock might create in the wake of the 1960s counterculture. That, in effect, is what my new book, "This Ain’t the Summer of Love," is about.


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