Music

Why Woodstock Was The Most Important Music Festival Ever

Back in the summer of '69.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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Few cultural touchstones from the baby boomer era continue to resonate as much as Woodstock, the 1969 festival billed as "3 Days of Peace & Music" that's taken on a life so much greater than that in the years since. It's one of those few ubiquitous events that stand the test of time. You don't need to have been there, seen a video, or heard a single guitar riff to have an understanding of what it was and what it stood for, no matter how abstract or nostalgic that understanding may be.

It's been 50 years since the festival took place, and a number of documentaries have been released on the event, such as a new Blu-ray edition of the Oscar-winning concert documentary Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, including never-before-seen performances from Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, and more. With this being the third re-release of the film, which debuted in 1970, it's worth considering why Woodstock has endured over the years.

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While watching the film, it's hard not to get wrapped up in conflicting feelings. There's the feeling that this concert is "important" because that's been the narrative for years, whether the onscreen performances convey that or not. There's also a goofiness to the whole thing, the message of love and peace hilariously contrasted against warnings about bad acid making its way through the audience. This is occasionally hard to stomach in today's age of financial stress and rampant unemployment.

Perhaps that's just modern cynicism though, with the peace, love, and understanding of the '60s being too earnest for the irony-soaked audiences of today. In fact, the earnestness of the film is one of its charms.

Two things reverberate beyond the general presence of Woodstock as a significant cultural moment. Firstly, the performances still stand up. There's Richie Havens giving a stirring performance; Joan Baez delivering heartfelt folk songs; Joe Cocker getting weird while unknowingly inspiring one of John Belushi's best impressions; and Ten Years After guitarist Alvin Lee ripping into an unbelievable version of "I'm Going Home." This is all without mentioning the more political turns of Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe and the Fish, and Jimi Hendrix's iconic take on "The Star-Spangled Banner." 

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Secondly, joke all you want about the naïveté or rose-colored outlook of the Woodstock generation, there's something undeniably electric happening here. Few festivals or concerts can be so singularly focused anymore, so culturally important, even if that importance is questionable or limited to a specific age cohort. It's hard to imagine a festival experience that unites people in 2019—unless we all unite in Orwellian fear over hologram Tupac. That's fine, though.

Maybe we don't need music festivals to shape our cultural narrative the way baby boomers in 1969 did. Maybe we don't need a big music festival to define our generation. But Woodstock, the film and the festival, is a nice reminder that getting together and standing for something, no matter how elusive or indefinable, can resonate for years.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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Kyle Fowle
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