Episode 30: Mark Clague on Woodstock: An Acoustic Synthesis of the ‘60s
Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today.
In this episode of Listen in, Michigan we are setting the wayback machine to August 1969 and revisiting Woodstock, both the festival and the film. The iconic event, which, as the first of its kind attracted some half a million people for a multi-day extravaganza, continues to fascinate music fans and cultural observers – the ones who were there, the ones who couldn’t get there, the ones who weren’t even born yet. And thanks to the Oscar-winning documentary that appeared in March 1970, we can all go back to Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York (where the concert took place) whenever we so desire.
In August a bunch of specials came out celebrating the concert’s 50th anniversary, seeking as ever to convey the mythic and magical energy that transformed this potentially catastrophic and financially disastrous concert – no one expected more than 400,000 people to show up — into a historic manifestation of one generation’s quest for love and peace. Somehow, somehow, it all turned out OK…
My guest today is Mark Clague, an associate professor of musicology at U-M’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. Mark is incredibly accomplished and brilliant historian with recent projects focusing on “The Star-Spangled Banner” (Jimi Hendrix, anyone?) and the music of George and Ira Gershwin among many, many other things. It was so fun to talk to him about American history, especially American music history, and get his take on Woodstock, the festival and Woodstock, the film. Here’s Mark.
Mark Clague: History is really a bunch of stories we tell about ourselves. And we can change the emphasis. We can put details in. We can take details out. There’s a lot of ways in which history really tells us more about the present than it tells us about the past.
One of the things that’s interesting about Woodstock the festival is that I don’t think we would remember it much at all without Woodstock the film. The March 1970 film comes out about 8 months after the actual event; and it literally saves the festival. Not only in cultural memory but also monetarily. The film lost a ton of money. There were all sorts of lawsuits. It was a big mess.
The film was sort of a runaway success though. Sort of bizarre for a documentary to be a runaway hit. It won the Academy Award for documentary that year. And was nominated for others: sound editing, video editing. It’s a cool film. There’s a lot of really interesting things about it.
Today, there are 3 main versions: The original theatrical release from 1970, which is about 3 hours long; there’s the 25th anniversary which adds 40 minutes; and the 40th anniversary which is about 5.5 hours long.
And now with 50th anniversary, we’ll have these super collections of every little bip, and bop and picture and audio track that we can have.
It has sort of expanded in importance over time. Whereas most times in history we forget things. This is sort of a deeper and deeper memorialization but it happens really because of the film.
Holdship: I don’t even know how they pulled it off.
Clague: This is the pretty early days of the stadium rock concert and of course this is not a stadium, this is a hog farm, right? Sort of a natural bowl in the geography created a space, not only a pond for skinny dipping — which was important for hygiene after a few days in the mud, but also acoustically.
We didn‘t have standard amplifier setups and speaker setups. This is pretty early in these mega rock concerts. I mean we had Monterey Pop, then Altamont. They all had very different results.
One of the things about Woodstock is that it was this impending disaster that was saved by community participation. They expected about 200K people, pre-sold about 150K tickets and then 400,000+ people showed up. Literally didn’t have time to finish the set up.
In part that’s because Woodstock didn’t actually happen in Woodstock. It happened in Bethel, NY, on Max Yasgur’s farm.
Woodstock was supposed to happen at a diff venue entirely. All the preparations and lighting work was done at the previous venue. Then they passed a law at the last minute that you couldn’t have a gathering of more than 5,000 people. They had to find an alt venue. Literally had to decide do we finish the ticket booth and fence or the stage? Decided stage was more important. Sort of a miraculous event. Just about people pulling together. You didn’t have enough food, communications, no cell phones – I mean there was like one pay phone for the whole place.
Holdship: I spoke to some alumni, one of whom said people’s memories definitely are exaggerated.
Clague: Yes, so it wasn’t either that bad or that fantastic.
One of the things I think about — I think probably the experience of the festival on the film is way better than being there. They didn’t have jumbotrons in 1969. So you were way in the distance looking through binoculars to see the stage. And yet the cinematography is really riveting. They had 16 different cameras. They’re right in the face of every artist. You feel like you’re practically in the band, performing right alongside. You get this intense, intimate personal experience of this high-wattage musical performance.
Holdship: It’s such a highwire act and you’re right there with them as each disaster unfolds.
Clague: An interesting part of the film too is that it’s as much about the making of the festival and the local community’s response, and the organizers’ thoughts and feelings and the fans, as it is about the bands.
They interview the guy who puts together the port-a-potties. They talked to everybody. It’s sort of a 360-degree view of the festival. Not just about the concert. 2/3 of the movie is the performance, everything else is the people
It’s really more of a document of a cultural moment rather than a concert.
The violence at Altamont was what people feared would happen at Woodstock. And it was the fact that violence didn’t happen that was so shocking.
Part of it was – the initial news reports from UPI, etc. “Disaster at Woodstock, All these people, public health nightmare. Don’t come. Traffic jam. Stay away People are going to die.” NY state thought about calling out the national guard. Just all this fear. And part of it is fear of young people. It‘s really a moment in our history of generational conflict in the 1960s. Different attitudes sort of about love and drug use and behavior and sort of communal community responsibility.
You’re coming off Summer of Love and the notion of the hippie. Which is sort of informing this view, And you have to remember It was a time when 18 year olds couldn’t vote but they could be drafted for the Vietnam war. It’s a particular moment and a politically incendiary moment. And so there was a lot of fear by the establishment of what were these kids going to do.
One of the sub themes of the film is: Oh these kids are nice. They behaved and said thank you. Affirmation of community values, and the surprise that people had that these young people were not violent. They were nice.
Peace and love. And that’s part of the story we’re telling about it now. Part of what makes Woodstock and the documentary so dramatic is the – it’s that shift from the disaster story to the peace and love triumph, which is what the movie is really about.
One of the most striking things: There are so many babies, toddlers, and kids. Parents and families. Where are those kids now?
Holdship: Almost immediately it became a myth. Before it even happened.
Clague: Part of that was — using the publicity machine and last-minute cancellation of this one venue is part of why people were so excited about it. Getting all these musical acts. Hendrix, the Dead, CSN, Joplin. Ritchie Havens kicked the whole thing off.
And that’s part of the video – they do a great job. Even though it’s fragmented and mixed up, different order than concert actually happened you get a sense of the artists entering the stage. And they usually show the last song that the artist performs. So you get that climatic excitement, the real crescendo. So you see the moment of highest intensity in each of the performances. That’s pretty riveting.
Holdship: Talk about Hendrix and the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Clague: I’ve become sort of obsessed with that performance and the anthem generally. It really started for me with this film.
One of the interesting things about Hendrix and the whole film actually is that live performance is different than a recording. The film is somewhere in between, because it’s a recorded version of a live event. You hear the stage banter, hear what people are saying, etc., Hendrix actually dedicates an earlier song in his set to guys in the military, who are thinking about their girlfriends; he’s representing them as people with relationships, they have loves, and a life to live. There’s a kind of sensitivity to that.
At the same time I don’t think he loved the military. He fakes being gay to get out of it and pursue his musical career.
But I do think you have a pretty complex political thinker. We tend to think of The hippie culture as completely drugged out and disengaged But it’s actually quite engaged. One way you see that with Hendrix is how he uses the anthem as a kind of
sonic snapshot of the moment in time. The Woodstock film has so overshadowed every other historical document from this era that we think of it as a singular moment. But all these musicians played this same music in other places. Hendrix played the anthem dozens of times. Maybe 70+ times and every time it was different.
So there’s something about Woodstock performance with the insertion of the “Taps” quotation to honor military sacrifice but also the way he holds the note of “freeeeeee” at the end for like six full seconds. Which for me there is a kind of holding on and emphasis of that notion that here at Woodstock we are free, we’ve literally created our own world. And we’ve come together. This is the kind of freedom that America is about.
For me it redefines what patriotism is. Patriotism is more of a verb than a noun. It’s not owned by any one political group. To be traditional means you’re patriotic or to be a progressive means you’re patriotic. It’s sort of both/and in this case.
I teach a course in American music, and I kick it off each year by showing Hendrix at Woodstock and asking students, “What is this?’’
What’s interesting, there’s no yes, no – no good or bad kind of answer.
It’s a complicated, mixed-up answer, just like human life. It’s both patriotism and protest. He plays a pretty traditional version of the melody, playing all the notes — they’re in time and in tune but he’s also doing these incredible improvisatory pictorialisms where he’s doing this sort of psychedelic rock thing with the anthem. If you hear it without saying the lyrics to yourself, you think he’s insulting the flag or tearing the anthem apart. But then you realize when you listen closely it’s the words “the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air” where he does these firefight sounds of explosions, peals of bombs falling, rising slides of screams and machine gun fire, sirens, and all these sounds
I think it’s kind of an acoustic synthesis of the 1960s: You have the riots in the streets and the Vietnam war sort of brought to life in a way that then connects 1969 and that battle for freedom with 1814 and Francis Scott Key watching the battle of Baltimore and the defense of fort McHenry. A different kind of heroism, mainly, but one in which the future of the country is at stake for the people who are there. That’s part of this self-conscious awareness you talked about.
Hendrix is interesting because with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it shouldn’t have happened. It wasn’t rehearsed or planned. Hendrix had already said, hey last song, introduced the band and the plan was to rock out and the concert would be over.
Instead he turns to the anthem. For him, it’s a response to the optimism of the moment. He’s in some ways synthesizing the hope that Woodstock gave to the people who were there because they saw the disaster become a triumph. A muddy triumph but nevertheless something very diff than the story the establishment was trying to tell about the danger of young people and the fact that they had to be controlled.
This was the largest gathering for a concert ever at that point. The joke is that it was
third largest city in NY that weekend with the population. The fact that people pulled together gave us a sign that, well maybe young people could not just take this hippie impulse, and not just tune out but tune in. To come back and create a new future. The Woodstock film broadcast that message nationally.
If no film, the concert would have faded into myth.
It’s an interesting film …. Because it has some cinema verite elements.
Not a lot of dialogue. No omniscient narrator who’s telling you what to think. Lot of question and answer with people who were there.
At the same time it’s a very manipulative film, right?
It is putting a positive spin on it, showing the controversy. And then there’s the mud — just playing and reveling in the disaster. Conscious choice to interpret [disaster] in a different way. The film is def a cultural, artistic product and also a propaganda product.
Holdship: We could use another Woodstock. We could use more peace and love.
Clague: I do think there are some connections to the contemporary moment. The polarization. Wanting to go back and wanting to go forward. The fear of diversity. All these people don’t think and do what I do, who seem to be from a different planet, a different country or whatever.
There is a way that Woodstock represents a choice to work together as opposed to battle it out.
Maybe there is something instructive in this moment.
Holdship: Woodstock gave the movement some momentum and hope.
There is a tendency to feel disempowered these days. When you look back at campus culture the 60s; Port Huron Statement, SDS, part of the fear of all these kids getting together for a rock concert was the political activism that had been a prelude to that.
For me, in some ways, I think of it as kind of capstone on the 60s. It wasn’t the start of something so much as a summary, of something.
The “Star-Spangled Banner” was not a rocketing protest – people already hated the Vietnam War; the Tet Offensive had already happened etc. and that’s when public opinion had shifted. If there’s a sad thing about Woodstock it’s more like it’s the final chapter rather than the beginning. Tapping into that notion of the power of the collective, the fact that the community can come together and do its own thing might be something we have to learn from that.
Everywhere was a song and a celebration
As the legendary music festival Woodstock marks its 50th anniversary, those of us who were not there often are left wondering, “Was it really that good?” With each milestone anniversary since 1969, a new edit of the film appears; another audio collection arrives; and a fresh slate of cultural criticism arises to ponder this mythic and magical music event.
How much is truth, and how much hyperbole? Due to the unreliable nature of human memory, we can never really know. But at least four U-M alumni were among the nearly half a million people who descended on Max Yasgur’s hog farm to partake in the Woodstock Festival.
Bob Seidenstein, ’74, debunks at least one myth about the event when he reports, “We weren’t all hippies. I, for example, wore penny loafers to Woodstock. But despite the shoes, which were old, my friend Steve and I were prepared: We quit our summer jobs and headed to the festival on Wednesday, Aug. 13 — two days early — allowing plenty of time for New York State Police to pull us off Route 17 and search our trunk, which only happened once.”
In keeping with trends of the time, Ken Hovey, DDS ’71, drove to Woodstock in his VW Bug. “My wife [Carol Cooper Hovey, BS ’68] and I read an ad in the Daily about some festival in New York with so much great music that we just had to go. We spent three nights camping in the mud and listening to amazing performances. Maybe our most lasting memory was joining the throngs in welcoming Jefferson Airplane on stage at dawn, the closing act from the night before!”
A record of the times
In this episode of “Listen in, Michigan,” we hear from Mark Clague, associate professor of musicology, American culture, and African American studies at U-M’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Among his many passions is “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which ties neatly into Woodstock lore, thanks to Jimi Hendrix’s rousing psychedelic rendition of our national anthem. Clague’s insights illuminate the cultural significance of that performance; he also focuses heavily on the Woodstock documentary, which is far more than a concert film. It’s a story of triumph, he says, as America’s youth demonstrated the power of peace and cooperation.
Judy Noble, a two-time grad (’67/’69) and classmate of Michigan Today columnist Frank Beaver, logged raw footage from the concert as a favor to some of the movie’s producers who shared office space with her employer, Teletape Films.
“It was my first job after grad school,” Noble says. “We shared space with the filmmakers Mike Wadleigh and Bob Maurice, who would shortly become the director and producer of the documentary, Woodstock. As I remember it, it was pretty last minute when they secured the rights to film the three-day event, so Mike and Bob had to scramble for crew.”
That crew returned with some remarkable film and it didn’t take long, Noble recounts, before Warner Brothers came in, wrote a “big check” and moved all the footage and all the people to the West Coast. “Sadly, that didn’t include me.”
The airwaves throughout the month of August were jammed with programming to celebrate Woodstock, the festival, and Woodstock, the film. Consider this another piece in the mosaic.
(Audioclips in this podcast were pulled from the 1970 film trailer from Warner Bros., posted at YouTube.)