Woodstock Music Festival Marks the Climax of 1960’s Youth Culture Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An estimated 400,000 mostly young people gathered to hear rock music at the Woodstock music festival, one of the most significant events in the history of the counterculture of the 1960’s and likely the best-known rock event in music history.

Summary of Event

The road to Woodstock began in Monterey, Monterey International Pop Festival (1967) California, where, from June 16 to 18, 1967, approximately seven thousand fans who bought tickets—and an estimated fifty thousand who did not—heard some of the most famous rock acts of the 1960’s. The acts included the Who, Otis Redding, Simon & Garfunkel, and others. Woodstock Music and Art Fair (1969) United States;counterculture Counterculture;music Music;rock Rock and roll [kw]Woodstock Music Festival Marks the Climax of 1960’s Youth Culture (Aug. 15-18, 1969) [kw]Music Festival Marks the Climax of 1960’s Youth Culture, Woodstock (Aug. 15-18, 1969) [kw]Festival Marks the Climax of 1960’s Youth Culture, Woodstock Music (Aug. 15-18, 1969) [kw]1960’s Youth Culture, Woodstock Music Festival Marks the Climax of (Aug. 15-18, 1969)[Nineteen sixtiess Youth Culture, Woodstock Music Festival Marks the Climax of] [kw]Youth Culture, Woodstock Music Festival Marks the Climax of 1960’s (Aug. 15-18, 1969) Woodstock Music and Art Fair (1969) United States;counterculture Counterculture;music Music;rock Rock and roll [g]North America;Aug. 15-18, 1969: Woodstock Music Festival Marks the Climax of 1960’s Youth Culture[10400] [g]United States;Aug. 15-18, 1969: Woodstock Music Festival Marks the Climax of 1960’s Youth Culture[10400] [c]Music;Aug. 15-18, 1969: Woodstock Music Festival Marks the Climax of 1960’s Youth Culture[10400] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Aug. 15-18, 1969: Woodstock Music Festival Marks the Climax of 1960’s Youth Culture[10400] [c]Popular culture;Aug. 15-18, 1969: Woodstock Music Festival Marks the Climax of 1960’s Youth Culture[10400] Hendrix, Jimi Joplin, Janis

Monterey was a success on a number of levels. First, the affair made money. Second, the 1968 documentary film that recorded the event, Monterey Pop, Monterey Pop (Pennebaker) reached a wide audience and introduced many fans to some exciting new talent (notably Jimi Hendrix, who created a sensation). Third, as a showcase for San Francisco talent—Janis Joplin (who performed with Big Brother and the Holding Company), Country Joe and the Fish, and Jefferson Airplane, all of whom would appear at Woodstock two years later—Monterey captured the key symbols of the emerging counterculture in the idyllic Summer of Love.

In the wake of Monterey, rock festivals became common, at no time more so than in 1969. Successful events were held in Toronto (attended by an estimated fifty thousand people) and Atlanta (with an attendance of 140,000). The Rolling Stones performed for about 300,000 people in England that year, an especially notable figure in light of the country’s relatively small population. Yet not all such festivals went smoothly. A concert during Easter week resulted in extensive rioting in Palm Springs, California; another in Denver ended in clouds of tear gas.

It was in this context of growing musical excitement on the part of young people, and growing concern and distaste on the part of older people, that a large festival was planned in upstate New York for August of 1969. Contrary to popular belief, the event did not take place in Woodstock; resistance by residents of the town forced a change of venue. When promoters paid farmer Max Yasgur $50,000 for the use of his six-hundred-acre farm in the town of Bethel, local opposition also arose, but the town of twenty-seven hundred people imagined that the event would help generate needed revenue; 150,000 people were expected.

This proved to be a gross underestimate. By Friday morning, August 15, the roads approaching the farm were so congested that state police told motorists to avoid the area entirely. The volume of people strained basic services such as food, water, and sanitation at the site, a problem complicated by the steady rain that made the farm a mud puddle. Gatecrashers made it impossible to restrict the flow of people, and before long, the promoters gave up and declared the festival a free event. At the event’s height, an estimated 400,000 people gathered in Bethel, making the small town temporarily the third largest city in New York State. The weekend was supposed to have ended on Sunday, but after the acts ran behind several hours, scheduled performers continued through the late night hours of Sunday and into Monday, August 18. Ebullient participants dubbed themselves “the Woodstock nation.”

To most observers and participants, it was an amazing experience. Woodstock seemed to be a world unto itself: There were three deaths, three births, countless drug overdoses, and rampant nudity. Despite food shortages, a lack of shelter, and the absence of police at the site (they refused to come at the last minute), the crowd managed to live in relative harmony. For one weekend, sex, drugs, and rock and roll became a way of life.





Rock and roll, moreover, had never been better. Hendrix and Joplin, both of whom would die the following year, were among those who gave acclaimed performances. Established acts such as the Who Who, the (musical group) shared the stage with newer ones such as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young . Other bands, including Creedence Clearwater Revival Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Band Band, the , articulated the doubts and fears of baby boomers with a complexity that would win them lasting reputations. Such performances were captured on Woodstock Woodstock (Wadleigh) (1970), a film and sound-track album that more than offset the promoters’ losses. (The promoters’ financial success, however, did not prevent them from descending into squabbles and lawsuits.)

The success of Woodstock engendered euphoria among the nation’s youth and even won the grudging admiration of institutions such as The New York Times, which followed a condemnation of the event on Monday, August 18, with a reversal on Tuesday that praised the participants for the event’s success. For a while, it seemed, a genuine youth culture had defined itself as a compelling alternative to the status quo.

Alas, the road from Woodstock led to Altamont Speedway Altamont Speedway , forty miles outside San Francisco. The Rolling Stones Rolling Stones had decided to host a free concert, but the band changed the location less than a day before the event was scheduled to begin. By the time it did, 300,000 people had gathered in a space a fraction of the size of Woodstock. The Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead had hired the Hell’s Angels to perform security for the show and paid the motorcycle gang with $500 worth of beer. This proved to be a foolish, tragic mistake. Amid space, toilet, and temper shortages, members of the Hell’s Angels knifed to death a black man who had drawn a gun. When the lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane tried to halt the beating of another black man, he was assaulted on stage. In falling far short of the Woodstock experience, Altamont suggested that, by December of 1969, the 1960’s were indeed coming to an end.


To many observers at the time, Woodstock seemed to embody the values of 1960’s youth culture—personal freedom, political pacifism, and social optimism in what seemed to be a land of plenty—and the power of those values in a time of social upheaval. For these observers, there was considerable hope that the United States was undergoing a fundamental, permanent change and that rock music was a potent symbol of that change. For its critics in the “establishment” (a fuzzy term that seemed to connote the status quo in any number of forms), Woodstock was also a symbol of the power of youth culture, but that culture was one of permissiveness and flaccidity in a nation in decline.

Years later, Woodstock remains an important symbol. In retrospect, however, it is the weaknesses of youth culture, and the contradictions that would ultimately lead to its unraveling, that are more apparent. It now seems that if Woodstock was indeed a beginning, it was the beginning of an end. To understand why, one needs to consider the political and cultural climate in the years preceding the festival.

As the decade drew to a close, it seemed that the forces of change loosely called “the movement”—an amalgam of allies centered in promoting civil rights and opposing the Vietnam War—were winning some important victories. The walls of segregation that had seemed impregnable ten years before were collapsing, and it appeared that radicals had convinced mainstream America that the war had to end. Rock-and-roll music, which had seemed at best a trivial (and, at worst, barbaric) diversion, had come to be recognized as a political and artistic force in its own right, a key institution around which young people of all races could rally.

All these victories, real as they were, came at a price. As the decade wore on, white America became increasingly resistant to yielding ground in race relations. The antiwar effort had helped force President Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;1968 presidential elections to give up a reelection bid, but in the process, the Democratic Party Democratic Party, U.S. was so badly split that it would not recover for a generation. Meanwhile, there remained many Americans who were willing to prosecute the war—which would drag on for years—and who were angry about “traitors” who were ruining the country. Here was the core of Richard M. Nixon’s “Silent Majority” that rejected all for which Woodstock would come to stand.

This polarity in American society led to sharp confrontations, most notably at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where protesters were met with violence by police. Amid a growing sense of young people as troublemakers—and amid the chaos that had surrounded the rock festivals preceding it—Woodstock became a litmus test as to whether the counterculture could be true to its principles. It did so, but by that point, the movement that participants celebrated had become so diffuse, and its contradictions had become so glaring, that the unity of the counterculture was beginning to break down. The audience at Woodstock embodied these problems, though the fact was not clear to many at the time.

The first contradiction was the sense of the counterculture as a youth movement. To be sure, the overwhelming majority of people involved were young—but by no means were all young people members of the counterculture. To some extent, the counterculture was increasingly marked by class fissures: Working-class youths who could not get college deferments went off to war, while middle-class youths in schools with money to burn listened to music and attended protests.

Such differences led to another tension. By the end of the 1960’s, some people thought of the counterculture as a political movement. Others saw it as a lifestyle revolution. Increasingly, the two views were at odds. Never was this more clear than during the Who’s performance at Woodstock, where angry guitarist Pete Townshend Townshend, Pete chased hippie leader Abbie Hoffman Hoffman, Abbie off the stage for proselytizing during the band’s performance. By the early 1970’s, most young people had concluded that the counterculture was more about good times than about radical politics, while radical politics reached such extremes that few could take such views seriously.

Meanwhile, the youth movement had its own race problem. The original energy for reform in the 1960’s had come from the Civil Rights movement, but by the end of the decade, the antiwar movement, the women’s movement, and the struggles of gays and lesbians, Latinos, and other minority groups were increasingly competing for attention on the left. Worthy as each of these issues was at the time, they sapped the strength of the youth movement, which grew more fragmented. At the same time, many whites on the left became progressively less interested in racial issues. In this, as in so many other ways, Woodstock was telling: Relatively few of the acts were African American, and only one—Sly and the Family Stone—practiced what it preached with a lasting interracial makeup.

Whether by luck, goodwill, or an unusual sense of discipline on the part of the young people there, Woodstock was able to avoid the pitfalls implicit in all these issues. Fans at Altamont would not be so lucky. Meanwhile, the growing power of Nixon, violence at Kent State University in Ohio, the failure of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, and economic recession would eviscerate the counterculture to the point where it became a memory. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, a number of rock festivals were held, some of them quite successful (but not a 1979 Woodstock reunion, which was held on Long Island—towns in upstate New York refused to host it). Perhaps the most notable of these was Live Aid, a 1985 Anglo-American effort for famine relief that probably did more concrete good than did Woodstock. Neither this event nor any other was able to articulate a social critique the way Woodstock did, however implicitly. Woodstock Music and Art Fair (1969) United States;counterculture Counterculture;music Music;rock Rock and roll

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baritz, Loren. “Culture War.” In The Good Life: The Meaning of Success for the Middle Class. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Although the discussion of Woodstock is brief, Baritz, a social historian, does a good job of placing the festival in context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bennett, Andy, ed. Remembering Woodstock. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004. This brief history of the festival includes chapters exploring memories and myths, media representations, the “contradictory aesthetics” of the festival, and the use of both acoustic and electronic instruments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Landon. “The Road to Woodstock.” In Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation. New York: Ballantine Books, 1980. A concise history not only of the events leading up to the festival but also of the attitudes that brought people there.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miles, Barry. Hippie. New York: Sterling, 2004. A look at the hippie subculture of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, with discussions of the Woodstock and Altamont festivals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morthland, John. “Rock Festivals.” In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke, with Holly George-Warren. 3d ed. New York: Random House, 1992. A superb distillation of the culture of rock festivals, focusing on Woodstock.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perone, James. Woodstock: An Encyclopedia of the Music and Art Fair. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. Although this book does not focus solely on the 1969 festival, it does devote one chapter to the event, an “A-Z” guide to the festivals, and set lists for festival musicians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tucker, Ken. “Woodstock . . . and Altamont.” In Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, by Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1986. A diffuse treatment of the subject, which is both a strength and a weakness. Very good background material, though one must skim a bit to get to (excellent) treatments of the festivals in question. See also Tucker’s handling of Monterey in his chapter “Love for Sale.”

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Categories: History