But even the original Woodstock was conceived as a commercial venture. Not unlike the situation today, the promoters and the corporate giant Warner Brothers hoped the 1969 festival would turn a handsome profit. How did it come to pass that one moment of a quarter-century ago would be transformed into a mythic event that continues to generate raging political debate?
Woodstock symbolizes, to some, a generation's discontent, opposition to the Vietnam War, sexual liberation, peace between races, mind expansion through hallucinogenic drugs, the evolution of the species, and, above all, the right of Americans to be free, to be different from the majority. For others, it has come to symbolize a dangerous sand promiscuous society, an orgy of law-breaking, the destruction of the nuclear family, a Biblical fall from the established order.
Each of those views acknowledges the same truth: Woodstock was – and is – political. And that did not happen by accident. It happened because a small group of dedicated political activists organized – before, during, and after the concert – to force a political imprint on the myth surrounding the event.
This is their story.
The Summer of '69
"In the summer of '69," recalls journalist Andrew Kopkind, now the associate editor of the Nation, "a part of the student movement had fixed on alienated, rebellious, young, white, student-age people as the spear of the nation."
This was the time, Kopkind says, when the Weathermen, then in their "anarcho-Yippie phase" would run through high-school corridors yelling, "Jailbreak!" The Weathermen, of course, later mutated into the Weather Underground, a revolutionary group with a penchant for planting bombs.
That era also marked the birth of the White Panthers, led by John Sinclair, who wrote a book called Guitar Nation. The Panthers, Kopkind notes, were into politics and music, and were influenced by Student for a Democratic Society and the MC5, an influential proto-punk band that Sinclair managed. The Weathermen and the White Panthers dovetailed with the Yippies who were past their high point – the Chicago Democratic convention – but "still a presence", Kopkind says. They were all very interested in the drug culture and drugs as an element of liberation as well as a unit of recreation, and they were very interested in music," Kopkind explains. "What could be a better organizing tool than the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, where all this was to come together?"
Abbie Hoffman first learned about Woodstock in June of '69, while at a Yippie conference in Michigan. After hearing differing accounts of what was going to take place in upstate New York – including rumors that the concert would be on Bob Dylan's farm – Hoffman, who had devoted the previous two years to organizing the youth culture into a political force, saw an opportunity.
"I knew it was going to be a huge event because its mythology was so big that people were making up these amazing stories about it," Hoffman told Joel Makower, author of Woodstock: An Oral History (1989, Doubleday). "And it was at that point I approached the promoters."
The Makower book contains a fascinating account of how Hoffman used the threat of disruption to win the organizers' permission to set up a "Movement City" at the concert site, and how he secured from them a $10,000 donation to pay for it.