This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival – widely regarded as one of the most important musical events of all time.
Woodstock allowed people in Vietnam-era America to believe another world was possible. It defined a generation and became a catalyst for a different way of thinking.
It brought liberal ideas into the mainstream, as people who’d spent their lives cast as outsiders suddenly realised there were plenty of other people who felt the same way they did.
Of course, that’s not how everybody experienced it at the time. In amongst the dewy-eyed reminiscences of peace and love, you’ll find descriptions of 15-mile traffic queues, basic sanitation that was quickly overwhelmed by a crowd ten times larger than anyone had anticipated, scheduling delays, sound problems – and a devastating storm that ripped through the festival on Saturday night and turned the field into a quagmire. If it happened at Glastonbury, people would be wanting their money back.
So it’s probably just as well that the song which best articulates ‘the spirit of Woodstock’ was written by someone who wasn’t actually there.
Joni Mitchell was supposed to be playing a small set at Woodstock, but her manager, terrified that the traffic gridlock would disrupt a scheduled TV appearance, made her pull out. She wrote the song ‘Woodstock’ in a Manhattan apartment.
David Crosby (who was at the festival and later became one of 347 artists to cover the song) described Mitchell’s song as ‘the perfect description’ of what Woodstock represented, rather than what it actually was.
When Crosby, Stills and Nash released their version of it, it went straight to number one – alongside the three-hour film of the festival, which filled cinemas up and down America, as an entire generation suddenly wanted to be a part of what was becoming a cultural phenomenon.
So, when baby boomers talk about Woodstock, they’re not usually talking about the festival itself. They’re talking about the spirit of the festival, as articulated in the song and the film.
That’s the thing about change. When you’re experiencing it, it often feels difficult and uncomfortable and chaotic.
Which is why, sometimes, you need to just take a step back and make sense of it. If you can do that, if you can articulate the change in a way that captures what it means, why it matters and how it feels when it’s at its best – that’s when you’ve got a chance of making the change stick.
If all anybody remembers is the mud and the traffic jams, you’ll never change anything.