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Memories and Myths of Woodstock After 50 Years Skip to content

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Memories and Myths of Woodstock

The legendary music festival wasn't just about peace, love and music

Large crowd at Woodstock

Getty Images

Bob Edwards: Hello, I'm Bob Edwards with an AARP take on today. For the estimated 400,000 attendees of the Landmark Music Festival, the concept of a Woodstock flashback may have multiple meanings. Our program this week will not include any hallucinogenic interpretations. Turning focus instead to a thorough review of the iconic gathering in upstate New York, which spanned a long weekend from August 15th to the 18th in 1969. Our mission throughout this take on today, consider the event from several perspectives throughout time. Including those of last-minute road trip concert-goers, legendary performers who made history on stage, and through the journalists who have covered the event and its legacies since. All toward distinguishing between the mythic lore and nostalgia that permeates the notion of Woodstock today, and the actual occasion itself.

One that was famously fraught with inclement weather, resulting mud covering the Hills of Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, New York, massive turnout without any planning for food, shelter, and so much more. We'll hear from Carlos Santana, and Robert Leonard. Woodstock performers from the bands Santana and Sha Na Na, respectively. Yes, Sha Na Na the '50s parody band, you may recall from their variety show in the late seventies, played Woodstock. Opened for the headliner, Jimi Hendrix.

We'll engage with four women, each a different generation in the same family, and all uniquely tied to the music festival. To our living results of Woodstock, in fact. And we'll speak with AARP magazine, contributing editor, David Hochman, Part of the team that came together to profile the event, its history and meaning in the summer music issue of AARP, the magazine. As for Santana, they had not cut an album before they stepped on stage at Woodstock. Carlos Santana got to the heart of what we explored today via his personal take on the meaning, and lasting cultural implications of what was perhaps the most unlikely to happen concert event in history. And the one that is most historically remembered.

Carlos Santana: Some of this music makes me feel like, oh, ah. When you play music that you can actually see people cry, and then laugh, and dance at the same time. And I've been seeing this all my life now, it's more clear than ever. So, to stay relevant children, all children of all ages, but 27 to seven, they need the same thing. All they're going to remember is how you make them feel.

Bob Edwards: Ironically, the most revered song about the festival wasn't performed there. To help us delve into Woodstock, inspired by Joni Mitchell's anthem, and the music on ethos of the festival. We're happy to have Mike Ellison back in the studio today. Welcome Mike.

Mike Ellison: Thanks Bob. Happy to be here. Bob, the song Woodstock is pure poetry like so many Joni Mitchell pieces. I mean, you think about the hallmark lyrics. "We are Stardust. We are golden, and we have to get ourselves back to the garden". These lyrics give a philosophical layer, if you will, to the idea of Woodstock that might not have happened if she was actually there. And this song is the first take on the mythology of the gathering. Are you going to sing it Bob? If you take the low road I'll harmonize with you.

Bob Edwards: I carefully never sang. It's a hilarious tape. I'm interviewing Peter Yarrow, of Peter Paul and Mary, and that folk tradition. So trying to get me to sing, no way. Joni Mitchell was quite a talent, and so sharp, and multi-talented in so many ways. She painted, she was a fabulous pianist. Nobody sounded like her. The guitar, no one tuned like that. I don't know where those tunes came from, but she was splendid.

Mike Ellison: You were around during Woodstock, were you there?

Bob Edwards: I'm a guy who likes hot and cold running water. I would not have done well in the swamp, in the mud and the port-o-potties. No, that's not me. I'm not. No, I'm a wuss that way. And crowds, large crowds. No.

Mike Ellison: What was your take on Woodstock?

Bob Edwards: Oh gosh, phenomenon. I mean, just the sheer size of the crowd, and the fact that it was guaranteed for a riot that did not happen. They were just peaceful, and all the sharing of food. God bless the community in Bethel that fed these people, and they were bringing them goodies, and shipping in medical supplies that were desperately needed.

Mike Ellison: What do you think it means to come together and to gather in that way and to celebrate music? Does it have any, does it offer any context to where we are now?

Bob Edwards: Yeah. Well, you had to be in that time and place too. It was, the war was what it was all about. Everyone was protesting the war, and they were all young people of draft age. It's important to know there was a draft, and they got me a year later. Actually just months later. And that draft was hanging over everybody and it gave the war an urgency that wars today don't have, because you have a volunteer army. But when you have a draft that can change your whole life, and the lives of people you know, and your career, and safety, and health, and everything else. The way you go to school, the way you plan your life, the draft determined everything. So the draft was the royal pain in the tuchus, and that's what galvanized this national movement. It was not just the war, although I understand people who are against war, and don't want war, but it was also the draft. This was personal to everyone of a certain age, and I was right on that age.

Mike Ellison: Did you then, and do you still now believe in the power of music to educate, to inspire, to inform, to create positive change?

Bob Edwards: To transform. I can't see a scene from Vietnam and not hear Creedence. I just hear Creedence Clearwater Revival in my head, because I just associate that sound with the war, and Santana, and other groups. But yeah, our lives had a soundtrack.

Mike Ellison: Just last week I sat down with Robert Leonard, former band member of Sha Na Na who at age 20 played on stage at Woodstock, which was his first-ever rock concert. If you can believe that. And one thing I can tell you, he has some strong opinions on the myth of Woodstock. So if you don't mind, let's jump right in and start with your former band mate, Mr. Henry Gross. Did you happen to see his comments in yesterday's Tampa Bay times article?

Robert Leonard: I did not.

Mike Ellison: So I'm going to paraphrase, but he essentially scoffs at the so-called spirit of Woodstock, and essentially says that it has been repackaged, and rebranded paraphrasing part of his article. He said, "Look, some really high paid musicians playing really expensive instruments,` wearing expensive clothes were backstage in a roped off area. How different is that from what's happening today? At these political debates, and even in the field of entertainment?" But he does not downplay the magic of Woodstock in terms of the music, and the artistry, and the spirit in terms of people being communal, being in miserable conditions, and yet not delving into violence. But he does feel that the myth has been propagated quite a bit, for commercial purposes. It's been rebranded and repackaged. What are your thoughts about that?

Robert Leonard: Well, I mean, if we are one with the common people since we wound up not being paid, so I guess -- would feel better about that part of it.

Mike Ellison: He did mention that, by the way. He said, "We got check for $300 that bounced. So I never got my 20."

Robert Leonard: That's right. Exactly. So I mean, we were one with the unwashed masses and we really were, because there was no VIP room back there. My God, it was terrible. And of course he, as you probably know, we spent all night on stage. So we got there in the afternoon, I guess it was. And then we did not sleep the entire night. And then at seven o'clock we had to go out and sing to however many hundred thousand people were still left in that big mud pile. But, I mean, of course everything's going to be commercialized when it can. I mean, even when it shouldn't be. But at least this is, it's true. I mean in 50 years, nobody that I've ever seen has come up with any active intentional violence that actually was going on, and the rotten underbelly of Woodstock.

Mike Ellison: Right.

Robert Leonard: Everybody just, it really was three days of peace and music, which is astonishing. And I knew a guy who went there, I met him later on in life, and he was with his buddies, and they were young, and they were stoned and everything, and they wake up one morning and they're naked. And they start freaking out, if you can imagine? And all the other hippies, the older guys and women, they say, "Hey, little brothers don't, don't freak out. It's okay. Everything's going to be cool." And they literally gave them clothes off their own backs.

Mike Ellison: A communal spirit. It sounds like a sorely needed salve that's missing today, doesn't it? Three days of pure peace, in a scenario that could have been pure hell. From Robert's perspective, the myth of Woodstock was very much a living truth. I asked if he had thoughts on what contributed to that sense of communal spirit. His answer was pretty clear, peace was a way of life, a response against the backdrop of a war that everyone felt

Robert Leonard: With Vietnam, man, it was awful. I mean, I had maybe 20, 25 of my friends from high school died in Vietnam. I think it fueled a lot of the, we are us, we are not them. Any of those people had targets on their backs. We did too, any moment we might have wound up in the jungles of Vietnam for no reason at all. So I think that's one real unifying feature of the youth of that moment.

Mike Ellison: Peace, art and creativity flourishes in times of strife, and according to Robert, the music and lyrics, and togetherness of Woodstock served to create solace. Create a safe space, and provide some relativity for the many young people who were living in uncertain times, facing the draft, and losing their loved ones. They fully experienced each other in that moment. Do you think as a linguist, do you think the song lyrics played a role in the vibration, and the positivity that ruled those three days?

Robert Leonard: Absolutely. Yeah, because a lot of the lyrics really tried to, and did embody that consciousness of, we are us and we are not them, and they are trying to kill us. Looks Like I'm Fixing to Die, and Freedom, all the peace songs. And of course that fueled a lot of the lyrics at the time, and everybody knew all those lyrics.

Mike Ellison: Sure, sure. It seems that 50 years later, Woodstock still holds the same meaning for you. Has your perception, or your feelings about Woodstock, have they changed over the years?

Robert Leonard: Well, as I said, I mean, I've been waiting for 50 years for some investigative reporter finding out that all of the things that were happening there weren't really happening, and all sorts of other things were. But I've never seen it. And I even see the headlines, the real truth about Woodstock, it was muddy or something. Yeah. I know that.

Mike Ellison: After Woodstock, after drinking tequila with Jimi Hendrix on stage, and sharing wine with Janice Joplin, and participating in the most momentous musical event in modern history, a 20-year-old Robert went on to have a second career. A second life as a forensic linguist of all things. He talked about the transition, truly a fascinating all around guy. And how his Sha Na Na performances, in their own roundabout way, guided him down that path.

Robert Leonard: I had another life, and I mean I went to Africa on my Fulbright [Fellowship 00:00:13:02]. Oh, I was going to tell you. When I was in Sha Na Na, the entire time I was a full-time student, and I wanted to take another language. And in those days, all the first-year languages were Monday through Friday. So I couldn't take Monday or Friday courses, because we were flying off to San Francisco on Friday afternoon, coming back from Cincinnati Monday afternoon. So I looked at the 55 languages that were taught at Columbia, and out of 55 languages, guess which one was not taught Monday through Friday? Swahili. So-

Mike Ellison: Of course not.

Robert Leonard: Yeah, right? So I took it and as I love telling my students, I've taught Swahili now on three continents for many decades, in addition to my linguistics courses. The first day I first walked into Swahili class, I couldn't have found Africa on a map, and I took Swahili. I fell madly in love with it.

Mike Ellison: Dr. Robert Leonard is clearly living his best life, and in him, the spirit of Woodstock also lives on... Now let's turn to another set of stories that live on in true human form, which began at Woodstock. These originating from the point of view of a concert goer. For many of those attending the concert, the journey to Woodstock and the festival experience would be a long weekend of music, mud, marijuana and more. And then there would be a return to life with memories of the event that live on, or fade away depending on the individual, and his or her path in life. For Woodstock goer Cindy Matthews, the weekend would change her life in ways she never imagined. That touched not only her life, but those of her entire family. Here's Cindy, in her own words.

Attendee: It was all over the radio, talking about it was going to be a big concert, who was going to be there and all that. So I actually, well the ticket, my mother was like, "Oh, there's too many people going, you're going to get hurt." And all that. Blah, blah. They were very protective, but I just said, "I'm going anyway." I went with my girlfriends from high school. We all piled into my 1968 Opal, and off we went on the highway, going up not very far. In Wayne, New Jersey. It's the intersection of route 80-23 where they all intersect, you know?

Mike Ellison: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Attendee: And there was a huge traffic jam. There was a 46' Chevy in front of me. And so this guy gets out of the car, long hair, and he says to us, "You girls going to Woodstock?" And we go, "Yeah, we're going." He says, "Well, follow me. I know a shortcut." I followed him the whole way up there, through all the back roads. I had brought a sleeping bag with me, which I borrowed off my cousin. And no food, no water, no change of clothes, no nothing. I'd never done anything like this before, so I just went. Free wheeling it. And so I followed him, and I stayed with him, and I stuck with him for six years.

Mike Ellison: Oh my God.

Attendee: And he's the father of my oldest daughter. I was pretty far from the stage, up on a hill, in a pile of mud. Pretty much sat there and moved around a little bit for four days, three or four days. I was so excited, and so happy, and I was instantly in love with this guy, and he was me, which was really weird 'cause I'm not that kind of person.

Mike Ellison: Cindy ended up staying with the Woodstock companion for six years, and as a result of their chance meeting at a bottleneck intersection on route to the show, they found love and had a child together.

Attendee: My oldest daughter of course, is still very fascinated by it. And I still talk to my ex, he's my ex now, obviously. But, we still reminisce about it once in a while and he says, that's when he fell in love too. And my mother, she said it was the worst day of her life.

Mike Ellison: Cindy was right about her mother's take on that particular day.

Attendee's Mom: It was horrible. Number one, she was a young kid, about 18 I think. Was she even that? I think she was 18. She's 67 now. But anyway, she finally came home. I was worried sick 'cause it was so late. Walked in the door, practically got carried in the door. But anyway, what happened, she lost her girlfriends up there and then she lost her car, and then she hooked up with this young man that brought her home. I thought sure as heck she was doped or something. So I rushed her right over to the doctors. He said, "No, no, no, no, she's nothing like that. She's just completely exhausted." The times are so different then, everything was pure and clean, and you didn't have to worry about things.

Mike Ellison: But Cindy's eldest daughter, the love child of a chance meeting at Woodstock has a different take on the day her parents met.

Daughter: My parents met in a traffic jam on the way there. So it's a pretty significant event in my life, and in their lives. So he takes them on this long and winding path, and they eventually make it there. But had it not been for that chance encounter, I wouldn't be here. I'm a pretty open-minded, nonjudgmental, peace-loving kind of person. I think I've inherited, or adopted those sort of values that went along with that whole Woodstock culture thing. I mean, it was a tumultuous time in our history, and there was a lot of conflict, and this was an opportunity for people of all races to come together, and make a stand for peace, and music-

Mike Ellison: And that sentiment carries on to Cindy's granddaughter as well, with a little bit of caution, perhaps due to being two generations away from the innocence, blind faith, and spontaneity that enabled Woodstock in the first place.

Granddaughter: I don't really think that they would allow that kind of thing to happen anymore, just because they would have a lot more safety rules. But I really, I like the idea of what they did. It was pretty cool. I liked the fact that it was, like I said, very open and very relaxed. If I were to decide if I had to go or not, I probably would, but I would prepare.

Mike Ellison: So in their own words, an American family spanning four generations, sum up what the Woodstock experience meant to them. Now they're a special case for sure, but offer a snapshot of how the concert impacted lives. Now, I'm not saying that Woodstock spawned hundreds of thousands of festival offspring. Let me be clear, but I do think for those who went, it had a lasting impact that like Carlos Santana noted at the top of the program, touched people because of the music and the moment.

Carlos Santana: When you play music that you can actually see people cry, and they laugh and dance at the same time.

Mike Ellison: Now that's a powerful thing. It can spark creativity, happiness, joy, sorrow, and in the case of Cindy Matthew's, love that would impact her life and create a family that will always be anchored in the muddy hills of Yasgur's farm in August of 1969... I'm incredibly excited to talk to David Hochman. He is the contributing editor for AARP the magazine, and he's also the journalist who worked tirelessly on the story that you just heard. So David, you recently worked with AARP to recount Woodstock in honor of the 50th anniversary. Can you tell us a little bit about that process?

David Hochman: Yes. We wanted to find a story that was the quintessential Woodstock story, and because it's AARP, we wanted to find a story that kind of crossed multiple generations. So my goal as a journalist was to find, well the ideal thing would have been to find a baby that was born at Woodstock, and to find the parents who raise that child. That turns out to be a myth. There is a report that there were two babies born at Woodstock, but no one has ever identified them.

Mike Ellison: Okay.

David Hochman: And so, I wanted to find the next best thing, which was a couple that met at Woodstock, and then perhaps had a child, and lived that life. And that's what we found.

Mike Ellison: So there were no babies birthed at Woodstock, but there were probably some babies made of Woodstock.

David Hochman: Right. Exactly.

Mike Ellison: Right.

David Hochman: But even that is hard to find. There's nobody that has come forward and said, "I was a literal child of Woodstock. I was born there." And there's nobody who's ever said, "My parents actually conceived me at Woodstock." So this was, to me, this was like the next best holy grail, which was finding a couple that actually met on the way, in traffic, and then later had a child.

Mike Ellison: And how in the world did you find this holy grail?

David Hochman: It took weeks. I put my story, the call for people to share their Woodstock stories. We put something in the magazine asking for AARP readers to share their stories. I went out to different Woodstock groups online. I went to the Bethel Museum, and asked them if they knew of great stories. I looked in old oral history archives. We put it out on Facebook groups, and I put it out on Twitter. I sent it out to different journalists that I know. I mean we really, I really went deep in trying to find this couple. And then it turned out another, a friend of a writer that I knew said, "You know what? My sister actually met her husband at Woodstock, and I think they have a good story to tell." So it actually came from somebody who I sort of knew.

Mike Ellison: So wait a minute. You went through all of these steps, you hit every possible platform there was, and it turned out all you had to do was ask a friend?

David Hochman: Exactly, exactly. I mean that's how it works sometimes.

Mike Ellison: And when you say you spent weeks, how many weeks are we talking about that you went through this whole process?

David Hochman: I think the whole process of putting the story together took about five or six months. And finding the right person, because I talked to a lot of people who were at Woodstock, and had all kinds of great stories, but it was just sort of a one off story, or their parents who had a really good story to tell had passed away, or their kids didn't really care about it. But here was a story where the mom was still alive. The family that was there still had a great story to tell, and there were two other generations who were touched by it. So, I thought it was perfect.

Mike Ellison: And so in an era where the new cycle changes literally by the hour, why was it important enough to spend six months on this story to get it right? To get all these different perspectives, when our world is changing by the minute and people are onto the next thing?

David Hochman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I mean, I think Woodstock was a one of a kind of event, and it was the first of its kind event. Before this gatherings had been, even peace and love gatherings had been lively, and moving, but they weren't as big as this. And there was something about the sheer number of people that got together that really said, "This is a moment, this is a ground shifting moment for your generation." That became the baby boomers, and this was the first time that we really see what it would be like to live this alternate reality that everyone had been talking about, but never really living for years.

Mike Ellison: Sure. And the family side of the Vietnam war several times throughout your interview. Can you share a bit about what the war meant to that family, specifically in the context of Woodstock, and do you think it's possible to accurately assess Woodstock's meaning without the backdrop of the Vietnam war?

David Hochman: Hey, I mean, I guess it is the yin and the yang of the culture of that year. I mean, Woodstock with peace and love, with the backdrop of war, there was a feeling that, we can live this life of love even at a time of war. And I know that Jimi Hendrix had spent time in the army, and I mean it was such a deep part of the fabric of the culture, and something that people were trying to fight against. That love was the answer. Music was the answer, peace was the answer. Skinny dipping in those lakes, was the answer.

Mike Ellison: Right. I wonder also if people like Jimi Hendrix, who had been in the army, maybe that's a way of saying that, it's not a zero-sum game, right? We're not saying we're against all the brave men and women who served, and some had no choice because they were drafted. We're just against the sentiment behind the war. I wonder if that had anything to do with it?

David Hochman: Yeah. It was not a simple series of events. And I think the people who are at Woodstock were thinking deeply about how we could live at a time where our country was both fighting this war, and also wanting to go into a new type of community where people were feeling peaceful, and moving forward in all kinds of community centric ways. And it was, there was not one way. People thought that Woodstock was the answer. A certain group of people, even when you listen to that Joni Mitchell, CSN, Crosby, Stills and Nash song, and she talks about by the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong, and everywhere was a song and a celebration. "And I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes riding shotgun in the sky, turning into butterflies above our nation." I mean, that idea of, we could turn bomber death planes into butterflies above our nation, was this dream of that generation. And I think it went hand in hand. So, whether they vilified it, or whether they just were trying to understand it. I think they thought maybe this is the solution.

Bob Edwards: I'm glad to hear these connections, and the lasting effects of Woodstock. I think of that couple that was the iconic picture on the album.

Mike Ellison: Yeah.

Bob Edwards: They caught up with them recently. They married, they had been together 50 years.

Mike Ellison: How about that? And as we just heard from David Hochman, four generations that began with a chance encounter at a bottleneck in Woodstock.

Bob Edwards: It did it, it happened like that. People made connections and friends that I think lasted long, up to now... For this special take on today, let's close by highlighting the lives and legacies of a few other notable performers who took to the Woodstock stage. Joan Baez used the platform of Woodstock to protest the Vietnam war, and later to advocate for gay rights, anti-poverty, the environment, and more recently to protest the Iraq war. In 2011 Amnesty International honored Baez with the creation of the Amnesty International Joan Baez Award for outstanding inspirational service in the global fight for human rights.

Interestingly, she dated Apple founders Steve jobs in the early 1980s, and they remained friends. She performed at his memorial service, and continues making and releasing music. Neil Young had joined with David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills just before the Woodstock performance, to complete the band Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Since the festival, there have been numerous configurations of the artists, all of which have been met with success.

The band continued in the Woodstock spirit following the show, creating songs that were socially-focused throughout their time together. Notably, Ohio dubbed the greatest protest song ever written by Rolling Stone Magazine, focusing on the killing of four Kent State University students, engaged in a Vietnam war protest on campus in 1970. Neil Young has arguably had the most successful solo career, and continued creating songs that were socially-focused to this day. Recently releasing the Monsanto Years, a concept album that examines corporate practices with scrutiny.

Known for giving concert-goers, a religious experience, The Grateful Dead's unique bond with their fans led to the rise of deadhead culture. Deadheads from around the country, loyalty followed the band from show to show during their 30 years on tour, due to the sense of acceptance, and comradery fans felt in this community. Despite the disbandment of the group after the death of the band's founder and lead singer Jerry Garcia in 1995, the deadhead community lives on today. In 2015 surviving members, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and Bob Weir joined with artist John Mayer and others, to tour in a band called Dead and Company.

They have played three tours, and are currently on their fourth. Janice Joplin was one of the biggest rock icons of the 1960s, despite her death in 1970 at age 27. Joplin's embodiment of the rebellious social movement of the late 1960s blazed a trail for women in the industry that lives on today. The Texas-born legend has managed to remain an influential force in music, with some of the best songwriters in the business citing her as an icon. Including Stevie Nicks, Florence Welch, and Joss stone. In 1995, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for her contributions to the psychedelic rock movement. Rolling Stone named her one of the 100 greatest singers of all time stating that, in her time she was the woman in rock.

In the words of biographer Myra Friedman, "It wasn't only her voice that thrilled, with its amazing range and strength, and awesome wails. To see her was to be sucked into a maelstrom of feeling, that words can hardly suggest." Though Jimi Hendrix also died in 1970, just one year after his iconic rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock. He is often revered as one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived.

In fact, Jimmy even changed the way the instrument is played. His large hands allowed him to be able to wrap his thumb up around the neck to play lower range notes that freed his other fingers to address the higher treble strings and chords. The result of these innovations was a softer, muddled sound that didn't need extra effects. Following his death, the thumb around the neck technique became standard. Used by artists including Prince, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers among others.

You can read David Hochman story, Generation Woodstock in the August, September issue of AARP the Magazine. To watch the interview with Carlos Santana, visit aarp.org/santana, and that's our Woodstock spotlight take on today. I'm Bob Edwards. Keep on keepin' on. For more visit aarp.org/podcast. Become a subscriber, and be sure to rate our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, and other podcast apps. Thanks for listening. I'm Bob Edwards.

Some say that 1969's Woodstock was all about peace and music; some say that it's remembered with rose-colored glasses. In this special episode, we consider Woodstock from several perspectives, including those of last-minute road-trip concertgoers, legendary performers who made history on stage, and journalists who’ve covered the event's legacy.

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