I’m reminded of the words of Bob Dylan, as much the bard of the Woodstock Generation as anyone, “the times they are a-changin’.“ Or more pointedly, the times, they have a-changed. A lot. As, perhaps, one might expect with the passage of half a century from the original Woodstock festival of August 1969 to now, August 2019.
Within minutes of arriving at the Spirit of Woodstock festival, held near Brooksville, Fla., this past weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, I could see that those teenagers of August 1969 had grown both up and old. True, there was a smattering, more present as the weekend went on, of what were probably grandkids and even some younger people with their own kids, doubtlessly too young to have been at the original Woodstock, but for the most part these were members of what came to be known as the Woodstock Generation.
I guess it’s a thing to want to relive the past, probably as much to re-create one’s fleeting youth as to breathe the past back into today. At the Spirit of Woodstock, I saw more tie-dye in the first hour than I’ve seen in the past several decades. A few people, it seemed, had never left the ’60s, and some others did a creditable job of imitating the garb and look of that era (to put an impartial spin on things, geez, we sure dressed and looked pretty funny back then, didn’t we?) But meanwhile, those broken-down old cars and VW buses and beetles of the original Woodstock had been replaced with SUVs, big pick-ups, and even quarter-million-dollar RVs. The times sure have a-changed.
In the couple months preceding the Spirit of Woodstock, I studiously avoided developing any preconceptions or expectations about the festival. I had absolutely no idea what I’d find, whom I might meet, what the dynamic, or even the weather, might be. That it would happen at all was the most I’d allow myself to hope for. And as it turned out, I was not disappointed. In fact, I was rather pleased with the whole event, and more than pleased with what turned out to be a progression of really great music. Woodstock did indeed live, sort of.
On the weather thing, I almost delayed my departure for the festival. It had been raining for days, things were flooding all over, and it seemed the world was coming to an end. Looking at the detailed weather reports, it became apparent that conditions were not going to get any better and had the potential to get worse. Figuring that rain and mud were integral parts of the original Woodstock festival, I finally made a decision, loaded the car in the rain, and headed south.
As it turned out, it was the right decision. By the time I joined the queue of vehicles waiting to enter the grounds of the Sertoma Youth Ranch, host of the Spirit of Woodstock, the rain had abated to just some drippiness in the atmosphere, mist in the air, and mud under foot. Enough of the spirit of Woodstock to be at least minimally authentic without thoroughly re-creating the sodden mess of the original. Now it did rain Saturday afternoon, but I was under the music pavilion – how very un-Woodstock that was – and avoided it, the tent I had pitched in the woods held, and by Sunday the sun was shining through.
“I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm . . . ” – Joni Mitchell, Woodstock
If you were alive and even marginally conscious in August 1969, you knew of the Woodstock festival, officially the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Maybe you even were there. Or, like me, wanted to be there but couldn’t be. It was a pivotal event, and it came to name a generation – the Woodstock Generation. Now, 50 years on, for me it is hard to look back and not feel the call of the original Woodstock, the summer of Woodstock, that incredible time that passed through the 19th year of my life, my most formative year and an age with which I still identify.
How I came to be at the Brooksville Woodstock has a convoluted history that leads back to the actual town of Woodstock, N.Y. (not where the festival took place – the town wouldn’t let the promoters have it there, so it took place on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm at White Lake, in the town of Bethel, across the mountains, 50 miles from Woodstock). I lived in and around Woodstock, the town, in the mid and late 1970s, and came to work for Woodstock Times, the local and “hipper” weekly paper. This past April and May, 40+ years on, I was assisting one of my old editors from Woodstock, who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., eke out her memoir, part of which deals with the suffragist movement in New York State. We got to discussing the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival, and she sent me a link to a site in Sarasota, Fla., that talked about the Spirit of Woodstock festival in Brooksville (incidentally, Sarasota’s not really near Brooksville, just as the festival was not near Woodstock, but there seem to be a lot of links between Sarasota and the youth ranch).
In the end, Florida was able to pull off what New York and the original sponsors of the Woodstock festival couldn’t: An actual commemorative 50th anniversary music festival. While, in true New York State form, seemingly endless disagreements and roadblocks were thrown in the path of what was supposed to be the primary 50th event near the site of the original festival, the Brooksville festival went forward. Even as the promoters of the main commemoration gave up on New York, announced they were moving the festival to Maryland – Maryland! – and finally just threw in the towel and canceled the whole thing, Florida’s event was on.
Now let’s not confuse the Spirit of Woodstock in August 2019 Florida with the original Woodstock festival of August 1969. While the original swelled to somewhere north of 400,000 people and, during the days of August 15-18, 1969, became the second largest city in the state of New York, my best guestimate is that there were maybe 2,000 people, give or take, attending in Brooksville. Normally I’m pretty good at crowd estimates – my journalist background – but this was a really hard crowd to gauge. Counting the camper seats and lawn chairs in the music venue, no more than 250 people or so, often less, were there at any one time to groove to the music. Meanwhile, there were trailers and RVs and tents all over the grounds, and it seemed a lot of people tended to stay in their camp site guzzling beer or shooting the shit or doing whatever else people do in their camp sites, rather than turn out to dig on the music (notice use of ’60s expressions). Given the number of campsites filled, that’s how I arrived at my guestimate, no matter how flawed.
A couple of times over the weekend the musicians onstage asked who in the audience had attended the original Woodstock festival. As it turned out, not many. Two hands went up one time, one hand another. More people had attended the Watkins Glen festival (which turned out to be bigger even that Woodstock), held in the Finger Lakes region of New York State in July of 1973. Damn, missed that one, too!
“Dance to the Music . . . ” – Sly & The Family Stone, Dance to the Music
Unlike some others of my fellow festival goers, it was the music that held the real attraction for me. Even in light of my non-existent expectations, the music made it all worthwhile. Every group was at least very good-to-excellent, and some were off-the-charts great. And through it all, the sound production by Mojoe Productions of Bradenton, Fla., was, literally, flawless, very unlike the original Woodstock. There were 13 groups altogether, and I managed to catch every one of them except the opening act, by the Hummingbirds, since I was still fighting with putting up my tent in the woods and trying to beat the rain and dark. Along with Woodstock, endless classic rock ‘n’ roll and blues lived over those three days, and my tinnitus is even worse now that it was before subjecting my ears to hugely loud amplified rock music for something like 17 hours. But it was so worth it.
Just when I thought a group couldn’t be beat, along came an even more amazing one. That process began Friday night with Russ Bowers Isn’t Dead Yet with an incredible riff that seemed to go on forever, and then led into what can only be described as a phenomenon unto itself, The Tony Tyler Trance (which I heard as Tramps, which to me sounds better than Trance, and everyone I mentioned this to agreed). Tony Tyler really makes the show and his energy takes over what is an otherwise already massively talented group. Among his, uh, tramps (hey, that’s what I heard), are a woman guitarist who looks as serious about her playing as she is excellent, and three women vocalists who, honestly, were not used to their full potential in the performance. Two of them, sequentially, belted out a couple of Jefferson Airplane hits – “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” – and you could swear, with either one of them, it was Grace Slick up there on stage. Tyler, it seems, is fascinated with Alice in Wonderland, and he has another group, with his wife, Come Back Alice, which is one more expression of his talent.
The music went on throughout the weekend, with Saturday opening with the Cadillac Cowboys (which lent a bit of what they call Gulf Coast Gumbo to the musical mix), followed by St. Pete’s oddly named Bus Fulla Monkeys. Then things really ripped open with L.C. Williams and the Driver – hearing a woman on the harmonica is a real treat, not to mention L.C.’s incredible voice. Next was Sarasota and Tampa Bay favorite Kettle of Fish, and then Tampa’s incredibly high energy Alex Lopez & Xpress Band. I don’t know his name, but Alex Lopez’s keyboardist just might be the best in the world. Things just got better and better and it became impossible to rank order the groups.
In between there was a Woofstock Pooch Parade and judging of decked out campers and buses in a Pimp Your Pad contest.
People seemed to mostly turn out to dance at night, and that’s what they did to the music of Uncle John’s Band, distracted by balloons playfully bounced – and bounced, and bounced — all across the dance floor for most of the evening.
Sunday was the most retrospective day, with Yesterdayze, which bills itself as the Ultimate 60’s Experience, and looks (speaking of tie-dye) and sounds the part, leading the way. Santana could have been on stage with Moonflower – Spirit of Santana, and finally – a fitting close to an amazing weekend of retrospective music – came Peace of Woodstock. Oh lord, is that Janis up there asking for a Mercedes-Benz? Whew.
And then it was over. Just over. Kind of a let down, take down the tent, pack the car, drive back home, where it was still raining.
“Freedom . . . clap your hands . . . Hey . . . yeah . . . ” – Richie Havens, first up at the original Woodstock, Freedom
Without a doubt the Woodstock Generation profoundly impacted the course of society, in the U.S., as well as around the world. Life is different today than it would be otherwise had the influences of the Woodstock Generation, the generation of peace and love, not taken hold. While the movement the Woodstock Generation engendered began unraveling after just a few years, falling completely apart after that, life on the planet would never be the same again. I am a part of that generation and I am proud to have been part of that movement while it was happening. And I’m sorry as well that some pretty bad ideas also came of the same generation. A mixed bag, for sure. But for the three days of Woodstock, there was peace, love, and music.
In the words of Max Yasgur, “ . . . the important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids – and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you are – a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I – God Bless You for it!”
Joni Mitchell, who never made it to Woodstock, if not for trying, had another take on it when she introduced her song, Woodstock, four months later on December 12, 1969, in Worcester, Mass., expressing her regrets for not being able to get to the festival:
“And then when I saw the magazine articles and pictures of them and everything, I really, really felt sorry for myself, because it’ll never happen again, of course. They’ll try and recapture it, you know, and it’ll just get worse and worse and worse. Well, maybe that’s a pessimistic way to look at it, but, I don’t know.
“It was really something, that people could be so good to each other. Even if it was only for three days. All those people being good to each other for three whole days. Fantastic.”
Prescient words, indeed.