PSU Altoona professor reflects on Woodstock

An educator, music historian and author, Penn State Altoona professor Jerry Zolten of Warriors Mark shares his thoughts on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, a large outdoor rock musical festival held Aug. 15-18, 1969 and attracted an estimated 400,000 people to a dairy farm field near White Lake in Bethel, New York, 43 miles southwest of Woodstock, N.Y.

Mirror: Did you attend Woodstock?

Zolten: Folk, jazz and bluegrass festivals had been around a long time, but a rock ‘n’ roll festival seemed pretty novel at the time. I thought about going. Many of my friends from Penn State were going. But then I started watching the news and hearing reports of enormous traffic jams and no place to stay, not to mention that tickets seemed priced a bit out of reach, and I was not one to simply show up in the face of all these question marks. So, I didn’t go.

My younger brother did. When I talked to him about it a few weeks later, he confessed that he could remember very few details.

He said that, at least for him, being out there in a field made it hard to hear or even pay attention to the music. It was more about making the best of the rain and the mud in the immediate crowd of people you just happened to be standing in.

He also confessed that drugs no doubt clouded his memory.

In the end, the film Woodstock was a much better, certainly more convenient, experience of what, in retrospect, turned out to be a landmark cultural event.

Mirror: Given your vast background in music/culture, could you provide some scholarly context to the iconic event?

Zolten: From a scholarly point of view, I guess the best summary is that Woodstock represented the coalescing of a cultural moment, young people as viable consumers and a postwar point of view that countered everything that had come before.

This was the time of Vietnam, the first televised war. These were the beginnings of a new era when television brought everything right into your living room. We were the kids who watched the footage of the assassination of the president (John F. Kennedy), witnessed the actual shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald as it happened at the moment.

In the world of music, the previous generation’s crooners, big bands and romantic and innocent and idealistic songs were displaced by a new aesthetic of blaring amplified electric guitars, rocking rhythms, youthful unschooled voices and songs that bared emotions and called out for social justice. Woodstock became a metaphor for the good side of all that, a demonstration that young people could come together as the advertising sign said for “Three Days of Peace and Music.” The reality was, of course, different, but the event nonetheless became emblematic of a youth movement at a pivotal moment in time.

Mirror: How did it change music?

Zolten: I wouldn’t say that the festival itself actually changed music. But it did validate the centrality of rock ‘n’ roll to the upcoming generation and in the form of a film made stars out of quite a few who were just making names for themselves. Crosby, Stills and Nash come to mind. Country Joe McDonald with his “Fixin’ to Die” cheer. Jimi Hendrix’s memorable Star Spangled Banner. Joe Cocker.

Mirror: Did it change culture. Why or why not?

Zolten: In my view, it did not change the fundamental nature of human beings. The cultural shift between generations was already in motion, but Woodstock did give it an accelerating boost, I think.

The reasons for cultural change are nuanced and complex, and in my view not the result of any singular event.

Mirror: What made it such a memorable event that people want to mark the 50-year anniversary?

Zolten: I’m sure there are wholesome nostalgic reasons for wanting to mark the anniversary, and half-centuries are always appealing markers.

In this case, though, the generation that spawned Woodstock is reaching the end of the road, and for many, like those incredible WWII veterans making the trip back to Normandy — though Woodstock pales by comparison — this is one last chance to relive, remember, maybe even pass on to a younger generation, an experience that was profoundly important to them when they were young. And there is a thrill, at least for me, to hear one more, perhaps last, performance by the very musicians who meant so much back in the day. It’s almost like, we’re still here, there’s still life in this old body!

That said, I also can’t help but think that a neo-Woodstock still comes down to a crass desire to cash in. I have to smile thinking, how can you remember something you could barely remember the first time around?

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