Woodstock was a music festival that took place from August 15-17th 1969. It had been two years since the Summer of Love, and less than six months since Richard Nixon had been sworn in as America’s first — but by no means last — dangerously corrupt Republican President.
1. The Grateful Dead
The Grateful Dead’s set at Woodstock was almost entirely derailed by the weather, with rain falling so heavily that several band members got electrocuted. At their best as a live band, they are largely absent in the Woodstock festival film.
The Grateful Dead were influenced by folk, blues, country, and a wide variety of substances that remain illegal even in today’s permissive society. The track Alligator from their second album, Anthem of the Song is about four hours long and contains the best/only use of kazoos in rock music. Largely by default.
In 1972 they released Live in Europe, a double live album that was recorded in venues across Europe. Nearly all of them indoors.
2. Janis Joplin and the Kozmic Blues Band
Janis Joplin was arguably the first true female rock star. She was an alcoholic with a great voice who died aged 27, a little more than a year after Woodstock.
At the time of the festival, Joplin was recording her first solo album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! It was the last to be released in her lifetime. Later reissues would include live versions of Summertime and Piece of my Heart, both taken from her performance at Woodstock.
A follow up, Pearl, was released in 1971 and is arguably her finest work.
3. Jefferson Airplane
Jefferson Airplane are best known for White Rabbit. About twenty years and a few personnel changes later, they became Starship and released We Built This City. Evolution is not always a positive thing.
What set Jefferson Airplane apart from similar bands of the era was their frontwoman, Grace Slick.
In a 1969 episode of The Dick Cavett Show, Slick became the first person to say ‘motherf****r’ on television. The same year she was mistakenly invited to a tea party at the White House (she happened to have been a university classmate of the President’s daughter). She attended the tea party with a plan to dose Nixon’s drink with LSD. Unfortunately Slick was on an FBI blacklist, recognized, and refused entry.
Jefferson Airplane took to the stage in the early hours of Monday morning. They performed a lengthy set, but left Woodstock immediately after leaving the stage — they were due to appear on The Dick Cavett Show later that day.
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were a supergroup. At the time of Woodstock they had released one album — Crosby, Still, and Nash. Neil Young had joined the band in the brief period since the album’s release, as the band needed an additional member in order to perform live. Woodstock was only the second time the band had performed live.
The following year CSNY released their second album, Déja Vu. The album featured a guest appearance by Grateful Dead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, and a song called Woodstock — originally written by Nash’s then girlfriend, Joni Mitchell, whilst watching footage of the festival on TV. Both versions were released almost simultaneously, with Mitchell’s version appearing as the penultimate track on her Ladies of the Canyon album.
CSNY took to the stage at Woodstock in the coveted 3am Monday slot. They had been due to play earlier, but God was so enraged by Joe Cocker’s cover of With a Little Help From My Friends that he sent a storm that forced the festival to stop for around three hours.
It feels almost too obvious including Hendrix in this list, but his performance as the sun began to rise over Bethel, NY is perhaps the most iconic moment of the three-day festival.
Hendrix staged his own political protest, by playing a cover of a two-hundred year old British drinking song.
Founded in 18th century London, the Anacreontic Society was a gentleman’s club that celebrated the Greek poet Anacreon, who wrote about wine, women, and song. The society created their own drinking song, The Anacreontic Song. The melody was popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
During the War of 1814, Francis Scott Key was being held on a British ship as a prisoner. He had no choice but to watch the British attack on Baltimore, and the bombardment of Fort McHenry. When he woke at dawn, he was inspired by the sight of the American flag still waving. Upon his release, he wrote a patriotic poem about his experience — The Defense of Fort McHenry.
An American music publisher took Key’s poem, set it to the melody of The Anacreontic Song, and renamed it The Star-Spangled Banner. It became the official national anthem of the United States in 1931.
Hendrix played at dawn, but this was the twilight of the hippie era. It would come to a grim and violent end at a festival in Altamont, four months later, when violence broke out and someone was killed. By 1970, Hendrix would also be dead. Altamont was a dark and violent foreshadowing of the time to come — the continued war in Vietnam, Watergate, and Nixon’s eventual resignation.
The version of The Star Spangled Banner that Hendrix played was roughly two minutes longer than the official version. What started as a more or less traditional rendition of the melody evolved into a dirge of thunderous distortion and wails of feedback… A song of discord and disharmony that reflected the mood of the times…