Saturday, August 15, 2009


Why does the Woodstock music festival, held 40 years ago this weekend, still matter? Perhaps it's because it was "half a million strong"—mega-viral before flashmobs and the Web. "Woodstock had to have been one of the earliest examples of a viral event—long pre-dating blast faxes, mass emails, Web ads, the blogosphere, texting and tweeting," says Robert Goldstein, NPR's music librarian."Somehow, 40 years ago, word spread from person to person about a fabulous outdoor rock festival at a farm a few hours outside of New York City."

Woodstock also was a community of like-minded souls formed at the edges of the cultural mainstream. Today, there is no mainstream, and crowds are more apt to form digitally; in 1969, crowds were only physical—defined less by their collaborative networking potential than by their power to disrupt the status quo. Today, hundreds of thousands of communities are forming and communicating with each other, quickly, over the Web. Back in the summer of 1969, crowd-to-crowd communication did not exist and was beyond the realm of the imaginable. Woodstock was the original flashmob, shocking in both its size and its ability to rapidly self-organize. "This was a spontaneous, pre-Web community of the anti-Establishment, a kind of peaceful protest and celebration all wrapped into one," says Henry Diltz, a photographer who captured most of the festival in a series of iconic images.

Diltz also told the BBC in a recent interview that Woodstock's crowd-power gave the anti-Establishment a platform that signaled a change in the American spirit. One of Diltz's most vivid memories is of Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner:

"It was a Monday morning, there were only about 20,000 to 30,000 people left—most (concert-goers) had gone home already. It was very startling to hear (Hendrix play) the national anthem that morning; there had been such mixed feelings about it, our country, patriotism. The song in a way represented the (Vietnam) war machine, yet most of people who came to Woodstock were peace-and-love hippies who didn't want to kill anybody. But then to have Hendrix play that song? It was amazing. When you heard the sound effects of dive bombs and machine guns in Hendrix' playing, it reminded you that the (Vietnam) War was still going on...

...What was so amazing was that sound, in the still morning air, of the single string, the single instrument playing. The sound was so sharp and vibrant, and it went out and echoed against the mountains and came back again. And when you looked out onto the field—which had been a green alfalfa field five days earlier—now it was just a muddy hillside and looked very much like a battleground. Somebody had stuck a branch in the ground with an American flag flying and there it was, out there in that muddy field.
It was just a transfixing moment."

Here's Hendrix in that moment, below:

(Poster: Woodstock Music & Art Fair, 1969)

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