While Woodstock now has an image as the ultimate festival — hippiedom’s finest hour — initially the media cast it as a seedy quagmire.
“Traffic Uptight at Hippiefest,” said one uptight front-page headline run by the New York picture newspaper, Daily News, on August 16, 1969. “Hippies Mired in a Sea of Mud,” said another biblical headline run by the same outlet on the second to last day of the festival, which lasted for three days, occupying a 600-acre dairy farm near in Bethel, New York, 43 miles southwest of the town of Woodstock.
The News’ highbrow counterpart, the New York Times, ran a patronizing, fogyish August 18 editorial with horror-genre overtones called “Nightmare in the Catskills.”
“The dreams of marijuana and rock music that drew 300,000 fans and hippies to the Catskills had little more sanity than the impulses that drive the lemmings to march to their deaths in the sea,” the Gray Lady editorial read.
“Surely the parents, the teachers and indeed all the adults who helped create the society against which these young people are so feverishly rebelling must bear a share of the responsibility for this outrageous episode,” the editorial added, raising the question of what the mystery author was smoking.
True, the report begrudgingly ended saying the dismal situation had some redeeming features — the freakish-looking intruders behaved astonishingly well in bad conditions but needed to find a better purpose than the pursuit of LSD, whatever that means.
At first, the Times’ editors clashed over whether Woodstock was worth covering at all, then about what the story should be, states spirituality scholar Michael Sheehy in a report titled “How the Media Missed the Historic Angle of the Breaking Story,” published by the heritage group Woodstock Preservation.
Times correspondent Barnard Collier’s original pitch to report the folk rock fair was rejected, Sheehy says. “But his brothers, who worked in the music industry, told him that it was worth attending, so he went anyway. After the size of the crowds forced highway closings, he called his editors again, who relented.”
When Collier began documenting the festival run by four young men — John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld, and Mike Lang — he found other outlets had skipped it. A trailer the organizers set up for the press lay vacant.
Undaunted, Collier gamely wrote and contributed to several topical posts. An August 17 explainer, run without a byline, gingerly illuminated counterculture slang and rites for its upmarket audience. Liberally applied inverted commas framed new and edgy hippie jargon.
“Bethel Pilgrims Smoke ‘Grass’ and Some Take LSD to ‘Groove,’” the headline said, referencing the evocatively named Sullivan County, New York, town where the festival really happened. “A billowy haze of sweet smoke rose through purple spotlights from the sloping hillside where throngs of young people — their average age about 20 — sat or sprawled in the midnight darkness and listened to the rock music,” the report opened.
The smoke accompanying the rock music did not stem from campfires. An unnamed 19-year-old student from Denison University in Ohio supposedly said so much grass was smoked that just breathing made revellers stoned. Citing other nameless attendees, the article claimed 99 percent were smoking weed.
Still others who were not “into the drug scene” voiced shock that the banned herb could be so pervasive, the report said, then explained drug use’s purpose.
“A number of the youths have said the so-called ‘soft drugs,’ like marijuana, some milder forms of hashish and on the strongest side, mescaline, were used primarily because they produce a euphoria and, in the setting of rock music, allow the users to ‘groove’ on the sounds,” the Times said, suggesting almost the whole audience was zonked.
The picture magazine Life took a similarly unflattering view, focusing on fires, hippies sleeping atop vehicles, and garbage. “The trash piled up without proper facilities as a young man takes a nap atop his motorcycle,” a Life caption primly stated.
In a 2008 overview titled “Here’s Mud In Your Eye,” filed for the entertainment outlet Variety, cultural critic Diane Garrett summarized the media’s attitude: “Life magazine almost didn’t send anyone. The New York Times relied on stringers who filed anthropological dispatches explaining what a bad trip it was.”
That self-styled credible source for crucial current stories, United Press International, had a pop at Woodstock, too, in an un-bylined report titled “Thousands flee Woodstock chaos, mud.”
“Advertised as three days of ‘peace and music,’ the fair in this Catskill community has turned into a massive traffic jam in a giant mud puddle that has resulted in the death of one youth and the hospitalization of scores of others, many of them suffering adverse drug reactions.
“‘There’s no reason to stay,’ said one bitter young man as he picked his way through stalled traffic on one highway that was used as a feeder road for the fair,” the report stated.
An August 20 New York Times article by crime reporter Alfonso Narvaez went left-field, painting the whole shebang as an anarchist’s wicked scheme. “Bethel Farmers Call Fair a Plot to Avoid the Law,” said the headline.
In a thesis titled “Beyond the Myth,” analyst Sean McKean confirms the festival was not peace and love for all. For some Bethel residents, it meant destroyed fields and lost milk, according to McKean.
Certainly, Woodstock was messy. On-stage, a battle happened between hell-raising guitarist Pete Townshend and anarchist Abbie Hoffman. Off-stage, the encyclopedia Britannica states, rain turned the site into a sea of mud. Likewise, a reporter for the history hub History.com, Dave Roos, brands Woodstock “a traffic-snarled, rain-soaked, mud-caked mess.”
Three young men died. One was crushed by a tractor gathering debris while he dozed in a sleeping bag, two others perished from drug overdoses, states History.com reporter Barbara Maranzani. Medical staff handled “25 freakouts each hour from LSD-type drugs” on the first night of the festival, reports the Journal of Emergency Medical Services.
Despite the lapses, in line with Woodstock’s future legendary status, the media’s tone soon softened dramatically. Indeed, in an August 19 piece headlined “Morning After at Bethel,” the New York Times recanted, saying of the hippies: “They came, it seems, to enjoy their own society, to exult in a life style that is its own declaration of independence.”
The rest is history, but the flip-flop raises questions about why correspondents initially missed the event’s landmark cultural importance and chose to go negative. The apocalyptic, hatchet-job tone made Woodstock seem like a budding, Altamont-style bad dream. As biographer Stephen Silverman confirms in his 2015 chronicle The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America, the mood evoked was doom and gloom. The Times struggled to deal with the “seismic political and cultural shifts,” Silverman states.
Cultural critic Dr. Liz Giuffre gives her take on the reasons early coverage was so out-of-whack. “The easy answer from my point-of-view is to say there’s a long history of certain members of the mainstream media to be against popular music as a form — almost any form, but especially forms that are new,” says Giuffre, a senior communications lecturer in the faculty of arts and social sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney.
“Popular music tends to be seen as the place for young people to express themselves. And young people are often seen as irresponsible, in denial of responsibility, etcetera, etcetera. I mean, young musicians often fuelled this — lots of examples of that!” she says, raising the specter of Townshend. “But still,” she adds.
Connecticut-based music therapist Katie Ziskind, who runs presentations highlighting the therapeutic worth of the cannabis fiber, hemp, blames the festival’s association with weed. At the time, the government was criminalizing weed and, by extension, hemp, which Ziskind portrays as an adaptable, evolutionary threat to the established order. The crop used to make paper, flour and oil is also prolific. “Hemp would grow along the train tracks easily. It grows almost anywhere. It can grow without pesticides!” Pesticides are linked to cancer among other ills that health insurance companies love, because sick people are good business, she says.
So, criminalizing marijuana and labeling Woodstock as evil fed into a government plan to make more money. The medical, oil, and paper sectors stood to gain from the vilification, it seems.
“I know this sounds extreme,” the conspiracy theorist adds, “but you need your eyes wide open!”
Events organizer Sridhar Silberfein, who brought the spiritual master Swami Satchidananda to open Woodstock with a chant, echoes Ziskind.
“At the time, this movement was very misunderstood,” Silberfein says, adding that cannabis and other substances were less widely used than now. “Why the New York Times chose to be negative about it has to be considered to be coming from fear — or a misguided and distant way of observing the greatness of the event.”
The self-styled member of Woodstock’s inner-circle adds that mounting such a huge festival took a lot of planning and coordination.
“Surely, some aspects of the planning would go wrong as this is an intense effort requiring many moving parts,” he says, adding that he gives much kudos to the organizers. Sustaining the initially prejudice-dogged physical bog set to become a cultural milestone was a stunning achievement.
David Wilson is an Anglo-Australian whose experience in journalism spans two decades. His stories have run everywhere from the South China Morning Post to Slate and the New York Times. In his spare time, he does welfare work and strength training and hangs out with domestic cats.
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