Woodstock: 50th Anniversary – Back to Yasgur’s Farm (BOOK REVIEW)

Cliches abound regarding recollections of the original Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in 1969 i.e., “if you remember, it, you weren’t there.” But the fact of the matter is, the sensory overload arising from attendance at the iconic festival does require some concerted effort, first to recall, then clearly distinguish the details of those memories. It’s to the great credit of author Mike Greenblatt, as well as the designers of the hardcover, that Back to Yasgur’s Farm captures so many of the varied sensations; in fact, the overall impression should not only resonate with those who went to this event but, to a great extent, with those too who make similar treks to present-day occasions, festivals, open-air venues and the like.

To be fair, the aforementioned over-stimulation may very well be unintentional(?), but it’s no less striking if it’s not the intention. For instance, in addition to many familiar images from previous accounts of Woodstock, the two-hundred twenty-four pages are peppered with those not directly originating from photographs or filmed depictions of those three days in August five decades ago. Yet while juxtaposing camera shots of the Who, Creedence and Johnny Winter from other sources is somewhat misleading, the density of the page layouts add to the rush of reading this book;  oddly enough, it’s a sensation that accentuates the accounts of those who came and stayed (or in some cases left early), whether positive or negative. 

Apocryphal tales abound here, Mike Greenblatt’s story no doubt is an exception as, weaving his personal tales of joy and enervation throughout the book, he mentions nuance(s) missing from some self-admittedly hazy recollections included here. And while direct quotes are illuminating from a variety of perspectives, ranging from that of the self-effacing Joshua White, whose light show was rendered ineffectual almost upon set-up at the relocated Bethel, New York site, to the comparably forthcoming John Morris and Bill Hanley—both operational linchpins from the late Bill Graham’s Fillmore staff—and then musicians such as Jefferson Airplane’s bassist Jack Casady or the late Richie Havens, the speakers more often than not mirror those of attendees, that is, ultimately struck with the wonderment of it all, from one angle or another. 

Minus actual play-by-play, Greenblatt manages to capture kernels of truth about many of the most memorable performances, including Sly & The Family Stone and Creedence Clearwater Revival,  even if the essence of some sets, like that of The Band, seems to have been lost in the ether of time–(to be fair, their understated nuanced music couldn’t connect with the crowd anyway, as its approximately 400,000 size was nearing its peak post-rainstorm). The anecdotal nature of the various accounts included here reveals a commonality in the Woodstock experience, whether it’s the whimsical and serendipitous nature of the decisions that moved attendees to travel to upstate New York or the resolute devotion and commitment of behalf of workers and craftsman at the festival. The exceptions are thus jarring, as with those escorted home by parents early on in the weekend.

Even if a reader is well aware of how this story unfolds and ends, that is, with a loose but ultimately galvanizing performance by Jimi Hendrix in front of the bedraggled thirty thousand or so remnants of a once mighty crowd, a certain suspense grows with passage of each successive chapter, beginning as they do with the time-stamp of each respective performance (the Who at 530am to 635am). The chronology thereof may, however, be no more or less startling than a notation of the fees paid to the artists (Joe Cocker at $1375), the details of which are representative of those kernels of fact that pepper Back to Yasgur’s Farm. 

Yet, not surprisingly, such fine points are hardly the most colorful when compared to a first-person account of Pete Townsend’s violent rousting of Abbie Hoffman from the stage, the updated backstory of the couple pictured on the Woodstock soundtrack album cover and both Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir’s admission to the pitiful performance of Grateful Dead. And David Crosby’s account of the peer pressure on his appearance with Stills, Nash and Young is humanizing, especially so considering the music that group became so closely associated with the event, thanks in no small part to the song of the same name, written by Joni Mitchell, an artist who couldn’t perform due to other commitments.

 While the Michael Wadleigh film, its once innovative split-screens now cliched, may still remain the defining document of the event, Back to Yasgur’s Farm carries a kinetic sense of time and place accentuated by Dave Hauser’s the graphic design. And while the layout may seem overly busy to some, with Paul Kennedy’s astute editing interweaving more than a few standalone entries in addition to the formal chapters–a list of artists who didn’t make the festival for one reason or another–readers in both casual or concentrated examination of the book will be equally well-served; the nature of the experience in absorbing the information and insight inside transcends the eight by eight dimensions of the publication.

And, apart from Country Joe McDonald’s otherwise earnest forward, there’s precious little sense of nostalgia or any discernible yearning for a better day gone by. As much as this is a labor of love on the part of its author, his collaborators and contributors, there’s never less than a healthy affection for the subject at hand. As such, that’s no small accomplishment, and, as so often happens when dealing with an occasion signifying a cultural paradigm shift, what a reader gets out of this book may very well be proportionate to what he or she brings to it. 

But that is ultimately what might be the finest accomplishment of Mike Greenblatt’s with Back To Yasgur’s Farm. He alternately fills in the blank slate for those who know little or nothing of the subject and sharpens the recall of those who were actually there August 15, 16 & 17 1969.


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