Why We Should Celebrate Woodstock

As America celebrates Woodstock—that historic counterculture movement—exactly what does it mean for black folks?

Sony Music

This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. Hundreds of thousands of folks journeyed to Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm to hear 32 rock acts, withstanding interminable traffic jams, monsoon-like thunderstorms, mud for days, sub-par sanitary conditions and a dwindling food supply—without resorting to anarchy.  

It was—as is evidenced by the plethora of newly released CDs, DVDs, books and movies commemorating that weekend—a seminal moment in rock history. But as we celebrate that historic counterculture movement, exactly what does it mean to black America?
For all the post-politicizing of the event, even though it occurred at such a pivotal point in America’s socio-political time (and even more eerie, a week after the Manson murders), Woodstock was a mostly apolitical, escapist affair, save for the implied gestures from Richie Haven’s performance “Freedom/Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Joan Baez’s introductory story about the Federal Marshals taking her husband, David Harris, into custody for “draft evasion.”

The most overt, if seismic political statement occurred Monday morning, coincidentally as most of the attendees had left. Rocking a white, fringed and beaded leather shirt and a red headscarf, Jimi Hendrix launched into his epochal rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” His face expressed a calmness as if he was meditating on his memories of his one-year stint in the Army, the fallen soldiers in the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—all at once.  After initially squalling out the melody with cathartic release of a Pentecostal gospel singer, Hendrix infused the National Anthem with an improvisatory explosion, marked by fast-fingered runs, whammy-bar-inducing howls, shrieks; he created sonic missiles as if they were dropped from warplanes above. The two-minute rendering became one of the most defining moments in black American music, if not, popular music, worldwide, as Hendrix manipulated dissonance and consonance.

If the underlying message of the festival was “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music,” surely that would have extended to the legions of black Americans, who were routinely beaten, killed and jailed as they strived for equal rights. And even though Woodstock festival opened (Havens) and closed (Hendrix) with two black music figures and featured the rock-fueled Afro-Latin sounds of the interracial band Santana, the “dissonance and consonance” sentiments of Hendrix’s interpretation of the National Anthem seemed to resonate with the programming in relation to the soundtrack of mainstream black America—Motown’s “Sound of Young America,” Stax’s Memphis soul and James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black & I’m Proud.” Even the sonic eruptions of jazz’s New Thing movement, spearheaded by saxophonists Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane were noticeably missing from Woodstock.

The only hint at mainstream R&B was Sly & the Family Stone’s gripping Saturday night set that included a galvanizing performance of “I Want to Take You Higher,” which nearly transformed the festival into a fervid Wednesday night church revival.  Their entire performance is captured in all its electrifying, holy glory on The Woodstock Experience (SONY/Legacy). The band concentrates on its seminal LP, Stand!, released that same year, ripping through songs like the titled track, “You Can Make It If You Try” and “Everyday People.” The interracial and mix-gender makeup of the group seemed to embody the highest ideals of the hippie culture.

But to watch the crowd scenes in The Woodstock Experience, speckled with only a few black faces—none of which are shown in the groovy-looking segment of nude, carefree hippies, skinny-dipping in a lake and talking about freedom—brings about that recurring, odd, “hard to put your finger on it” experiences that many black Americans feel. It happens whenever there’s a so-called liberal, mostly white celebration, in which blacks are pressed against an invisible wall that can’t be penetrated, no matter how well-meaning the invite or enthusiastic the invitee. Like Hendrix’s interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it evokes consonance and dissonance.  

Woodstock may have missed the mark on conventional black American culture, but it succeeded in acknowledging how blacks and Latinos contributed to the cutting edges of rock, soul and folk at that time. Hendrix, Sly Stone, Santana and Havens became the archetypes for latter figures such as Parliament Funkadelic, Prince, Living Colour, The Roots, TV on the Radio, Outkast, Janelle Monae, Ben Harper, the Noisettes and Mos Def.  Woodstock helped paved the way for black musicians to challenge the artistic status quo, both within and outside racial barriers. That much is undeniable.  Just as Rev. Al Sharpton aptly noted that before there was a Barack Obama, there was Michael Jackson, before there was a Barack Obama or a Michael Jackson, there were also Havens, Hendrix, Sly and Santana at Woodstock, serving as Obama would have described “agents of change.”

John Murph is a regular contributor to The Root.