Woodstock at 50

Author Anthony DeCurtis reflects on the famous music festival and its resonance today.

Three people sitting on high stools on a stage surrounded by windows, two playing guitars and one speaking or singing into a microphone.
Author Anthony DeCurtis (center) teaches writing at Penn and holds conversations with and about musicians at the Kelly Writers House. 

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was surprising in many ways, drawing 10 times the expected number of people to a dairy farm in upstate New York, more than a half-million during three days, starting Aug. 15, 1969.

Four producers organized the rock concert, including a then-recent Penn graduate, the late John P. Roberts, an entrepreneur who helped finance the endeavor. In all, 32 bands performed at what became a legendary experience, defining what became known as the counterculture generation, a touchstone of turbulent times in America. 

Author Anthony DeCurtis turned 18 in 1969, growing up in Greenwich Village already obsessed with the music and musicians of the time. That focus has continued, his life’s work grounded in the work of those artists, including in his teaching through Penn’s Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the conversations he hosts with contemporary musicians at Kelly Writers House

During his 17 years with Penn, DeCurtis has taught the class Arts and Popular Culture, some semesters focusing on singular artists or groups, among them Bob Dylan and the Beatles. The author of several books, including the biography “Lou Reed: A Life,” DeCurtis has been a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine for 33 year, and frequently writes articles for other publications.  

Penn Today spoke with DeCurtis about Woodstock, his personal reflections, as well as the historic and symbolic meaning at this 50-year milestone. 

Did you go to Woodstock? 

One of the questions I get asked a lot is why I wasn’t there. It became a big deal as it was happening. Before, it was just an event. I say this modestly: I had seen just about every artist that was performing at Woodstock previously. I’d seen Janis Joplin. I’d seen Jimi Hendrix. I’d seen John Sebastian. I’d seen Richie Havens. I’d see Jefferson Airplane many times and The Who many times. I was a New York City kid, a working-class Italian kid, growing up in Greenwich Village. I didn’t own a car. I didn’t know anyone who owned a car. I’d never gone camping. I was used to going to places like the Fillmore East rock venue. I had been going to clubs since I was 15, maybe even a little younger. I was working part-time jobs so I had some money and I could go and see whatever I wanted; things weren’t that expensive. Those are the practical reasons I wasn’t there. 

But as it was happening, I remember hanging out with my friends on that Saturday and hearing the news reports. It seemed so exciting; it seemed large and meaningful. It might have been that weekend I went to see the Incredible String Band and Tim Hardin. They were saying that this is Woodstock mud on their clothes; they had just come back from being at Woodstock. That all seemed significant. 

What does Woodstock mean to you?

My feelings about Woodstock have shifted many times over the years. At this stage of the game the dewy-eyed look at Woodstock just isn’t working for me. I’m of that generation where it should, but the way things look politically now, it’s hard to think that ‘wow, we changed the world.’ It is hard to look at the documentary film now, and see all those naked girls running around and not think about the ‘Me Too’ movement. I’m seeing it through a different lens, a more modern lens. So, I’m feeling a little more skeptical about Woodstock these days. 

The one thing that can be said undeniably about Woodstock is that it certainly made clear to people what a large market this generation was. That may finally be its undeniable significance. Nobody expected a half-million people to show up there. We can debate its meaning and its significance in social terms, but commercially it was a big message to people who wanted to market to a generation of young people who had a couple of dollars in their pocket and who had been dismissed up to that point. It was, Wow, this music drew this many people to this place. We can do something with this. 

I stand by the music, needless to say. I see that period as a kind of renaissance. I think that is undeniable. But a lot has happened since then. There has to be a way to acknowledge the significance of these events without denying the significance of everything that has happened since then. 

Do you teach Woodstock in your Penn courses?

I don’t teach Woodstock, but I teach work from that long ago. The stuff is so visceral for me; that’s what I want it to be like for my students. I don’t want it to be a history lesson. And I don’t want it to be a museum piece. I want them to feel whatever the energy of it is and then go from there. The class is not about the meaning of Bob Dylan. If I’m thinking about specific songs, I just play them, and then we discuss them. I want to see what they make of it. 

My own relationship to this material is contemporary. I want to think about it right now and see what it feels like and what it means right now. I’m less interested in some historical perspective on it. 

With an event it is a little different than with a work of art. If I were teaching a class on Woodstock I would start by showing them the movie, the documentary from 1970. I want them to encounter the experience as much as possible without a framework and see what it looks like to them, hear what they have to say about it. I’ve found those conversations lead in the most productive directions, rather than me explaining the whole thing to them. 

What is the legacy of the music? 

Some of the performances were just tremendous. Think about Sly and Family Stone; how exciting that was, to watch that performance of ‘I Want to Take You Higher.’ Jimi Hendrix, of course—what could possibly feel more contemporary than Hendrix’s version of the national anthem at this point? There was so much great music. It is unassailable in terms of the quality and significance of the music and the artists who performed there. 

It was kind of a crash course in what the ‘60s were: The range of artists who were performing there, the communal aspect of it. Woodstock wasn’t a consciously political event, but its social and political resonances were very important. What was beginning to be called the counterculture was something that had already been named and we knew existed, but its size and its force had not been clear before that. So as far as a cultural moment of the importance of the ‘60s, Woodstock is near the top. It wasn’t niche. It was youth culture. It put an exclamation point on a lot of things that had been taking shape in the ‘60s. 

The level of interest and passion surrounding this music and its ability to serve as one of the lynchpins of what youth culture was along with politics—Woodstock really made that apparent. 

How did Woodstock fit into about other events in 1969? 

In thinking about the ‘60s and in thinking about Woodstock, it has always seemed significant to me that the Charles Manson murders in Hollywood happened the same month. We tend to isolate those events, obviously because they are very different, but in a sense the absolute apex of a ‘60s idealism, and the depth of it, were, at least chronologically, very close. The way in which Charlie Manson was bound up in what the counterculture represented. The way Los Angeles had seemed like such an open and adventurous place for musically creative people. Those murders shut that down. 

It’s very hard to extricate one event and hold it up as a pristine model of something. Woodstock had very important ramifications, but it existed in a larger world, a world that was moving very quickly, changing very quickly, and had many different elements to it and it is important not to forget that. 

Where else were there 500,000 young people at that moment in August of 1969? There were half a million American troops in Vietnam. That was an important resonance, politically and culturally. 

What does the 50th anniversary milestone mean to you personally? 

The one thing to emphasize, that visceral element I was telling you about, is still very much there with me. I’m still having a great time. As far as me and my relationship to all that stuff, I feel just so lucky to have grown up in that time. I do think of it as a renaissance, I see it that way, of literature and the arts generally, as well as music. I still feel the power. I don’t think it’s lost much of that. I feel very fortunate to have been around then and especially fortunate to continue to be able to enjoy it and share it with my students.