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What Woodstock taught us about protest in a time of polarization


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: This week marks 50 years since a dairy farm in New York state became the home for Woodstock and groundbreaking music history.

To many, the festival is still seen as a defining symbol of 1960s counterculture, idealism and the anti-war movement. But did it have a lasting impact?

Jeffrey Brown is back now with a look at that weekend and what it means five decades later.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: In the summer of 1969, Richard Nixon was in the White House, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the Vietnam War raged on, and some 400,000 people made their way to a field outside the small town of Bethel, New York, for a gathering that would become one of the defining moments of any era.

Michael Lang was one of the organizers of the Woodstock Festival.

Michael Lang: It's always important to promote peace. And music is a great way to sort of bring people together.

A lot of the things that came out of the 60s, coming through the civil rights movement, and women's rights, and really the advent of concern about the planet, which sort of grew out of that era, we were motivated, and we felt we could really have an effect on the way things work in the world.

Jeffrey Brown: Idealism was still in the air two years after the so-called Summer of Love.

But says Todd Gitlin, author of "The Sixties," so was something else.

Todd Gitlin: It's a show of cheerful defiance. Let's show that we can triumph over war, assassinations.

Many people who were there thought of the music as itself a feat of defiance. We are impervious. We are the real America. And what happened subsequently was that rebellion became the dominant culture.

Jeffrey Brown: What began as a ticketed concert, with promoters estimating 50,000 attendees, quickly evolved into something very different, a free and freeform festival, with a mass of humanity, stoked by an incredible lineup of some of the '60s' biggest rock stars, Janis Joplin, Santana, Sly & The Family Stone, and many more, mostly helicoptered in after the roads were clogged and unpassable.

They, too, got into the spirit.

David Crosby: For a minute, we were hopeful. For a minute, we were not facing the Vietnam War. For a minute, we were not facing losing the Kennedys. For a minute, Dr. King's death wasn't hanging over us. For a minute, we were behaving like decent human beings.

Henry Diltz: I heard a buzz in the air about this festival that was going to happen.

Jeffrey Brown: Photographer Henry Diltz was there on stage capturing it.

Henry Diltz: I spent a couple of weeks documenting the building of the stage and the hog farm, camping grounds and all that.

And suddenly all these people showed up, you know? It was kind of photographed from all different angles. Mine were mostly from on stage. And that sort of brings it all into the present for everybody to remember. Photos are wonderful that way.

Jeffrey Brown: This past week, Diltz, Michael Lang and others gathered at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in New York City, and a line formed around the block with people young and old to reminisce or to learn about an event that has taken on the quality of myth.

David Strange: I'm really excited to see what's going on. A lot of spiritual awakening, a lot of pushing of certain movements, cultural movements, that's what I think of Woodstock.

Mr. Melody: It was very joyous, for the most part. It was a little bit tense at times, a little tedious at times, but everybody, I think, had this shared feeling that something extremely important was happening.

Jeffrey Brown: The food and water almost ran out. People got sick. And torrential rains turned the grounds into a mud bath.

But, somehow, this instant city worked, amid the high of music, drugs, and a feeling that maybe they really could change the world.

One of Woodstock's most famous performances, by Jimi Hendrix, came early on its fourth morning.

Henry Diltz: This is probably my favorite photo, because it was my favorite moment, which happened to be the very ending of the whole festival.

Jimi Hendrix, the headliner, was supposed to close the show Sunday night, but it was so backed up that he went on Monday morning, so we were all a little bleary-eyed. And this band of gypsies came out with these colorful bandanas.

And it was quite an amazing show. And it was startling when he started playing "The Star-Spangled Banner," with all the sounds of war and everything. And we were so anti-war. Every single person in that half-a-million crowd was against the war in Vietnam.

Jeffrey Brown: In the end, there was a field of trash, soon enough cleaned up, and decades of wondering, what did it all mean?

Just four months later, violence at the Altamont Festival in California shattered any sense of peace and love tied to music. Attempts to recreate the Woodstock atmosphere for 25th and 30th anniversaries were chaotic and marred by riots.

And a 50th anniversary concert that Michael Lang hoped to present this weekend failed to come together, amid denied permits and financial problems.

Michael Lang: It was disappointing. I mean, the purpose behind it was really to promote engagement, make sure people got out and voted this time, because I don't think things have ever been this critical in terms of what's going on, on the planet.

So, we hoped a festival would be kind of a way to focus on that. But we're going to do it without the festival.

Jeffrey Brown: For all the wonder of that moment in the summer of '69, for some, the Woodstock mystique belongs in a how we didn't change the world time capsule.

Todd Gitlin: Woodstock is sort of protected in history as a kind of moment of glory.

I think it's delusional for people to think that you create that by simply packing hundreds of thousands of people into a field and celebrating.

I mean, there's politics to be done. Politics is in power. If people think that they can effervesce themselves into salvation, then I think they're being they're being misled or misleading themselves.

Jeffrey Brown: These days, giant music festivals, huge commercial affairs, have become the norm, and the country is once more hugely divided socially and politically.

But bringing it all together, as happened in that field in Upstate New York 50 years ago? It's hard to imagine we will ever see the likes of Woodstock again.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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