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Friday, May 20, 2016

May 20, 2016: AmericanStudying 60s Rock: Woodstock

[May 16th marks the 50th anniversary of the releases of Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde, two iconic 1960s rock albums. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy those artists and other 60s rock icons and songs. Please share your own rocking responses (or hazy memories) for a righteous crowd-sourced post!]
Three telling moments (in addition to Jimi’s anthem) from across the four-day music festival that culminated the 60s rock revolution.
1)      Swami’s invocation: Woodstock began with an impassioned performance by rhythm and blues guitarist Richie Havens, but the second act was also the official invocation that opened the festival. Performing that invocation was Swami Satchidananda, an Indian philosopher and religious guru who had recently moved to the United States and would later found one of the first American Yoga institutes and shrines. It’s easy to make fun of the role that Eastern spirituality played in 60s music and culture—although, as Mike Myers has demonstrated, not necessarily as easy to be funny while doing so—but far harder, and more important, to think seriously about how these spiritual voices and perspectives connected to the era’s musical and cultural trends. Swami S’s invocation represents a pitch-perfect moment through which to consider that prominent philosophical and spiritual force.
2)      Hoffman’s interruption: During The Who’s set in the early morning hours of the festival’s third day, radical activist Abbie Hoffman interrupted the performance with an expletive-laced rant expressing his overarching view of the festival as a superficial or useless form of protest. As the video at the first of those hyperlinks illustrates, Hoffman was shouted down and then forcibly removed from the stage by Who guitarist Pete Townshend, to the cheers of the crowd (understandably, since they were there to hear the music, not Hoffman’s rant). The moment can’t be analyzed without an understanding of either Hoffman’s individual, extremist personality or of the complex relationship of British invasion bands like The Who to American society and politics. But at the same time, it does reflect the broader question of whether and how festivals like Woodstock could or should engage with the decade’s divisive political debates.
3)      A film interpretation: Less than a year after the festival, the documentary film Woodstock (1970), directed by Michael Wadleigh and edited by a team that included Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorcese, was released to both popular success and critical acclaim. Concert films had become a staple element of 60s rock, music, and culture, and the Woodstock film, like the festival, thus represented on one level a famous culmination of a widespread trend. Yet at the same time, I would argue that Woodstock was unique in at least two ways: the need to edit nearly four days of highlight performances into a single three-hour film; and the recognition that this film would present perhaps the most famous counter-culture moment to mainstream American culture. In both ways, Woodstock can be seen as an act of artistic and historical interpretation, as the start of the reflections on and reimaginings of 60s rock and culture that have continued to this day (and this week’s series of posts).
Crowd-sourced post this weekend, so please add your own reflections and reimaginings!
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Responses to this post or other RockStudyings you’d share?

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