Woodstock at 40: The Making of the Myth

Jann Wenner, owner and editor of Rolling Stone, didn’t even go to Woodstock. Associated Press didn't predict the party of the century either.

The New York Times was vicious. An Op-Ed was titled “Nightmare in the Catskills” and went as follows: “The dreams of marijuana and rock music that drew 300,000 fans and hippies to the Catskills had little more sanity than the impulses that drive the lemmings to the sea. They ended in a nightmare of mud and stagnation… What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?”

Hearing this today absolutely tickles Collier. “Someone should suggest that Stephen Colbert read it on air on Woodstock’s anniversary. What it looked like to me was a rare example of nonviolent anarchy, but newspapers are terrified of anarchy.”

Still, if much of the initial post-Woodstock press coverage was negative, it didn’t take long for the media to pivot from covering it as a domestic disturbance to dubbing it “history’s biggest happening,” per Time magazine only a week after the event.

And that troubles some members of the Woodstock press corps, who admit to being a little perplexed and exhausted by the festival’s enduring mythology. It’s like having failed to properly anticipate just how momentous Woodstock would be, the media has now spent an eternity kicking itself and telling people, “It’ll never be like that again.”

“My generation has worked really hard to insist that its history was privileged in a special way,” Marcus says. “We lived in what we considered to be the most glorious of all times and have devoted the rest of our lives to making sure no one ever forgets that. The result is to trivialize everything younger people have lived through, and part of the reason we’ve been able to do that is that every time this history is sold back to them, people line up to buy it. It’s tremendously destructive and sad.”

Wade Lawrence, director of The Museum at Bethel Woods, agrees journalists are laying it on a little thick as the 40th anniversary approaches, but isn’t sure that’s anything remarkable. “Woodstock has been overmythologized and pumped up, but I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. It means something to an awful lot of fifty-something and sixty-something people who were there and it changed their lives in a lot of ways. So was it pumped up? Yeah. But name a world event that doesn’t get pumped up by the media.”


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