Aug 21, 2023

RAMBLIN: Woodstock: Sometimes artists are too tough on themselves

Managing editor

Some major artists who performed at Woodstock are not included in the original soundtrack and film.

I think I’ll call it the Woodstock Syndrome.

What got me to thinking about the festival recently is the number of interviews I’ve seen from artists who’ve criticized their own performances at the now legendary event in upstate New York, attended by more than 400,000 people on Aug. 15-18, 1969.

I’ve been surprised at the number of singers and bands who said they gave a lousy performance at Woodstock, formally named the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

Some of those artists were not included in the original 1970 documentary movie “Woodstock” nor in the soundtrack album — either because they, or their managers, opted out for various reasons.

Artists who performed at the original Woodstock Festival but who were not included in the original move included major acts such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Grateful Dead, The Band, Mountain and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Texas bluesman Johnny Winters, joined by his brother Edgar Winters, delivered a fiery performance, but was left out of the movie and the original soundtrack at the insistence of his manager. Winters later said his manager figured the movie would be a drag.

Neither the Paul Butterfield Blues Band or acoustic-based singer-songwriters Melanie or Tim Hardin were included in the original movie.

Nor was sitarist Ravi Shankar, who’d previously played at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California a couple of years before Woodstock.

Mountain, led by hard rocking guitarist Leslie West, was also left out of the movie and album— and West also gave interviews where he’s criticized Mountain’s Woodstock performance.

Even some of the artists who were included in both the 1970 move and its accompanying three-record soundtrack were critical of their performances at Woodstock, including Grace Slick and other members of Jefferson Airplane.

In addition to dissatisfaction with their performance, some said they were impacted by conditions at the festival, such as having to go onstage hours after they were supposed to because of scheduling difficulties.

Some of those difficulties were exacerbated by the heavy rains that hit the festival at one point, turning parts of the fields where it was held on Max Yasgur’s farm into a giant mud pit.

Since that original 1970 album, recordings from Woodstock have been released in several expanded versions, with more of those “lost” performances now included in various editions.

Many performances are also now available for viewing on YouTube or through other online formats.

It may be surprising for some younger viewers and listeners to learn that not all of the artists who originally performed at Woodstock were included as part of the original album or movie, since their performances are so readily available now.

One thing I’ve been struck by, is I think some artists were too hard on themselves at the time, delivering what sound to me like fine performances. Even those with issues, also had some high points during their time onstage.

Some of the artists must have reached a similar conclusion, since they have now released entire albums of their Woodstock performances, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, who have an album titled “Live at Woodstock.”

Creedence Clearwater Revival singer, songwriter and lead guitarist John Fogerty has since said that he never was dissatisfied with CCR’s performance, but with the conditions at the festival.

Levon Helm, drummer and a vocalist with The Band, once said they came on at Woodstock like a bunch of preacher boys, when they took the stage following British heavy blues rockers Ten Years After. Now the group has an album titled “The Band Woodstock The Full 1969 Festival Performance.”

Of all the bands which performed at Woodstock, the Grateful Dead likely performed under the most challenging conditions after their friend and sound advisor Owsley “Bear” Stanley decided the sound system used at the festival didn’t meet the band’s standards.

He made a number of adjustments, one of which removed the system’s electrical grounding apparatus.

That resulted in a powerful jolt to band member Bob Weir when he touched his guitar and a microphone at the same time.

Jerry Garcia said about 100 people jammed onto the stage along with the band, leading to concerns the whole thing was about to collapse while the Grateful Dead performed.

Even so, their performance included some highlights, including Weir’s version of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” and a preview of a then-new song called “High Time,” which would be featured on their yet-to-be released album “Workingman’s Dead.”

Ron “Pigpen” McKernan also delivered a rousing 38-minute version of “Turn On Your Love Light” after a version of “Dark Star” didn’t meet the band’s expectations.

Held in Bethel, New York, about 60 miles away from the town of Woodstock, promoters kept the name even when they were forced to try and find alternate locations after the town of Woodstock refused to license the event.

Other places where promoters unsuccessfully tried to locate the festival included Saugerties and Wallkill, New York.

Getting denied in Wallkill might be considered a blessing in hindsight. Somehow, the Wallkill Music and Art Fair doesn’t have the same resonance as Woodstock.

By the time the promoters did settle on Bethel though, advertising and new stories had already gone forward calling the event Woodstock, so the promoters, including Michael Lang and Artie Kornfield, opted to stick with the festival’s original name.

The more than 400,000 people who attended Woodstock were about 350,000 more than even the most optimistic of the concert promoters expected. They planned for around 50,000 concert attendees, spread out over the three-day event.

Some artists who’ve dissed their own performances at Woodstock came to modify their original opinions for different reasons.

Whether it was their own decision or the decision of their managers, some later admitted they made a massive mistake by opting out, including Johnny Winters’ manager who nixed Winters’ participation in the original movie and soundtrack recording.

It turned out to be a miscalculation of enormous proportions, basically removing those artists from the collective memory of those who performed at the original Woodstock festival.

Both the original album and movie were massive hits, with the album hitting #1 and selling 2 million copies following its initial release. More achievements followed, including an Academy Award for Best Documentary Film.

Another honor awaited.

The Library of Congress selected the film “Woodstock” for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1996, deeming it “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant,” making it officially part of American culture.

Contact James Beaty at [email protected].

Managing editor

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James Beaty