Woodstock and Altamont
The Music Festivals that helped define the 1960s
By Brian Ireland
Sold: World English Rights (Wymer Publ.)
‘Rock and roll is the only way in which the vast but formless power of youth is structured, the only way in which it can be defined or inspected’ – Jan Wenner, Rolling Stone, May 1968
Less than four months separated the Woodstock and Altamont music festivals in late 1969 but in that short period of time Americans witnessed perhaps the highpoint and the nadir of the 1960s counterculture. Country Joe McDonald, a notable performer at Woodstock, summed up the popular memory of both festivals: ‘Woodstock and Altamont seem like bookends to the great social experiment of the late 60s.’ If the celebration of music and the counterculture at Woodstock offered hope that the future might be an enlightened ‘Age of Aquarius’, Altamont’s violence offered a counter-narrative about the failures of the love generation.
As enticing as this interpretation of events is, however, it offers only a partial understanding of the era; crucially, it fails to situate Woodstock and Altamont within their musical context. Music was not periphery to the events of the 1960s, nor was it simply the soundtrack to the decade: it was, in fact, an important catalyst for change. It was for this reason that contemporary cultural commentators understood Woodstock and Altamont in the framework of newly-developing music festival culture. They were, after all, only two out of around 300 large rock festivals held in the USA between 1967-71, which attracted a combined audience of around 3 million people. These festivals allowed tens of thousands (and on occasion, hundreds of thousands) of young people to gather and engage with similarly-minded people about issues that were important to them, among which were the conduct of the war in Vietnam, the military draft, free speech, civil rights, gender equality, drug use, spirituality, capitalism — even revolution.
To understand the impact and significance of Woodstock and Altamont it is therefore necessary to explore not just the dynamic politic and social changes of the era but also the musical milieu which gave them meaning.
Published 2019 (Wymer) - ISBN: 9781912782192
202 Pages - Paperback - Incl. b/w illustrations
Dr Brian Ireland is originally from Belfast in Northern Ireland. He did his undergraduate degree at the University of Ulster and on exchange at the University of Wyoming. After completing an MA in American Studies at the University of Ulster, he moved to Honolulu, living there for five years while completing a PhD in American Studies at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.
Brian has written about such diverse topics as the US military in Hawaii, road movies, horror and science fiction stories and comic books. His latest book is entitled The Hippie Trail: a history, (1957-1978) (Manchester University Press, 2017).
Brian has received a number of awards, including a Centre for Asia-Pacific Exchange scholarship, an Access to College Excellence award, and the Carl Bode Journal Award for 2003.