Laura Meyer

History 398

Comparative Analysis

The Woodstock festival descended on Bethel, New York promising three days of peace and music.  Event organizers anticipated 15,000 people would attend but were overwhelmed by the 300,000 people that flooded this rural area of New York state from August 15 -17, 1969.  While these facts are well known and indisputable, the festival itself has proven to be a controversial endeavor.  What began as a small business venture was soon brimming with the controversy of an entire decade.  It becomes clear when examining the strikingly different accounts of the festival that reactions varied depending on the fundamental values and personal circumstances specific to each observer and to the underlying motives of the historian describing the event.

Joel Makower's Woodstock: The Oral History was particularly effective in examining Woodstock as it was experienced by the producers of the festival.  The book's approach is atypical in the sense that it spends considerable time addressing exactly why and how the festival came into existence instead of droning on about drug use and mud slides.  The ordeal began when John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, wealthy young entrepreneurs, placed an ad in The Wall Street Journal declaring, "Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting and legitimate business ideas."[1]  Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, representing only one of the thousands of replies that Roberts and Rosenman received, proposed building a recording studio for musicians in Woodstock, New York.[2]  This original idea was obviously modified and resulted in the Woodstock festival as it is known today.  The book effectively details everything from the initial catalyst to the release of the Woodstock movie and all of the preparation and successive changes in between. 

Woodstock: The Oral History differs from most books in its approach to the Woodstock festival as it does not simply explain the events, it offers first-hand accounts from people who were actually present.  This approach gives the book a distinct atmosphere as it reads like one giant conversation, allowing the reader to appreciate Woodstock as the undertaking of many.[3]  An examination of Joel Makower’s other work reveals his qualifications to describe Woodstock’s status as a business venture.  He has authored or co-authored at least twenty books, many of which involve business and investing.  His other works include studies of the media and an American history sourcebook.[4]

While Makower's description of the production of Woodstock outlines an outwardly gradual process of preparation and decisions, newspapers of the era provide the initial shock and public reaction of the festival.  Outrage felt by local citizens of Bethel is displayed in an article written by Alfonso A. Narvaez and printed in The New York Times on August 20, 1969.  The article conveys the frustration felt by local residents as an influx of thousands caused massive traffic jams, widespread property damage, and a shortage of basic necessities and sanitary facilities. Many local businesses were ill prepared to provide needed goods and services to such an enormous group of people.  The Bethel post office was closed while dairy farmers were forced to dump fresh milk because neither mail trucks nor milk trucks were able to penetrate the traffic.[5]

As a primary source, Narvaez's article provides a valuable description of resident grievances immediately following the festival.  Direct quotes from farmers provide insight into their specific complaints.  However, subsequent research into Narvaez reveals his affiliation with the Episcopal Church which calls into question his position as an impartial reporter.[6] While Narvaez undoubtedly reports actual occurrences and authentic quotes, his devotion to the Episcopal Church is a determining factor when depicting the occurrences of Woodstock.  Narvaez portrays a poorly planned festival overrun by crude concertgoers while ignoring positive reactions by residents that were reported in other sources.[7]  His article seems focused on the unsanitary conditions, as if he seeks to dehumanize the crowd in an effort to dismiss their cause.  He uses explicit quotes that describe the assembly as "thousands of squatters" that used "the backyard as a latrine" and succeeded in creating a "human cesspool of our property."[8]  Narvaez maintains significant objections to the behavior exhibited at Woodstock and easily repulses indiscriminate readers.

The views of both Narvaez and Makower differ from the perspective given by an unknown author of a Time essay entitled "The Message of History's Biggest Happening" that was also published immediately following the festival.  This article discusses how the Woodstock festival helped to define a generation and also how the same festival forever changed a generation.  The author does not choose to ignore negative aspects of the festival, so the severe traffic jams, inadequate sanitary conditions, and uncontrolled drug use were all given ample mention.  However, this article differed from Narvaez’s in that it did not simply condemn concertgoers for such occurrences.  Rather, these incidents helped to define the significance of Woodstock and understand the population that called it home. 

The festival grew to twenty times the expected size because youth recognized the potential importance of an event that the author acknowledges as "one of the significant political and sociological events of the age."[9]  Concertgoers embraced their rock music and enjoyed rampant drug use as a direct rejection of traditional values as  practiced by previous generations and in America as a whole.[10]  Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the concert was the atmosphere of friendship and camaraderie that developed among complete strangers despite the severe conditions. This showed "the adult world that young people could create a kind of peace in a situation where none should have existed."[11]  This essay succeeds in examining the sociological and political subtleties that were only mentioned in Makower's book and simply ignored in Narvaez's article.  This perspective is certainly the most effective in offering an explanation and conveying a sense of purpose to the strange occurrences that defined Woodstock, an unparalleled event in history.  Although each of these accounts was written about the same the festival, every account varied as a reflection of each individual or group and their personal experience at Woodstock.  Rosenman and Roberts saw the potential for financial gains, farmers condemned the mess left by crowds, and the young hippies enjoyed the feeling of community while embracing the promise of social and political change.   Each perspective is captured by historians as a means of preserving the events of history.  But just as the individual accounts vary, so do the interpretations of journalists and historians.  Their own biases and beliefs are often woven into the documents they produce, forever affecting the event for ensuing generations and demonstrating the need for readers to examine the content of all narrative accounts.



[1] Joel Makower, Woodstock: The Oral History (NY: Tilden Press Inc., 1989), 24.

[2] Makower, 28-29.

[3] Makower, 1.

[4] "," search for "Joel Makower". <> (17 February 2002).

[5] Alfonso A. Narvaez, “Bethel Farmer Call Fair a Plot ‘to Avoid the Law’,” The New York Times, 20 August 1969, p. 37.

[6] "Episcopal Archives," <> (17 February 2002).

[7] Michael T. Kaufman, "Generation Gap Bridged as Monticello Residents Aid Courteous Festival Patrons," The New York Times, 18 August 1969, p. 25.

[8] Narvaez, 37.

[9] "The Message of History's Biggest Happening," Time, 29 August 1969, 32.

[10] Time, 32.

[11] Time, 33.