Imagine a concert in 1969 featuring Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band, Janis Joplin, Blood Sweat & Tears, and the Grateful Dead. It sounds memorable, especially if they performed in front of a sprawling crowd, half a million strong, with the entire nation watching from afar. Yet when people recall the Woodstock saga, these artists rarely rate more than a mention.
This weekend marks Woodstock’s 50th anniversary, and those who made it to Yasgur’s Farm can celebrate an unforgettable experience. But for the rest of the country, the event was defined by Michael Wadleigh’s Oscar-winning documentary “Woodstock” and the accompanying soundtrack, both released in the spring of 1970.
By the time they got to Woodstock, some performers were well established and some were outright stars, yet the concert — while intended as statement by and about a youth movement — also proved to be a potent career boost, provided you were forever preserved on celluloid or vinyl.
Etched into the minds of a generation were Richie Havens’s “Freedom,” Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice,” Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music/I Want to Take You Higher,” Ten Years After’s “I’m Going Home,” the Who’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It/See Me, Feel Me,” and, of course, Jimi Hendrix’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” (even though more than 90 percent of the audience had departed by the time Hendrix performed).
“It’s the kind of event that propels you to play larger venues and gives you more longevity,” says Arlo Guthrie, who wryly notes that his career was enhanced by the film’s inclusion of “Coming into Los Angeles,” but because of technical difficulties during his set, Wadleigh substituted sound from a version Guthrie recorded in Los Angeles.
Not everyone made the cut. Some musicians were undermined by chaotic logistics or erratic weather, others by drugs, their own poor performances, or greedy managers, and some simply by the decisions Wadleigh and his team made to shape the story of the concert — they tried avoiding hit songs and chose tunes for lyrical or thematic value.
Some bands declined invitations to perform: the Doors, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Dylan said no. In his book “Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music,” festival co-creator Michael Lang recounts that he tried getting John Lennon. It didn’t happen, but worse, he never opened a letter from Apple Records until he rediscovered it 40 years later. Apple had offered two new artists: Billy Preston and James Taylor. Meanwhile, the Moody Blues backed out, the Jeff Beck Group broke up and canceled, and Iron Butterfly made such outrageous demands from the airport in New York that the promoters dumped them.
The only band from Boston, Quill, gave a brief performance to open Saturday’s show and was quickly forgotten. But this shaking out process started with the very first set on Friday, which created one new hero and two casualties.
Richie Havens was a folk-soul singer with a small following before Woodstock made him a star. He was not supposed to go first. Sweetwater was granted the privilege of opening the festival, but they were stuck in the concert’s infamous traffic jam. (They went on second but by then they’d become an afterthought, and Wadleigh felt their performance “didn’t hold up,” according to Pete Fornatale’s book, “Back to the Garden.”)
In their absence, the panicked promoters asked Tim Hardin to inaugurate the show. But Hardin, an emotionally fragile heroin addict, was too frightened to take the stage first. (His set later that evening was “hopeless,” Wadleigh told Fornatale.)
So Havens got the shot — and then some. After his set, he was asked to stall for time. He did Beatles covers and then improvised a twist on the song “Motherless Child,” recasting it as the anthemic “Freedom.” That became a film highlight. “Richie Havens had the crowd in his hand,” says Baron Wolman, there as a Rolling Stone photographer. “He moved me a lot.”
Two other Friday performers didn’t make it into the movie and one didn’t make it onstage at all that night. The most surprising exclusion to many was Bert Sommer. “It’s a sensational performance from start to finish,” says Andy Zax, who listened to every second of recorded sound while producing “Woodstock — Back to The Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive,” a 38-disc, 36-hour box set. Zax, who says Sommer’s studio albums were badly overproduced, theorizes that the singer was left out because of complicated record industry politics. “Nobody knows him, and in 2019 he should be at least as famous as Richie Havens. It’s really sort of tragic.”
The singer Melanie’s experience was a direct contrast. She was sent out because the Incredible String Band, concerned about their instruments, refused to play in the rain and rejected the suggestion to do an acoustic set, even though it would have fit with the evening’s vibe.
During Melanie’s short set, the enthused crowd held up candles, inspiring her to write “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” which became her first hit single (leading, in 1971, to two of her songs being included on the “Woodstock Two” album).
The Incredible String Band was bumped to Saturday where they were sandwiched between the bluesy rocking of the Keef Hartley Band and Canned Heat. “Saturday was a full on boogie in the mud. We limped in lace,” recalls band member Mike Heron.
The band compounded matters by performing only new songs no one had heard before, says Zax. “Not one of your more brilliant career moves.”
But Heron doesn’t linger on regrets, saying the band had no expectations about gaining fame and fortune. “We already felt part of a movement reflecting the life we were living more than we did a band making a career choice,” he says.
And his band didn’t fare much worse than Keef Hartley or Canned Heat, with the latter getting only a studio version of “Going Up the Country” included over B-roll during the film. Hartley’s manager demanded extra money for film rights and prevented the crew from shooting the band. Without footage they were so overlooked that Zax says the original rubber bands from 1969 were still around those audiotapes when he started reconstructing the concert.
“But it’s weird that Canned Heat is not in the movie — there is great footage of them,” Zax says. (One song was added to the 1994 director’s cut.)
“They were a juggernaut, fierce and entertaining,” he adds. “Along with Sly and the Family Stone they got the biggest crowd reaction. Their reputation would be very different if they’d really been in the movie.”
A third hard-charging band, Mountain, followed and also landed on the cutting room floor (but scored two songs on “Woodstock Two”), alongside three of the four biggest bands to play Saturday night. Only The Who made it in — their dynamic performance and inclusion in the movie and album helped elevate them to a new level.
But the Grateful Dead gave what band members called their worst performance, thanks to drugs, the rain, and equipment problems that led to them getting shocks and losing sound. “Some built their career at Woodstock; we spent a decade trying to forget it,” the Dead’s Bob Weir says in Ernesto Assante’s book “Woodstock: The 1969 Rock & Roll Revolution.”
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty blamed the Dead for losing the crowd and their equipment for wrecking the stage and sound system. He was frustrated by the experience and, as a superstar band, he felt CCR’s subpar performance didn’t need to be included. (Wadleigh told Fornatale he “just didn’t have the room” to include them.)
But drummer Doug Clifford says the rest of the band felt they played well under the conditions. “We woke the crowd up,” he says, adding that “we’ve been battling with John over this for 50 years.”
Still, their time at Woodstock inspired Fogerty’s classic, “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” And CCR’s performance has finally been released on the band’s new “Live at Woodstock” CD and streaming platforms; Clifford is pleased but still harbors regrets about not being in the movie. “Seeing is believing. It might not have impacted our career, but it’s legendary and it would have been nice to be in there with our peers.”
Jefferson Airplane, who finished the second day, didn’t make the movie but “Volunteers” was on the soundtrack, another two songs made the sequel, and two more were added to the film’s director’s cut.
Seven artists from Woodstock’s final day made the film, compared with just six total from the first two, yet the absences are still noteworthy. Even the movie’s centerpiece, the superlative Crosby, Stills & Nash, are incomplete; irascible guitarist Neil Young refused to allow footage of himself to be included.
The reasons for the other MIAs vary. The film’s associate producer Dale Bell said Janis Joplin’s performance, like the Grateful Dead’s, was “embarrassing” and her publicist, Myra Friedman, said Joplin agreed. Additionally, Albert Grossman, who managed Joplin and The Band, tried to claim more money for film and soundtrack rights. (Joplin was added in 1994.)
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band were locals, who showed up and managed to get a last-minute set in when the crew was running out of film and saving it for Hendrix, but they landed songs on each of the albums. Blood Sweat & Tears, by contrast, couldn’t be included, Zax says. The recording of the band’s horn section was horrendously out of tune and the technology did not exist until recently to fix it. “They were one of the biggest bands at the time and it was just dumb bad luck,” says Zax, who repaired the tuning for the new release. “It would have been unlistenable.”
But he has no idea why Johnny Winter got no spotlight. “That’s a headscratcher,” Zax says. “He’s fantastic, really blazing. But people barely know he played at Woodstock.”
Zax says that in his fantasy, “there are a lot of parallel universes of Woodstocks out there where different bands made the cut.”