50 Years Later, Remembering Woodstock’s Softer Side—Folk Music

joan baez and arlo guthrie highlighted folk's last great performances

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Last week, thousands returned to Woodstock for its 50th birthday, a Reuters article reported. The original event drew a crowd of 400,000 and is remembered for its blues and rock performances. The festival’s folk singers played a smaller, but vital, role.

Acoustic guitars laying in grass of music festival
Thousands of people attended the music festival held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Photo by wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

On August 15, 1969, a three-day concert of more than 30 acts played to an audience of near half a million people in Bethel, New York. Some of rock’s and blues’s most famous acts were there, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Santana, Country Joe and the Fish, Joe Cocker, and two dozen others. Also among the roster were folk acts like Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez. While their sets may have been softer and less explosive than those of their rock counterparts, they still left an important impression on Woodstock, symbolically helping to pass the torch of major music festivals from folk to rock.

Defining the American Folk Ballad

Dr. Colin McAllister, Music Program Director at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, offered two quotes to define American folk music. The first is from Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus’s book The Rose and the Briar, which says folk music was “the major way” Americans came to tell “each other about themselves and the country they inhabited.”

“Folk music brought three chords and the truth,” Dr. McAllister added.

His second quote is from author David Hajdu, who said that folk is “rural vernacular music sung in untrained voices accompanied by acoustic instruments. Folk put a premium on naturalness and authenticity.” Its most striking songs are often downtrodden folklore and allegories for social commentary, lamentations of things gone wrong and times long gone.

The Lifespan of the Modern Folk Era

Arlo Guthrie, performing at both the original Woodstock and last week’s reunion, is best known for his 18-minute song “Alice’s Restaurant.” “Alice” is an original, satirical Vietnam protest tune, but American folk ballads are in Arlo’s blood—literally. His father, the legendary Woody Guthrie, was largely responsible for folk’s popularity. “[Pete] Seeger and [Woody] Guthrie met in 1940 at a show for California migrant workers and they kicked off the modern folk era highlighting social commentary and protest,” Dr. McAllister said.

“Woody was a rural Oklahoma son of misfortune whose father went bankrupt and whose mother was committed to a mental asylum,” Dr. McAllister said. “He rode freight trains with hobos and carried a guitar that said ‘This Machine Kills Fascists.'” Pete Seeger, on the other hand, was born to parents who taught at The Juilliard School of Music. He went to Harvard, followed Marxism, and was investigated by Congress for sedition and eventually blacklisted for several years. Despite this, Seeger’s and Guthrie’s impact was felt far and wide.

By the time Seeger made his comeback, the 1960s and the Greenwich Village folk scene were just around the corner. “Its numbers included Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and the Woody Guthrie disciple Bob Dylan,” Dr. McAllister said. Again, Baez and Arlo Guthrie would each perform sets at Woodstock. Dylan released several legendary folk ballads in the early 1960s, including “Masters of War,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Ironically, it was Bob Dylan who, in July 1965, traded in his acoustic guitar onstage for an electric and practically assassinated the entire modern folk movement with his performances of “Maggie’s Farm,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and other rock songs intended to distance him from the folk scene.

Given this 25-year history, it’s easy to see how the folk performances at Woodstock were a kind of last gasp of the movement, making way for classic rock and psychedelia. Several 21st-century musicians have attempted to emulate or revive folk, but like those Woodstock attendees who returned to Bethel last week, they may be trying to recapture a moment in time that’s gone for good.

Dr. Colin McAllister contributed to this article. Dr. McAllister is the Music Program Director at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in Musical Arts at the University of California, San Diego, where he studied guitar with Celin and Pepe Romero, interpretation with Bertram Turetzky, and conducting with Harvey Sollberger and Rand Steiger.