Cultural Evolution: Journalist on the scene at Woodstock discusses the media then and now

Ty Davis is a journalist and publisher, known for launching the Rhode Island-based alternative paper NewPaper during the 1970s, a paper that later was purchased by The Boston Phoenix and renamed The Providence Phoenix under Davis’ leadership. As the 50th anniversary of Woodstock approaches, I asked Davis about some of the key differences between today’s entertainment and culture media and the media climate during the original festival, an event Davis covered for The Providence Journal.

Bill Bartholomew (Motif): In many ways (factually, anecdotally), Woodstock as an event and brand has been defined through media coverage and regurgitation of that initial coverage. How authentic is the version of Woodstock that is popular public opinion today?

Ty Davis: I don’t know what the popular opinion of Woodstock is today. My guess is that most people get their concept of it from the four-hour movie that tried to capture three days of events. Given that limitation, the movie gives a fair idea of what happened so I think people use that.

When I got back to RI after Woodstock, I was appalled by the early coverage, which was along the lines of “dope-smoking hippies have taken our kids and hooked them on drugs!” My article in The Providence Journal debunked that hysteria with: yes, drugs were available, but most of the kids were there for the music and communal spirit.

Personally, I didn’t bring in any drugs with me and didn’t trust any items from strangers no matter how nice they seemed. I might have taken sips of alcohol from brand-name bottles – possibly – but nothing more than that.

The thing that a lot of people missed at the time and thereafter was that Northeast America was a collection of “tribes” based around one’s religion, ethnicity, politics and/or neighborhood when growing up – much more so than today. Woodstock (and rock ‘n’ roll in general) gave young people a shared interest that ignored all of those restrictions. That freedom from confines was exhilarating! Woodstock was a celebration of that, and that was something that the movie didn’t actually show.

BB: Did the media coverage of Woodstock launch a new brand of concert/event journalism?

TD: Tough call. So far as I know, I was the first writer of a purely rock ‘n’ roll column in a major newspaper (over a month before Rolling Stone appeared) in 1967. However fanzines such as Crawdaddy! were already treating rock seriously – since the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper really – so proper coverage was already being published. However, Woodstock really blew it open as every major city newspaper and TV station had to cover the event. Remember, the Woodstock traffic closed the NY Interstate incredibly and, as announced from the stage, Woodstock was suddenly the fourth largest city in New York state for three days. Editors took notice of happenings like that!

One story I’ve always thought interesting: I was in the press bus at one point when a young, female New York Times reporter burst in to ask if anybody had an idea of how many people were in attendance. We all shook our heads. She volunteered that she had been talking to a policeman at the entrance, that he had guessed 400,000, and she was going with that. I have no idea what the cop based his estimate on, but I’m sure he missed all the people in the fields behind the stage and the fields beyond the concert area. I believe 500,000 is much more likely and, quite possibly, more than that. It was impossible to tell.

BB: How did your coverage of Woodstock fit into the broader narrative of the ’60s? In other words, do you feel like you’ve contributed to the history books when it comes to understanding the late 1960s U.S. counterculture (and how that spilled into the mainstream)?

TD: Sure! Has concert journalism improved since your time at Woodstock?You betcha! Seriously, prior to Woodstock, media mostly treated rock concerts as kid events that didn’t deserve coverage. After Woodstock, media had to cover concerts, especially as the audience grew up and became the ones to whom media had to cater for an audience. Now, with the dwindling traditional media but expanding online media, just about every performer can get some sort of press, even in an e-zine.

Publications like Motif and my old alternative weekly, The NewPaper (later The Providence Phoenix) provide(d) an important service by introducing general interest audiences to important new artists, musical and otherwise, that they might never have experienced, especially with the shrinking news hole of most major papers.

BB: What does “Woodstock’s 50th Anniversary” debacle say about today’s music / culture audiences as compared with the original Woodstock audience? Does the revival of Woodstock seem disingenuous to you?

TD: Well, the “debacle” certainly carries on the traditions of the original Woodstock in being totally unorganized and woeful in execution. However, it’s half a century later and the things that were novel about the original are boring/standard in the Anniversary show. In short, nobody really cares about the Anniversary show except for the 70-year-olds wanting to relive old memories like soldiers walking through an old battlefield. I certainly had no interest in forcing my offspring to travel to Bethel, NY, in order to proclaim: “Yeah, that hill right there is where I pitched my mom’s World War One tent. Never did get that sucker back! Not that my mom fought in the war, of course!”

My Last Word (I promise): Rhode Islanders should be proud to know that Woodstock and all the other outdoor festivals of popular music owe a huge debt to the first Newport Jazz Festival held on the grass courts of the Newport Casino tennis club on the island in 1954. The festivals were amazing and set the standards for the future!

Bill Bartholomew is a podcast host, musician and media contributor in Rhode Island

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