ELIZABETH D. MENDENHALL
Lehigh University, Class of 2003
May 2000

Drugs and Woodstock

[1]        "As far as I know, the narcotics guys are not arresting anybody for grass. If we did, there wouldn’t be space enough in Sullivan County, or the next three counties, to put them in." The naïve, widespread use of drugs, more specifically dope, during Woodstock was common knowledge. There were dope supermarkets in the woods, joints passed from stranger to stranger, and PA announcements about acid. "Dealers sat on tree stumps selling their wares: ‘acid, mesc, psilocybin, hash….’" By 1969, dope -- primarily marijuana and LSD -- had become the "common denominator of the counterculture." The majority of hippies saw it as tool for healthy mind expansion. The New York Times estimated that 99 percent of the crowd at Woodstock were smoking marijuana. Acid and other psychedelics were also quite prevalent. During the three days, there was one death from an overdose and an estimated 400 cases treated for bad trips. "Joints were passed from blanket to blanket, lumps of hashish materialized like manna, and there was Blue Cheer, Sunshine, and pink mescaline to spare." From this information, one would think that there was a gray haze that covered Yasgur’s farm for the entire 80-hour performance and that everyone, down to the youngest child, was intoxicated. It would seem that the drugs were more important than the music. The rockumentary, Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music, however, portrayed a different story.

 [2]       All in all, there were less than a dozen references to drugs of any kind. The only major demonstration of drugs (dope) in Woodstock was the one-minute sequence on weed that accompanied Arlo Guthrie’s "Coming into Los Angeles." This sequence was a simple panning of the crowd with close-ups on people using pipes, joints, blunts, and the like. Each person focused on was smiling and at ease. As the last face in the series, a symbolic cop was shown eating a popsicle and smiling. In the background Guthrie crooned, "please don’t stop me Mr. Customs Man."

[3]        Other minor clips are spread out through the duration of the film. Only two of them are actual visual images of dope, all others are verbal references. In the beginning of the first tape a bearded hippie is shown holding up a fat blunt and saying, "Marijuana, they keep it handy." In the beginning of the second tape, the bassist of Country Joe and the Fish showed off his lighted joint to the camera before running on stage for their set. Of all the drug references, three are people talking about not doing drugs. One young man says that he used to be into it, but he’s not into the scene anymore. Another man is performing yoga, teaching alternative ways to get high. A woman at the information booth professed to not be on speed even though she had been up for thirty hours. She then began to talk about the spaced-out people that came up to her during the night –people that were obviously tripping or on some other psychedelic.

[4]        At a glance, it seems that the documentary of Woodstock was glazing over the presence of drugs at the concert. There was no real focus on the fact that they were there. The director, Michael Wadleigh, did not place much significance on the drug scene. He seemed to be more interested in other areas. "Like Life magazine, in its special issue on the festival, Wadleigh takes as his theme the astonishing peacefulness of the enormous crowd." The documentary put the performances in a context of the "audience’s continuing presence over the weekend, as well of community reaction in the neighborhood." The main purpose of the film was to serve as a flashy memory and to make money. It was, in a sense, one of the first music videos. The directors started by focusing on the general feelings of the patrons and the music. As the festival turned into the "biggest freebie of all time" and a "disaster area," the focus moved toward the peacefulness of the whole event. The film breathes the Establishment’s relief. The "stay cool now" message was constantly reiterated through the festival’s PA system. ("Sample announcement: ‘There’s a rumor circulating that the brown acid going around is poison. Cool it. It’s not poison—it’s just badly manufactured.’")

 [5]       The question then becomes: Was there an intentional avoidance of drugs in the documentary? The answer is no. Drugs were not avoided at all during the filming of the festival; they were simply not a focus. Though dope was a key part of the counterculture, it was not a new phenomenon. At closer inspection, one can see a greater presence of drugs in the four-hour film. This greater presence can be seen in the faces and actions of the youth. Many of the people in the film are obviously intoxicated in some way; their eyes are "wild" and their actions off-the-wall. A great majority of the people had some sort of smoke in their hands, whether the piece was of marijuana or tobacco remains to be seen. Special attention was not paid to dope throughout the film because that would be stating and restating the obvious. Dope was not the focus of the documentary; it was simply a part of the overall picture.

[6]        Woodstock turned out to be "a message to the older generation about how really nice these kids—despite their bizarre tastes in entertainment—can be, if only given what they want. What they want is shown to be not so threatening after all: a little skinny-dipping, a little healthy rolling in the bushes, their marijuana, and music, music, music."