In Photos | How Woodstock Songs Mirror American History

The festival was 50 years ago, and many songs reflected the protest movements of the time. Their musical power still moves us today, and they tell stories filled with American history.

‘Freedom’ – Richie Havens

As the first live act at the Woodstock Festival, Richie Havens improvised on the spiritual “Motherless Child” as an encore, a song about the era of slavery and the longing of slaves for their homeland. Havens rendered the song with rhythmic drive and as an ardent cry for freedom, and the performance gave him sudden fame.Image credit: picture-alliance/kpa

‘Theme For An Imaginary Western’ – Mountain

In mass migration, treks of settlers crossed the USA after 1843, moving westward in their stagecoaches. That motif is an iconic image in Westerns, and the group Mountain invoked it in a melodic song in a leisurely tempo. Mountain had a big influence on 1970s heavy metal and hard rock. Image credit: Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives/ O. Paulsan

‘Leland, Mississippi Blues’ – Johnny Winter

Leland lies in the Mississippi delta, where slaves labored on giant plantations. The folk songs they sang are said to have given rise to the blues in the 19th century. Johnny Winter’s expressive song is an homage to Leland — and to the blues. The magazine “Rolling Stone” described his incredibly fast and fluent guitar playing as “like lightning.” Image credit: Images/zuma

‘Joe Hill’ – Joan Baez

A Swedish immigrant and an activist in the workers’ movement, Joe Hill was executed for murder even in the absence of evidence. But labor unions continued to exist after his death. That is the message of the song delivered in the glass-clear vocals of Joan Baez, known as the “voice and conscience of her generation.” Image credit: Everett collection

‘Walkin’ Down The Line’ – Arlo Guthrie

This folk song was written by Bob Dylan, who himself didn’t want to perform at the Woodstock Festival. It tells the story of a hobo looking for work along the train track. There were many of these impoverished migrants during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Their lives are the subject of many poems, songs and films. Image credit: picture-alliance/kpa

‘Soul Sacrifice’ – Santana

Carlos Santana himself experienced discrimination as a migrant, having moved with his parents from Mexico to the US as a 14-year-old. His performance was one of the most spectacular at the festival. The instrumental piece is captivating for its unbridled percussion rhythm and the young band leader’s ecstatic guitar solo. Santana has been called the inventor of Latin rock.Image credit: Getty Images/ T Ransom

‘I Had A Dream’ – John B. Sebastian

The song references the visionary “I have a dream” speech given by Martin Luther King in 1963. The speech demanded that blacks be entitled to partake in the American Dream, according to which all men are created equal. King was assassinated in 1968. John B. Sebastian’s dream is about the right to pursue happiness, anchored in the American Declaration of Independence. Image credit: picture-alliance/ everett Collection

‘Uncle Sam Blues’ – Jefferson Airplane

The song title is a reference to the stern character who points to the viewer and says, “I want you for U.S. Army” on the iconic recruitment posters during World War I and II. The folk song questions the sense of military service, and Jefferson Airplane turned it into a fancifully cool blues number. The band is known for its psychedelic rock. Image credit: Getty images/ ACA Records

‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-To-Die Rag’ – Country Joe McDonald

Bridging an intermission, Country Joe McDonald spontaneously sang this country song, a bitter singalong satire depicting dying in the Vietnam War as a cheerful event. The US decisively escalated its involvement in the war in 1965. The result: millions of dead and injured. Chemical weapons were also employed. Image credit: picture-alliance/ Everett collection

‘Love March’ – Paul Butterfield Blues Band

The ironic anti-war song is a variation on the hippie slogan “Make Love, Not War!” It begins with a swift, off-balance march, and a fanfare signals the attack. But surprisingly, there is no march to war — but instead, to love. The music is an artful blend of blues, rock, soul and jazz elements. Image credit: picture-alliance/ P tarnoff

‘Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man’ – Jeffrey Shurtleff feat. Joan Baez

The original by The Byrds morphed into a parody of Ronald Reagan, who as governor of California had authorized a brutal crackdown on student protests in May 1969 in Berkeley, resulting in one death and over a hundred injured, some seriously. Shurtleff and Baez clothed the sarcastic text in a sugar-sweet country song. Image credit: Getty Images/ AFP/ D. Ceyrac

‘Star Spangled Banner’ – Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the American national anthem near the end of the festival is legendary. Playing the world-famous melody on his Fender Stratocaster, he penetrated it with strongly distorted passages and elicited the wildest war sounds from the instrument. Not even an full-sized orchestra could have done it better. Image credit: picture-alliance/ P Tarnoff/ MediaPunch

This article was originally published on Deutsche Welle

Featured Image credit: DW