The Dawning of The Age Of Music Journalism

Posted August 5, 2009 at 3:46pm

Peace, love and … journalism? It’s not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when one hears the word “Woodstock,— but a new exhibit at the Newseum highlights a journalism revolution inspired by the legendary festival.

“Woodstock at 40: The Rise of Music Journalism— is a collection of photographs and press-themed memorabilia from some of the few reporters who covered the event. Despite the huge numbers of people who flocked to upstate New York for the three-day concert, many mainstream newspapers treated it as a nuisance, a disaster in the making. It wasn’t until almost the last day that publications such as the New York Times began covering the actual music being played, rather than mundane details such as the traffic jams that the event was causing.

But not everyone wrote Woodstock off. “Woodstock at 40— includes the photographs, press passes and handwritten notes from what might otherwise be seen as obscure sources, including 17-year-old high school reporter Dan Garson; Mark Goff, a 22-year-old journalist from an alternative paper in Milwaukee; and photographer Henry Diltz.

“The Woodstock generation didn’t document itself the way the YouTube generation does,— said Cathy Trost, director of exhibits at the Newseum. “So when we discovered this treasure trove of photos taken by Dan Garson, we were very excited.—

In a short film produced by the Newseum specifically for the exhibit, journalists Edna Gundersen, Jan Hodenfield and Barnard Collier speak about Woodstock as a “milestone for the youth culture— and about the effect the event had on music journalism.

Collier covered Woodstock for the New York Times and said he was initially instructed to cover the event in a negative way, focusing on the traffic and other logistical problems. Collier refused, however, and got approval from his editor to write the story from his own angle.

Rather than being the disaster that many people predicted, Collier said, “this [was] really an interesting look at what happens when it doesn’t turn into a catastrophe.— He went on to describe Woodstock as a “giant, peaceful anarchy.—

The broader themes of the festival are also covered in the film and in the photographs on display. David Crosby, of the band Crosby, Stills and Nash, also appears in the film and discusses the experience of performing at Woodstock.

“Most of the causes we espoused, we were right about,— he said. “Peace is better than war. Racism stinks. Civil rights are crucial. We weren’t wrong about that.—

The Newseum exhibit includes photos of performers such as Janis Joplin, as well as shots of the enormous crowd. News-specific items include Garson’s official press kit, splattered with mud from the concert; Goff’s official Woodstock tickets; and an original list of artists who had been scheduled to play and the amount that they were being paid. Joplin was among those with the most expensive contracts, at $15,000, while Joan Baez received $10,000 and Arlo Guthrie was paid $5,000.

Ken Paulson, the Newseum president and former USA Today editor, noted that most mainstream news outlets were lacking in qualified music and culture writers at the time. He pointed to some examples of the stiff writing that came out of the concert.

In one piece, the writer reports in a less-than-enthralling style about Joplin’s performance: “She sang hard and loud and was well received but there were problems.—

Another comments on the drug use at Woodstock and tries to define grooving for readers unfamiliar with the term.

“This means that the electronically amplified vibrations are heard almost to the exclusion of any other extraneous sounds,— he writes. “It is a kind of intense concentration, according to many of the marijuana users who came to the festival.—

Paulson said Woodstock opened up a new era for newspapers, as publications began hiring rock ’n’ roll critics who covered not only that genre, but other types of music as well. Their passion for their subject came out in the reviews and stories that they produced.

“This stilted writing gave way to poetry,— he said.

And that has led to broader coverage across the board.

“When newspapers began hiring rock music writers, those writers also covered jazz, folk, whatever came to town,— he said.

In some ways, the effect Woodstock had on journalism is still being seen today.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in coverage of pop culture since Woodstock,— Paulson said. “The news media has discovered that popular culture is pretty good for business.—

Woodstock promoter Michael Lang will speak at the Newseum on Sunday at 3 p.m. as part of the Inside Media series. The “Woodstock at 40— exhibit will be open through October 31.