RAMBLIN' ROUND: Woodstock at 50 — It's about the music

Bert Sommer, an audience favorite at Woodstock who was little known by those who did not attend the event, is among the artists whose "lost" performances are included in a new boxed set marking the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

It's too bad Bert Sommer didn't live to see the release of his recorded musical performances as part of the Woodstock anniversary celebrations.

Bert who?

He's not in the 1971 movie "Woodstock." He also was not included in the three-album soundtrack, which did feature some artists not in the movie, such as Neil Young playing a song with bandmates with Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Sommers' name wasn't even included on the original list of performers when it was erected at Bethel Woods to commemorate the site where the legendary Woodstock Music and Art Fair was held on Aug. 15-18 in 1969.

Hey, I'd never heard of him either until News-Capital Photo Editor Kevin Harvison referred to him. I then heard him mentioned by Andy Zax, the guy who's spent 14 years compiling the huge "Woodstock — Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive" box set.

Zax said in a National Public Radio interview that to him, Sommer was just a name on a box that held a tape that was part of the almost-complete original recorded performances of the Woodstock Festival. Zax knew he had to listen to the event's recorded performances in their entirety to compile the Woodstock 50th Anniversary 38 CD box set (also available on vinyl and for download).

He didn't know what he would find when listening to some of the lesser-known artists who had played at Woodstock — but then Zax heard the recording of Sommer's set. Zax later spoke of  highly impressed he'd been with Sommer's performance of  the Simon and Garfunklel song "America." 

Sommer, an acoustic guitarist and a singer-songwriter, performed a full 10-song set at Woodstock, including his ethereal composition "Jennifer." He played at sundown, the third artist on the bill following festival opener Richie Havens and the band, Sweetwater.

After hearing a blip of Sommer on NPR, I ran across several videos of Sommer's performances that were released over the years and can now be found online.

Many who have heard or watched Sommer's Woodstock performances since they've become available have wondered why they were excluded from both the movie and the official soundtrack of the event. Although Sommer got a mention on NPR, I don't recall hearing his name on the nearly two-hour PBS American Experience documentary "Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation" when it aired last Tuesday night.

A number of well-known artists — or artists who would soon achieve that status — were not included in the original 1970 film "Woodstock" film. They include The Grateful Dead, The Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival, to name a few. Interestingly, both Creedence and The Band have just released recordings of their full Woodstock sets.

Reasons for exclusion by some artists from the original music or soundtrack album have been attributed to several reasons, such as either the artists or their managers opposing their inclusion, subpar performances, record company politics, or all of the above.

I wonder what would have become of Sommer's career if he had been included in the 1970 movie? Watching it today, you can tell many members of the audience shown in the film were into his performance.

I don't know why Sommer never hit it big after Woodstock. He had a Capitol records recording contract. Maybe if he'd been included in the original soundtrack or movie, his career would have gotten the push it needed. Or maybe not. Melanie also played at Woodstock, but wasn't featured in the movie or soundtrack, and she went on to a remarkable career — which included her breakthrough hit song about the festival, "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)."

Not all of the artists who are now considered iconic had achieved their breakthroughs before performing at the festival.

Santana was little know outside of the San Francisco Bay area when that group played Woodstock.

Woodstock marked only the second time Crosby, Stills and Nash played together in a professional setting, as Still famously tells the audience. (Neil Young, ever the contrarian, had joined the band at that time refused to be filmed for the movie).

I've never been one to gush about the Woodstock Festival being the greatest thing ever to befall Western Civilization. Yes, it's impressive that an estimated 350,000 to 400,000 people made it through the three days that included food shortages and rain storms — but it was a music festival.

I've often thought the peacefulness of the crowd had a lot to do with the music that was played — and with many of the musicians involved.

Despite the fear of some in the so-called establishment that the huge crowd would lose all control upon hearing the "wild" rock music, many of the festival performers played acoustic guitars and sang songs with messages of hope: John Sebastian, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Melanie ( and festival opener Richie Havens all played all, or mostly, acoustic sets. Baez even did one song a cappella, a soul-stirring version of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" — a song with Southeastern Oklahoma origins.

When the electric bands came onstage, music from groups such as Santana seemed to radiate a spirituality — even in their instrumental numbers. One of my favorites scenes of the concert is of young people at the foot of the tall stage, beating on it with pots, pans blocks of woods and other make-do percussive instruments while Santana frantically plays above them.

Even ultra-electric sets by the boisterous The Who and a relatively subdued Jimi Hendrix seemed to capture the spirit, with Roger Daltrey of The Who intoning "See me, feel me, touch me, heal me."

While some accolades about the Woodstock Festival seem a bit overblown — then and now — that doesn't take away from the many outstanding musical performances. Although Crosby, Stills and Nash released a sublime studio recording of Stills' masterpiece, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" on their debut album, I still prefer the more ragged, but immediate, live recording from Woodstock to the mistake-free studio version, as good as it is.

Which brings me back to what the festival was all about in the first place. I'm sure not many who were there in 1969 thought it would be looked upon as a cultural touchstone 50 years later.

Then, it was all about the music — and to me, that's where the legacy of Woodstock endures.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com

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