Writers Festival: recovery, American girls, and…Woodstock

wwf-logo-SQThe seventh annual Woodstock Writers Festival opens April 7 with the traditional Thursday night Story Slam, at the Woodstock Music Lab, and proceeds through the afternoon of Sunday, April 10, presenting an assortment of panels, parties, and discussions of the art and business of writing — with plenty of food for thought for readers as well as writers. Friday’s all-day intensive workshops  at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, are followed by the 8 p.m. “Recovery” panel back at the Zena Road Woodstock Music Lab, featuring authors of books that recount hard-earned victories over addiction.

The weekend includes panels on poetry, spirituality, biography, fiction, memoir, and a Saturday night interview with keynote speaker Nancy Jo Sales, author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers (Knopf, 2016), an eye-opening account of the social challenges modern girls are facing. Saturday at 4 p.m., the music panel highlights the role of Woodstock in the history of rock music. WDST radio program director Jimmy Buff will lead a discussion with authors Barney Hoskyns, Holly George-Warren, Warren Zanes, and photographer Elliott Landy.

Hoskyns, a British music journalist who has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo, Melody Maker, Spin, Harper’s Bazaar, and many other magazines, is now editor of “Rock’s Backpages,” an online library of pop writing and journalism. He is also the author of a couple dozen books, including the recently released Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, The Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock (Da Capo, 2016). He discussed his new book in a phone interview, speaking from his home in London.


No stranger to Woodstock, Hoskyns first came to town in 1991, when he was researching a book on The Band. He liked the vibe so much, he returned in 1996 and lived here for three years. In the process of writing about Todd Rundgren, Tim Hardin, Karen Dalton, and others, said Hoskyns, “I began to get a deeper sense of the Woodstock story. The more stuff there was on the ‘69 festival, the more impetus I had to do justice to something that lasted much longer and involved more people.” He credits Paul Smart’s Rock and Woodstock (Purple Mountain Press, 1994) with planting the seed for Small Town Talk.

Hoskyns has a fascination with scenes, such as the proliferation of musicians in Laurel Canyon in the 1960s, the subject of his 2008 book Hotel California. “I love the idea of special places at special times and why they attract people and what it means that all these people wind up there,” he remarked. “In the case of Woodstock, it was just the right place at the right time. Because of its heritage and history as a country town that was tolerant of non-conformists and bohemians, it served as the perfect place for, above all, Bob Dylan to get away to.”

Dylan was happy to find a place where the locals didn’t know who he was, and he could sit in the Café Espresso without being hassled. Although Hoskyns managed to speak with Van Morrison, he didn’t make much effort to get an interview with Dylan, knowing the megastar was probably out of reach. “I’d be interested to know if he reads the book,” mused Hoskyns. “In some respects, he doesn’t come out of it too well. I’m not someone who thinks Dylan is God, but he’s absolutely fascinating, and he wrote wonderful music there. He was, for a time, happy in Woodstock. He found what he was looking for, a place to raise a family. One thing you can say, he’s been a good dad.”

Hoskyns believes Woodstock saved Dylan’s life. “He was in mortal danger at the time of the motorcycle accident, whatever exactly that was. He was able to put the brakes on, literally — slow down, piece his life back together. Growing up, taking responsibility for his children — that was all important stuff in connection with Woodstock.”

Starmaker Albert Grossman has a major role in the book, which highlights his 22-year reign at the studio and theater complex in Bearsville. Most entertainment managers of that period would have had a country place in the Hamptons, but Hoskyns pointed out, “Albert was not a conventional show biz manager. He was as hip as his artists, or wanted to be — with his long hair, he was not going to the Hamptons. When Milton Glaser turned him onto this estate in Bearsville, it appealed to Albert to be in a place that was pretty left-field, full of crazy artists, some writers, actors, like Lee Marvin.”

Hoskyns finds Grossman an enigmatic character. “He intimidated people by being silent. Maybe we credit Albert with more wiles than we should. He was also shy. Maybe he couldn’t think of anything to say. It’s not unlikely that his silence was interpreted as a bargaining weapon, and he began to realize he could get what he wanted by sitting there and glowering from the other side of the desk.”

The author came to Woodstock in the fall of 2013 to conduct interviews for the book, which includes written snapshots of the current scene, tracing the effects of the ‘60s on present-day musicians. When asked why we’re still mesmerized by Dylan and The Band, Hoskyns replied, “Because the music is so extraordinary and so unique. It really does stand up as a body of work. Out of the association with Dylan, The Band was able to find their own voice and create music that influenced so many people. In terms of pop culture, people like me have looked to Woodstock as a magical place that gave birth to this music. That may be mythology — Van Morrison said so — but his album Moondance is entwined with Woodstock, to me. There’s a woodsy, organic, earthy soulful flavor to so much of this music.”

Hoskyns was looking forward to returning to town for the writers festival, although he knows not everyone in Woodstock will like some of his portraits of complex personalities, Grossman’s included. “I know some people whose feathers have been ruffled by the book,” he said. “I didn’t set out to hurt anyone’s feelings, but there’s a dark side to the Woodstock story — there’s no use pretending.”


The Woodstock Writers Festival will be held April 7-10. Daytime events will be at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, 34 Tinker Street, Woodstock. Evening sessions will be held at the Woodstock Music Lab, 1700 Sawkill Road, Kingston, 4 miles east of Woodstock. For tickets, schedules, and details, see https://ulsterpub.staging.wpenginewriters.com.