It was the Laurel Canyon of the Catskills. In 1969, the forested artist community of Woodstock, in upstate New York, contributed its name to a nearby music festival that many regard as the apex of the 1960s counterculture. Even the movement itself would come to be known as the Woodstock Nation. Bob Dylan, perhaps the hamlet’s best-known resident, recuperated in that small town at manager Albert Grossman’s home following the singer-songwriter’s life-changing 1966 motorcycle accident outside of Woodstock. The town would play a key role in the making of Dylan. With the Band, a group of mostly Canadian musicians who also had settled in Woodstock, Dylan wrote and recorded the monumental sessions that became known as The Basement Tapes–the Band’s seminal 1969 American album Music from Big Pink had paid homage to the Woodstock split-level in which those songs had taken shape two years earlier.
But Woodstock has a long and fascinating history that predates Dylan and extends to the mid-’90s when festival promoter Michael Lang staged Woodstock II, attracting Dylan (who did not play at the first fest) and such pop, rap, and metal acts as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Cypress Hill, and Metallica.
In Small Town Talk: Bob Dylan, the Band, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix & Friends in the Wild Years of Woodstock (Da Capo Press), British rock historian Barney Hoskyns explores that vast history, focusing for the most part on the 1960s and ’70s. He casts the tyrannical manager Grossman as the nemesis in this chronicle of artists who flocked to Woodstock. It’s an intricate tale of inspiring creativity and personal tragedy. Along the way, Hoskyns illuminates little-known chapters in the lives of such Woodstock inhabitants as Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Paul Butterfield, and Todd Rundgren, to name a few.
The stories are enlightening when focused on the stars, but Hoskyns also draws on such gifted local acoustic guitarists as Happy Traum, Geoff Muldaur, and John Sebastian.
The fast-paced, 400-page book, which derives its title from the name of one of local soul singer Bobby Charles’ songs, is a quintessentially American story of abusive music-industry power and bohemian decadence set amidst small-town life.
Small Town Talk is available at these online retailers:
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Plus, check out more books by rock historian Barney Hoskyns: