Music Festivals

6,000 Hours Later, Jim Ratts and Runaway Express Celebrate Woodstock

Jim Ratts and Runaway Express
Jim Ratts and Runaway Express Bill Patterson
Fifty years after the legendary festival of peace and music went down at Max Yasgur's 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York, the freewheeling idealism that flowered at Woodstock still blooms in some people's minds. Take Englewood resident and longtime songwriter and musician Jim Ratts, who's marking the anniversary with a story-driven sonic collage called Celebrate Woodstock.

The album is both a collection of songs and a monument to this chapter of music history. Ratts, now seventy, serves as the narrator, and his band, Runaway Express, plays the soundtrack. The album is a medley of natural sound, dialogue and, of course, the music of an era, including covers of “Goin’ Up the Country,” “Freedom” and the Joni Mitchell ode "Woodstock," along with other classic anthems that helped create the Woodstock mythos.

The musical trip begins with an acoustic guitar and the simple story of a wild-eyed teenager named Quincy. From there, Celebrate Woodstock follows Quincy and his generation as they wander into upstate New York on a coming-of-age journey.

"The main character is based on a buddy who I met a few years back named Quincy Stringham, who is from Chicago," explains Ratts. "It's a true story. Quincy's father used to play the piano every night before dinner. That's what he remembers from childhood. There was always piano music before they ate. He was seventeen and had bought his ticket to Woodstock. He paid seventeen dollars; he saved a dollar by pre-ordering. But his dad didn't want him to go, and they fought about it and argued about it until he went, 'Oh, my God, I need to explain to my dad that this music touches me the same way that his music did in his day.' So he reasoned with his father and finally convinced him that Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane were the Artie Shaw and Dorsey Brothers of the day. That was all his dad had to hear, and he said, 'Just go and have a good time.'"

Shortly after convincing his old man, Quincy sets off with his backpack to upstate New York for the concert of a lifetime.

The original Woodstock, which took place August 15 to 18, 1969, peaked at approximately 400,000 attendees and included performances by artists such as Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Santana, the Grateful Dead, Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane, the Band, Crosby Stills and Nash, Sha Na Na, Country Joe and the Fish, Joe Cocker, Hendrix and many others.

Woodstock re-emerged in 1999 for a problem-riddled reprise and was poised to celebrate its half-century anniversary with yet another version this month. Unfortunately, original co-founder Michael Lang, now 74, failed to bring the event to fruition.

"It's not like this hasn't happened before," observes Ratts with regard to the fiftieth-anniversary failure. "[The original] Woodstock was supposed to be at Woodstock, but they got the permits pulled out from under them and had to move it to Bethel Woods at the last minute. I'm planning on visiting Bethel Woods during the festival weekend to check out the original field where it was held. There's a cool state-of-the-art museum there now on the top of the hill, and there's a 2,000-seat open-air venue near the original grounds."

While Ratts's imagination and soul fully embrace the original revel, he didn't attend the 1969 event. Instead, he was working his father's farm and mechanic shop in Kansas.

"When LIFE magazine came out with a full spread after the fest, I saw myself in the faces of the people there," Ratt says. "That was my demographic at the time. So I was trying to find a way to talk about what it was like to be alive during that time, and I chose the festival as a scene with which to create this cinematic album of mine."

Ratt says his generation was moved by the music, but also by a dream: that they could make a difference and create change in the world, taking on civil rights, environmental issues, women's equality and gay liberation.

"These things are still popping up all the time, even though cynicism has kind of seeped into it all," he says. "Some of us can still see the idealism of the ’60s and see how even though we failed to realize those dreams on some levels, we laid the foundation that matters for now. That's what I always have to believe. If we hadn't raised our voices back then, it wouldn't have altered things like it has. You look back and go, 'Well, we should have done more,' but at least we did our part. The theme of this record is that here's a whole new generation of kids who have this beautiful passion and could have an effect."

In addition to original material by Ratts, the disc includes covers of music by the Band, the Grateful Dead, Stephen Stills, Santana, John Fogerty, Paul Simon and other artists and activists of the day as it weaves its story of the peace-and-love movement.

"It's almost eighty minutes long. It's not something you'll listen to in one sitting," Ratts says. "It might take you three or four days to take it all in. It's a trip through the songs that were presented at Woodstock. Every second of it is really deliberate. I spent more than 6,000 hours on this thing over the course of the last twelve to fourteen years. I'm very proud of the original songs on there that intertwine with the rest of the material."

Celebrate Woodstock is available on CD Baby or at
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Nick Hutchinson writes about music for Westword and enjoys playing his guitar when not on deadline.
Contact: Nick Hutchinson