At the 51st anniversary of Woodstock, I’m here to say: I was there, man!
That is, I was recently at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a museum located on the site of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Of course, Woodstock, NY is a fun town — but the museum and festival site lie 40 miles away in a rural corner of Sullivan County. When we visited it was one of the rare museums in New York State open in the Covid-19 era — in its secluded location, it limits visitors to help with social distance. The center provides a fascinating sojourn, a half-century look back at what was billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music.”
During the actual festival in 1969, I was probably out playing in my sandbox in the Texas Panhandle. But like many children of the ’60s, I came of age looking back at that mythical weekend through a gauze of nostalgia, wonderment, and skepticism that such an idyllic hippie gathering could ever really happen. It did. And it holds lessons for our current era.
“I think you have proven something to the world,” said Max Yagur, owner of the farm where they held the festival, “that a half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music.” [Quoted on a museum mural.]
Yagur was wrong about the last part: The festival was not all fun, and it was about much more than just music. And as this vast, comprehensive museum makes clear, Woodstock encompassed more than three days: The event had been building up for years — and it’s reverberated for decades ever since.
Lines of the Times
The museum’s first few galleries seek to put the Woodstock Generation in historical context. Wall text panels include: Boomer Nation (the post-WWII baby craze), The Nuclear Shadow (kids hiding under desks), Changing the World (John F. Kennedy’s rise), the British Invasion (the Beatles and brethren), We Shall Overcome (Bob Dylan in duet with Joan Baez). We see striking cultural juxtapositions: the 1965 Voting Rights Act passes as the Byrds release “Mr. Tambourine Man”; the Vietnam War escalates as the Beach Boys put out Pet Sounds; MLK is assassinated as Hair opens on Broadway; and the 1968 DNC Chicago Riots erupt as the Band releases Music from Big Pink.
As a place for a grand concert, Woodstock was mainly a concept. It was the town where the Band had settled (though their communal home, Big Pink, was in nearby West Saugerties — who needs details?). The Band’s members had enticed their former boss Bob Dylan (recently semi-retired) to move to Woodstock, followed by songwriting peers like Van Morrison, and soon the little upstate town was hipper than a well-worn pair of 501 jeans.
Along came John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, a couple of young New Yorkers with means, searching for investment opportunities. They met Michael Land and Artie Kornfeld, who proposed to build a recording studio in Woodstock. To promote it, they conjured the idea of a rock festival. This had been done — the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival set the bar — but these guys were thinking outside the box, seeking to lure fans to a secluded site. Their dreams of a huge show in Woodstock fizzled when they found no suitable venue. They settled on nearby Wallkill, NY, where residents protested and the town’s zoning board rejected the festival’s permits. “With only weeks left before the concert’s scheduled opening day,” the museum notes, “the Woodstock Festival no longer had a home.”
The organizers found refuge near Bethel, at Max Yagur’s farm, and scrambled to construct a stage there as they put out the word. Little did they expect the nationwide buzz to attract crowds of nearly half a million — well over the predicted 100,000+. While the crew was still setting up ticket booths, the crowds started swarming in. “As people began pushing through the fence and pouring into the grounds, the festival faced its first crisis,” the curators write. “After arguing among themselves, the promoters decided to let Woodstock become a free concert. It was a memorable decision, but a costly one.”
Mud and Hunger
Such masses created a need for more food — much more than could be supplied by the hired vendors, namely a small operation called Food for Love. “By Saturday night,” the museum notes, “Food for Love was in trouble as suppliers ran short and concert goers, angered at their prices, destroyed many of the concession stands.” However, many other groups stepped in with supplies, including The Hog Farm (with free macrobiotic meals), Boy and Girl Scout troops (with more than cookies) and the National Guard (with airlift rations). Many nearby residents bemoaned the crowds; others set out to help them. The museum notes a Good Samaritan named Leni Bender, who made and brought hundreds of homemade sandwiches to the throngs.
On Sunday, August 17, Mother Nature added a rainstorm to the mix. Now shelter joined the scarcities. “I had a view of the field and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” attendee Carl Porter later recalled. “Waves and waves of torrential water hitting hundreds of thousands of people who had nowhere to go. ‘Drowned rats’ doesn’t even come close to describing it.” But the fans wallowed through it all to witness one more night of rock & roll history.
The music itself was a bundle of surprises. The opening act was supposed to be Sweetwater, but the band — along with other acts — got stuck in a huge traffic jam on the New York State Thruway, so folk singer Richie Havens (a NYC folkie, fifth on the bill) was sent on stage to open the proceedings on August 15. “I thought, ‘I’m not going out there first. What, are you crazy?’” Havens later recalled. To kill time while other acts arrived, he improvised his anthemic “Freedom” chant on the spot, and lit up the huge crowd.
The museum sprinkles concert footage and other documentary film clips throughout the galleries, with famed highlights such as Joe Cocker’s rousing “With a Little Help From My Friends” and Country Joe & the Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag.” It documents the set lists and bios of the 32 acts that played (oddly, these fascinating panels hang in the basement entryway to the restrooms), and the curators are candid about the unevenness of the stage shows. “Some were memorable,” they write, “providing electrifying performances that have become part of rock history. Others were marginal as performers battled the wind and rain.”
One key act, Creedence Clearwater Revival, played a set largely lost to history because bandleader John Fogerty (who didn’t like the sound) refused to take part in the 1970 Woodstock film or its soundtrack album. A late addition — Crosby, Stills & Nash (with a bit of Young) — gamely made it through their second-ever live gig. (“We’re scared shitless,” Stills told the crowd.) Santana came out as a virtual unknown and left as a legend. The Who played on August 16 and killed it, and Sly and the Family Stone slid into a groove. Janis Joplin’s set that night was either inspired or lackluster, depending on whom you ask.
The biggest fish of all — Jimi Hendrix, who commanded a princely $18K sum to show up — played to a relative smattering of fans as the sun rose on August 18, with all but 35,000 of the exhausted attendees either gone or shuffling back toward their cars. Yet Hendrix’s searing, explosive “Star-Spangled Banner” sealed off the ’60s with an eternal howl.
Emblem of an Era
As a grand concert that found a place, Woodstock is now mainly a symbol. Peace & Love, Fun & Music. It reportedly occasioned two births and also two deaths (one a kid run over by a tractor, another related to an overdose). Rather ominously, the Manson murders had happened August 9–10, 1969; the disastrously violent Altamont Speedway Free Festival followed on December 6.
Yet Woodstock lit up imaginations. The throngs of witnesses found kindred spirits. “The big fact about Woodstock is that we realized how many of us there were,” David Crosby later said. “Woodstock was a spark of beauty. Some white, middle-class kids popped some Owsley LSD and saw that they were part of a greater organism,” opined Joni Mitchell—who missed the gig due to a TV commitment with the Dick Cavett Show, but wrote the festival’s anthem based on the reflections of then-boyfriend Graham Nash.
At that time, the collective energy of youth pointed toward change — the beginning of a new age, the end of a war, the hope for a power shift — but if those kids thought they were going to move the cultural needle, the best they got was a strong nudge. After all, Richard Nixon won in a landslide three years later, the Vietnam War dragged on for six more years, and the idealistic Woodstock Generation gradually blended into ’70s society. Hippie idealism dispersed in a sea of realism.
The young adults today — the ones in my daughter’s generation — seem hardened by the lessons of history. Many harbor idealism leavened by fatalism. Yet they’re savvy activists: enough to quickly organize for Black Lives Matter protests, to mobilize for political candidates, to shortchange Trump’s rally in Tulsa with a social-media sabotage. They’re trying to nudge their own needle. They’re dealing with an era without precedent: a global health crisis, an economic meltdown, a social-justice reckoning, a political quagmire … and whatever hope they hang onto is offset by daily doses of doom and gloom. Even the simple act of returning to school is fraught with uncertainty.
Yet today they — all of us — have something in common with those youngsters on that upstate New York farm, and the nearby residents, and the faraway spectators. We are witnessing a cultural moment, and we’re all in it together.
All images by the author (jackcrager.com) except where noted.