Woodstock: A place and time turns 50

Author:
Publish date:

By Mike Greenblatt

 The Woodstock festival poster, arguably the most recognizable music poster in history, was designed by artist Arnold Skolnick. This rare original signed poster sold for $10,625 at auction. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

The Woodstock festival poster, arguably the most recognizable music poster in history, was designed by artist Arnold Skolnick. This rare original signed poster sold for $10,625 at auction. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

On one long, mind-blowing late summer weekend in August of 1969, a three-day music festival was held on a farm in upstate New York. The concert starred some of the biggest names in rock history. Even so, the real show was the scene itself. By the end of the weekend, that beautiful, bizarre and implausible scene would define a generation.

Inspired by the artsy community of Woodstock, New York, a hub for artists of all stripes and where Bob Dylan had settled, The Woodstock Music & Art Fair – promising “3 Days of Peace & Music” – unfolded from August 15-17 in nearby Bethel. More than a music fest, it turned out to be a gathering of the tribes, a place to let it all hang out with no supervision whatsoever, to smoke pot, make love, go swimming and meet fellow antiwar hippies. Plus, the opportunity to enjoy one rock ’n’ roll superstar after another under the sun and stars in a bucolic setting, on a farm with a lake, proved too much to pass up.

So they came … in numbers that were impossible to predict.

 The crowd waits for another band to set up. Image courtesy of Michael Stern

The crowd waits for another band to set up. Image courtesy of Michael Stern

Michael Lang (a New York hippie entrepreneur who had staged the 1968 Miami Pop Festival) and his partner, music-biz executive Artie Kornfeld, with money from two independently wealthy venture capitalists (John Roberts and Joel Rosenman), set out to bring every great band in the world to one stage for one weekend. All four were young, in their twenties. And in for the ride of their lives.

Lang was smart enough to get some real professionals. Bill Hanley, known as “The Father of Festival Sound,” John Morris (who booked the bands) and the staff of the famed rock venue The Fillmore East, including NYU Professor Chris Langhart, effectuated Lang’s vision. Fillmore East owner Bill Graham made phone calls vouching for Lang and one by one, starting with Creedence Clearwater Revival, the name acts signed on.

 Singer Arlo Guthrie declared from the Woodstock stage, “The New York State Thruway’s closed, man!” He wasn’t far off as incoming traffic ground to a halt, as shown in this Burk Uzzle photograph, “Cars at Woodstock.” The 6-1/2 x 10-inch photograph sold for $1,320 at auction. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Singer Arlo Guthrie declared from the Woodstock stage, “The New York State Thruway’s closed, man!” He wasn’t far off as incoming traffic ground to a halt, as shown in this Burk Uzzle photograph, “Cars at Woodstock.” The 6-1/2 x 10-inch photograph sold for $1,320 at auction. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

America, in 1969, was torn apart by the war in Vietnam, Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation. Nixon was in the White House, Armstrong was on the Moon and the seeds of revolution were in the air. Youth marched in the streets and on college campuses, openly rejecting the America of their parents’ generation. They grew their hair long, smoked pot, listened to a different kind of music, and had a different set of heroes.

What Lang, Roberts, Rosenman, Morris, Hanley and Langhart couldn’t possibly have envisioned was the influx of youth that streamed into the farm from all sides … and never stopped. They had no way of knowing that they’d set into motion a seismic once-in-a-lifetime event that grew and grew with a life of its own as more and more kids flooded into the area.

They weren’t prepared. How could they be?

 An unused three-day ticket to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair is worth $800 today. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

An unused three-day ticket to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair is worth $800 today. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

When efforts to garner security with off-duty New York City cops fell through … when the gates were trampled over … when a whole city materialized in the 600-acre bowl in front of the stage, they knew they were in over their heads, declaring it a free concert. With not enough food, water, bathrooms, and minimal-to-no security, half a million people sat there peacefully in the rain Friday and Saturday in an idyllic setting on Max Yasgur’s farm, awash in nudity, drugs and independence. Freedom! Free from the social constraints of existing laws, they made love, got high, grooved to the music and when the food ran out, and the site was declared a disaster area, the locals helped by showing up in flatbed trucks handing out bread, fruit, vegetables and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Then, on Sunday, a monsoon with almost tornado-like winds whipped through the stoned masses. Almost four hours straight of nonstop rain fell violently from the heavens and stopped the concert dead in its tracks, soaking the kids to the bone. Then the temperatures plummeted. Yet these kids, despite the conditions, helped each other, fed each other, got each other high and kept each other warm, ultimately proving to the world that their “peace and love” mantra was real. Cops were confounded. They heard what was going on in their little town. Yet they left the kids alone.

 The acoustic guitar Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash, played at Woodstock, a Martin D-45, recently sold for $162,500 at Heritage Auctions. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

The acoustic guitar Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash, played at Woodstock, a Martin D-45, recently sold for $162,500 at Heritage Auctions. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

 The original Woodstock poster listed Wallkill, N.Y., as the concert site. That changed after residents freaked out over the idea of an army of hippies invading their town. The poster is now worth around $1,000. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

The original Woodstock poster listed Wallkill, N.Y., as the concert site. That changed after residents freaked out over the idea of an army of hippies invading their town. The poster is now worth around $1,000. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Despite New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller wanting to send in National Guard to disperse the crowd, despite the rains eroding the soil atop underground electrical wiring, despite the daunting prospect of 500,000 cold, wet, hungry, thirsty kids jammed belly-to-butt in a solid downpour, there was not one isolated instance of reported violence. It is still, 50 years later, hard to believe.

It had never happened before.

It hasn’t happened since.

The thrill of seeing Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Joan Baez and 26 other acts one after another was enough to mollify even the most disgruntled fan. The long delays in-between artists meant that the bigger acts didn’t take the stage until ungodly hours of the morning. It didn’t matter. Those who were there will remember it for the rest of the lives.

I know I will.

Mike Greenblatt is the author of Woodstock 50th Anniversary – Back to Yagur’s Farm, published by Krause Publications. This story is excerpted from his book and used here by permission.