Exactly fifty years ago half a million hippies, beatniks, and long-hairs descended upon upstate New York for the Woodstock music festival, the music festival that changed the world.
Max Yasgur, a small landowner from the state of New York, probably never imagined that he would host (at least) 400,000 people on his 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York. But for three straight days his bucolic pastures became a hub for sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll during Woodstock. The Woodstock music festival is not only an icon of American musical history but of American history itself.
August 15, 1969. The United States is facing one of the most delicate phases of the Vietnam war. The conflict still reaps large numbers of victims and the fall of Saigon is far beyond to come, in 1975. That August 15 hundreds of thousands of hopeful, optimistic young people came together and define their generation. However, its story is widely misunderstood to this day. For starters, even though it’s known as the Woodstock festival, Yasgur’s farm wasn’t even walking distance from the town of Woodstock: it was 43 miles (about 70 km) away.
So, how did the most famous music festival in history get misnomered? Who organized it, and what stories about that weekend were legend and which were true? Here are the complete, true story of what unfolded in upstate New York during that historic weekend of 50 years ago.
From 17:07 on August 15th, which was a Friday, until the morning of Monday, July 18, 1969, some of the most famous artists of the time come on stage, in front of an audience of about 400 / 500,000 people. Of that festival, which the press initially wants to label as a “disorganized and dangerous group of protesters”, today remains the example of a huge group of people who have lived together in the same place in peace and harmony for over 3 days.
All began with an announcement in a newspaper. The Woodstock music festival was the brainchild of four young men, looking for a viable business opportunity. Since musical innovation blossomed in the 1960s, they wanted to harness its popularity on a grand scale.
John P. Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld, and Michael Lang had an admirable collective résumé to make their attempt possible. Lang had already organized the Miami Music Festival in 1968, and successfully so. Kornfeld was Capitol Records’ youngest vice president ever, while Roberts and Rosenman were young entrepreneurs out of New York City. To John P. Roberts and Joel Rosenman, already owners of a recording studio in New York is proposed, by Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, to open a second one around Woodstock, a quiet village in the countryside of the state of New York in which a very famous artist, Bob Dylan, has already bought a house. The two entrepreneurs are not persuaded to study in a bucolic atmosphere, but are interested in a music festival in the town with artists of the caliber and style of Bob Dylan. Lang and Kornfeld willingly accept, and in January 1969 the Woodstock Ventures is created.
The four could not be more different: while Roberts and Rosenaman are entrepreneurs with a strong sense of practice and business, Lang and Kornfeld are two young men with a little organized hippie spirit but with the right contacts in the American music scene. Despite the substantial differences and difficulties, the group goes on until the contract with Creedence Clearwater Revival is closed, which in April sign for 10,000 dollars (about 70,000 euros today). When Creedence Clearwater Revival became the first act to agree to perform, Woodstock Ventures landed all the credibility required to curate a respectable roster of contemporary artists, and they writes artists of the caliber of Joan Baez, Santana, the Jefferson Airplanes but above all the The Who and, among others, Jimi Hendrix.
However, securing the venue itself was becoming a problem. The original plan was to hold the Woodstock festival at Howard Mills Industrial Park in Wallkill, New York, which the organizers leased for $10,000. The prospect of having thousands of hippies at the height of the counterculture movement who invade their little town was too troubling for Wallkill officials. The town officially backed out on July 15 and even protected themselves legally by passing laws, including a portable toilet ban, that made it virtually impossible to host a festival there. Moreover, the fear of the local population approved the prohibition of aggregation of public assemblies with a participation of more than 5,000 people.
Lang and Kornfeld cannot find alternative solutions, but the most determined Roberts and Rosenaman found salvation in the form of a 49-year-old dairy farmer. Max Yasgur, probably convinced by his son Sam, graciously allowed them to rent part of his 2.4 square kilometers property for $ 75,000. The White Lake area in Bethel, surrounded by the Catskill Mountains, turned out to be exactly what they needed.
The organization of the festival is purely a profit-making operation, although often the image that is leaked is that of the free love and music festival. The first tickets for the three days of music are sold for $ 18 (comparable to about 120 today), while at the gates the request is $ 24 for the full three days. Although the sale was limited to the music stores in New York and to the correspondence, Woodstock Ventures pre-sold more than 100,000 tickets, and by August 13, at least 50,000 people were already camped out on the Yasgur property.
After the presales have been concluded, the organizers expected an influx of about 200,000 people, but after hundreds of thousands of people show up at the gates, the festival becomes free (hence the reason why it is impossible to trace the precise number of participants). The final, official numbers of attendees vary greatly and range somewhere between 400,000 and one million people.
Thirty-two acts were performed at Woodstock, many of them iconic, with an open mic on the Free Stage available to attendees ready to show their talent off to each other.
The first day began on Friday, August 15 around 5 p.m. when Richie Havens took the stage.
“I was supposed to be fifth on stage, and no one at the whole festival went on when they were supposed to. I came in on one of those glass bubble helicopters and saw Tim Hardin under the stage, sort of playing by himself. I knew he wasn’t going on first. I didn’t want to, either, but I had the least number of instruments, so…I thought, ‘God, three hours late. They’re gonna throw beer cans at me. They’re gonna kill me.’ Fortunately the reaction was ‘Thank God somebody’s finally going to do something.’ They were happy. I was supposed to sing for 40 minutes, which I did, and I walked off the stage and the people were great, and then (the organizers) said, ‘Richie, four more songs?’ ‘OK.’ I went back on and they were still clapping, so I sang four other songs, went off again, then I hear, ‘Richie, four more songs?’ They did that to me six times. Two hours and 45 minutes later I’d sung every song I know.” — Richie Havens said, in 2009.
His two-hour set was followed by Indian spiritual master Satchidananda Saraswati, who makes an auspicious speech for the festival, performing an unscheduled blessing for the crowd. This was followed by sets from Sweetwater, Bert Sommer, Tim Hardin, Ravi Shankar, Melanie, and Arlo Guthrie.
The music continues until 2 a.m. when the venerated folk singer Joan Baez, six months pregnant, performed last act of the night, as the pouring rain washed away the first day of the Woodstock music festival.
Though the first day’s lineup was impressive, things got even more spectacular once the sun rose on the second day. Shortly after noon that Saturday, many musicians took the stage: Quill, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, John Sebastian, Keef Hartley Band, The Incredible String Band, Canned Heat, Mountain, The Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin and The Kozmic Blues Band, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, and Jefferson Airplane, which closed the session at 9:40 am on Sunday morning.
A few hours later the concert start again with Joe Cocker, and then other artists like Country Joe and The Fish, Ten Years After, The Band, Johnny Winter, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha Na Na, and continue until Monday morning, with Jimi Hendrix who performs for last.
Artists played at absolutely unusual times for a rock concert. The festival’s most famous band, The Who, starts at 4:00 on Sunday morning, the Jefferson Airplane, which follows them, at about 8:00 am.
And, of course, Woodstock’s finale featured one of its most celebrated performers: Jimi Hendrix. While Hendrix’s set at Woodstock has arguably been the single most famous and widely viewed part of the festival in decades since, the fact that his set was delayed due to rain until Monday morning is a lesser-known part of his legendary appearance. When he got to the stage at 9 a.m. on Monday morning, there were only about 30,000 people left in the audience, because the festival had only been scheduled to last until Sunday night, and many people had to get back to their lives.
All in all, those who performed at Woodstock in 1969 successfully enshrined themselves in music history, and those who attended as mere fans, too, have had an immortal story to tell.
Despite the size of the artists involved, the real star of the concert is the public, an immense crowd that manages to coexist peacefully despite the absolute inadequacy of the installations (the bathrooms were designed for half of the participants, not even 200,000 people), and the presence constant drug use, expecially cannabis and LSD.
During the three days of music there were no brawls or problems of public order, even if the count of the dead finally amounts to two people: a boy who died of an overdose and one crushed by a tractor in a nearby field.
On the first day of the concert there is, curiously, only a journalist, Barnard Collier of the New York Times, who is pushed to point out the enormous hardships created by young rock fans. Collier sincerely recounts that three days, witnessing how 400,000 / 500,000 unorganized people managed to coexist peacefully, feeling involved in an event that seems clear from the start that he would make history. Many attribute this impressive serenity to the ubiquitous use of psychedelics and the “make love, not war” mantra of the 1960s counterculture. It’s no surprise that many attendees birthed children some nine months later. The highways and streets leading into town were so jam-packed that traffic literally came to a halt. Some people simply left their cars on the road and headed to camp on foot, while others partied in, on, or around their vehicles.
It was reported, however, that eight women underwent miscarriages during the three-day festival. Woodstock’s organizers also hired the California hippie commune the Hog Farm to establish a playground for the kids of concertgoers, but also a free food kitchen and a tent for those who might’ve taken a few too many psychedelics to calm down, while Hog Farm leader Wavy Gravy would spray seltzer water and throw pies at people overstepping their boundaries. In terms of security, only about 12 law enforcement officers were in charge of policing an estimated half a million people. Yet concertgoers braved the elements for three days and caused no violence.
Moreover, the mob of hippies who took over the town made a remarkably positive impression on its citizenry, including the police.
But what remains of Woostock? When Jimi Hendrix laying the guitar, at 11:10 on Monday morning, he concludes the most famous concert in history. Of that three days remain the splendid images and the desire for union on the part of a community of people, who challenge the prejudices of bourgeois America and meet without fights or social catastrophes in a field in the state of New York.
The music, the hippie culture, the drugs and a lot of love will remain forever linked to the word “Woodstock”, symbol and synonym of all these components put together.
The Woodstock music festival was first and foremost a big deal, which made Woodstock Ventures millionaires. And now, 50 years later, a “big deal” is hardly the legacy of Woodstock. Instead, it’s a historic, watershed moment that represents the zenith of a particular culture and captures a specific moment of time that will never be replicated in quite that way ever again.
After the first excellent attempt two other replicas were attempted. The first was in 1994, again in Bethel, which had a huge public success: the estimated participants were 550,000, even more than the first, historic edition. After the success of the 1994, it was wanted to repeat in 1999, also this time with a significant public success, about 400,000 presences. The last edition, which took place in Rome and no longer in Bethel, was characterized by violence, sexual assaults, rape accusations, looting and fires, which put the word “end” at the Woodstock brand concerts. Of the initial spirit of peace, music and love there was (almost) nothing left, but only a large mass of disorganized and at times disturbing people, which caused, this time for real, a major social disaster.
As is known, a “Woodstock 50” was scheduled this year, a festival that, at the very last, was missed due to organizational problems.
Today, after a half-century, you can go up on a hill at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts and stand on the ground where the 1969 Woodstock festival took place. The center opened in 2006 with an outdoor concert venue and a 1960s museum. Some of the acts who performed at the Woodstock 1969 have returned to play shows in the decades since, while some died before they got the chance. Generations have come and gone since that one magnificent weekend in the summer of 1969.
For most of us, it’s always been mere legend, of which we have all heard of at least once in a lifetime. But for a few hundred thousand lucky people, it was probably one of the greatest moment of their lives, a moment that left a mark on history that remains indelible still today, 50 years later.
Images from Web.