Fifty years ago today, a crowd of flower children, hippies, and other assorted music lovers began converging on a dairy farm in upstate New York for what would become, perhaps the most famous music festival in history. On August 15, 16, and 17 of 1969, Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm 43 miles southwest of Woodstock, New York was the site of what was billed as “The Woodstock Music & Art Fair, An Aquarian Exposition, 3 Days of Peace & Music.” An audience of more than 400,000 people enjoyed the show as 32 music acts performed on stage, outdoors despite sporadic rain. The event has become widely regarded as a pivotal moment in popular music history, and a definitive moment for the counterculture generation. The following year, a film chronicling the festival won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Woodstock was initiated through the efforts of Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, Joel Rosenman, and John P. Roberts. Roberts and Rosenman financed the project. Lang had some experience as a promoter, having co-organized the Miami Pop Festival on the East Coast the prior year, where an estimated 25,000 people attended the two-day event. From the start, there were differences in approach among the four. Roberts was disciplined and knew what was needed for the venture to succeed, while the laid-back Lang saw Woodstock as a new, “relaxed” way of bringing entrepreneurs together. When Lang was unable to find a site for the concert, Roberts and Rosenman, growing increasingly concerned, took to the road and eventually came up with a venue. Similar differences about financial discipline made Roberts and Rosenman wonder whether to pull the plug or to continue pumping money into the project.
In April 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival became the first act to sign a contract for the event, agreeing to play for $10,000. The promoters had experienced difficulty landing big-name groups prior to Creedence committing to play. Creedence drummer Doug Clifford later commented, “Once Creedence signed, everyone else jumped in line and all the other big acts came on.” Given their 3 a.m. start time and omission from the Woodstock film (at Creedence frontman John Fogerty’s insistence), Creedence members have expressed bitterness over their experiences regarding the festival.
Woodstock was designed as a profit-making venture. It became a “free concert” only after the event drew hundreds of thousands more people than the organizers had prepared for. Tickets for the three-day event cost $18 in advance and $24 at the gate. Ticket sales were limited to record stores in the greater New York City area, or by mail via a post office box at the Radio City Station Post Office located in Midtown Manhattan. Around 186,000 advance tickets were sold, and the organizers anticipated approximately 200,000 festival-goers would turn up.
In his 2007 book Taking Woodstock, Elliot Tiber relates that he offered to host the event on his 15-acre motel grounds, and had a permit for such an event. He claims to have introduced the promoters to dairy farmer Max Yasgur. Lang, however, disputes Tiber’s account and says that Tiber introduced him to a realtor, who drove him to Yasgur’s farm without Tiber. Sam Yasgur, Max’s son, agrees with Lang’s account. Yasgur’s land formed a natural bowl sloping down to Filippini Pond on the land’s north side. The stage would be set up at the bottom of the hill with Filippini Pond forming a backdrop. The pond would become a popular skinny dipping destination.
The organizers told Bethel authorities they expected no more than 50,000 people. Despite resident opposition and signs proclaiming, “Buy No Milk. Stop Max’s Hippy Music Festival”, Bethel Town Attorney Frederick W. V. Schadt, building inspector Donald Clark and Town Supervisor Daniel Amatucci approved the festival permits, but the Bethel Town Board refused to issue the permits formally.Clark was ordered to post stop-work orders. Subsequently, on August 2, 1969, the Building Inspector informed them that the Stop Work Order was lifted, and the festival could proceed pending backing by the Department of Health and Agriculture, and removal of all structures by September 1, 1969.
The late change in venue did not give the festival organizers enough time to prepare. At a meeting three days before the event, organizers felt they had two options: one was to complete the fencing and ticket booths, without which the promoters would lose any profit or go into debt; the other option involved putting their remaining available resources into building the stage, without which the promoters feared they would have a disappointed and disgruntled audience. When the audience began arriving by the tens of thousands the next day, the Wednesday before the weekend, the decision was made for them. Those without tickets simply walked through gaps in the fences, and the organizers were forced to make the event free of charge. Though the festival left its promoters nearly bankrupt, their ownership of the film and recording rights more than compensated for the losses after the release of the hit documentary film Woodstock in March 1970.
The influx of attendees to the rural concert site in Bethel created a massive traffic jam. Fearing chaos as thousands began descending on the community, Bethel did not enforce its codes. Eventually, announcements on radio stations as far away as Manhattan and descriptions of the traffic jams on television news discouraged people from setting off to the festival. Arlo Guthrie made an announcement that was included in the film saying that the New York State Thruway was closed. To add to the problems and difficulty in dealing with the large crowds, recent rains had caused muddy roads and fields. The facilities were not equipped to provide sanitation or first aid for the number of people attending; hundreds of thousands found themselves in a struggle against bad weather, food shortages, and poor sanitation.
On the morning of Sunday, August 17, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller called festival organizer John Roberts and told him he was thinking of ordering 10,000 New York State National Guard troops to the festival. Roberts was successful in persuading Rockefeller not to do this. Sullivan County declared a state of emergency. During the festival, personnel from nearby Stewart Air Force Base assisted in helping to ensure order and airlifting performers in and out of the concert venue.
Classic acts on the bill at Woodstock include Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Santana, John Sebastian, Canned Heat, Mountain, The Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, The Band, Johnny Winter; Blood, Sweat & Tears; Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young; Sha Na Na, and Jimi Hendrix.
Hendrix was the last act to perform at the festival. Because of the rain delays that Sunday, when Hendrix finally took the stage it was 8:30 Monday morning. The audience, which had peaked at an estimated 400,000 during the festival, was now reduced to about 30,000 by that point; many of them merely waited to catch a glimpse of Hendrix before leaving during his performance. Those who left missed arguably the best performance of the festival.
Hendrix and his new band, Gypsy Sun and Rainbows (introduced as The Experience, but corrected by Hendrix) performed a two-hour set. His psychedelic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” occurred about three-quarters into the set (after which he segued into “Purple Haze”). The song would become “part of the sixties Zeitgeist” as it was captured forever in the Woodstock film. The image of Hendrix performing this number wearing a blue-beaded white leather jacket with fringe and a red head scarf has since been regarded as a defining moment of the 1960s.
Although the festival was remarkably peaceful given the number of people and the conditions involved, there were two recorded fatalities: one from insulin usage, and another when a tractor accidentally ran over an attendee sleeping in a nearby hayfield. There also were two births recorded at the event (one in a car caught in traffic and another in a hospital after an airlift by helicopter) and four miscarriages. Oral testimony in the film supports the overdose and run-over deaths and at least one birth, along with many logistical headaches.
Yet, in tune with the idealistic hopes of the 1960s, Woodstock satisfied most attendees. There was a sense of social harmony, which, with the quality of music, and the overwhelming mass of people, many sporting bohemian dress, behavior, and attitudes, helped to make it one of the enduring events of the century.
After the concert, Max Yasgur, who owned the site of the event, saw it as a victory of peace and love. He spoke of how nearly half a million people filled with potential for disaster, riot, looting, and catastrophe spent three days with music and peace on their minds. He stated, “If we join them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of America today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future.”
Given the all of the violence in the world recently, maybe we should all take a look back and think. If nearly half a million people, many of them under the influence of various substances, can gather in a field under wet miserable conditions for three days with only a handful of incidents, and no intentional violence, surely we can manage an occasional day without any senseless killings.