It’s the summer of 1969, and organizers are preparing a dairy farm in upstate New York for a music festival. Doubtless they’re hoping for good music and good times, but they can’t have expected what is starting to happen. Hundreds of thousands of youngsters are descending on the farm for the Woodstock festival, and it’s going to be amazing.
Over the course of the next three days, hugely popular stars will entertain as many as half a million people. Unseasonal rain will turn the field that the crowd flocked to into a sea of mud. And here, in Bethel, NY, history will be made as the music festival and art fair explodes into our cultural consciousness.
The festival will become a success – although as we’ll see, it would be some time before the organizers made their money back. But it’s not just remembered for the stellar music. No, the crowds of “hippies” that swarmed the festival grounds also became cultural icons: so much so that some call the youth of their day “the Woodstock generation.”
To begin with, Woodstock was meant to make money for its young organizers. John Roberts and Joel Rosenman met with record company man Artie Kornfeld and businessman Michael Lang to propose the idea to them. The four saw a music festival as a cash cow, and they prepared to milk it.
Lang had already created a music festival the year before. The venture in Miami had been a success, and he was ready to do it all over again. Kornfeld had connections in the music business thanks to his high-level spot at Capitol Records. So Rosenman and Roberts enticed the other two to join them in Woodstock Ventures, Inc. and create music history.
But it wouldn’t go entirely smoothly. Although the four did make waves in the music world with their festival, it ended up a commercial failure. Getting star names to play cost money, and having planned for the event at one site, the team had to move to a different site. Cash flooded out, and little came back in.
To begin with, the four guys had plenty of money. But that’s all they had. They didn’t have anywhere to stage the festival. And that wasn’t their only problem. They also didn’t have anyone to play at it! They were faced with a credibility issue – and it was going to cost a pretty penny to make up for that.
Lang would later reminisce about the cost. He told U.K. newspaper The Telegraph, “We overpaid a bit, to establish the reality of the festival. Once that happened, the word started to go out. We established a top price of $15,000 for headline acts. Hendrix wanted a lot more. He wanted $50,000.”
Still, the organizers had high hopes of a profitable enterprise. They were selling advance tickets for all three days for $18 a piece – about $120 in today’s money. And if people wanted to pay on the day, they’d need to cough up $24. The tickets went fast, with more than 100,000 buying them before the festival.
The festival goers were attracted by the named bands that started to ink contracts for the event. First to do so was Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose mix of country and blues backgrounded John Fogerty’s vocals. The popular rock band boosted the credibility of the festival, and Woodstock was soon filling out an impressive lineup.
But where would the bands play? At first, it seemed the festival would happen in Wallkill, NY. The organizers shelled out $10,000 – an impressive sum in 1969 – to use an industrial area there. As works started on the site, though, the locals got cold feet, and the gang of four found themselves without permits.
With a month to go before the four were due to put on the show, they had no options for the site. Luckily, Max Yasgur had a solution. He would let them use his dairy farm in Bethel. The organizers were keen, even though Yasgur was ready to drive a hard bargain for the rental.
Rosenman told The Telegraph about the haggling. He said, “You’re hanging over a cliff, and someone has hold of you by your belt. We started at $50,000 and ended there. By today’s standards, that’s half a million dollars for a three-day use of the farm.” It probably would have been cheaper to buy the farm!
But the deal was done, and now the race was on to get the farm ready for the 50,000 expected (so far) crowd. They needed fences to keep intruders out and booths for ticket sales, and of course they needed the infrastructure of a festival site too. But as people started to turn up at the farm, it wasn’t even close to ready.
A couple of days before the festival was set to start, in August, more than the expected 50,000 people were camped nearby. And that was just to begin with. Perhaps a million people were on their way. The traffic was too much for New York’s road network, and lots of the wannabe merrymakers had to leave their vehicles and walk. In the end, something like 500,000 made it.
When the ticketless got there, they didn’t find a site fenced off with places to pay the entry fee. Those things had not been finished. Lang told The Telegraph that the organizers had to take a new tack. He said, “People are coming, and you need to be able to feed them, and take care of them, and give them a show. So you have to prioritize.” In other words, an awful lot of people got in free.
The people who came were not just hippies, although the festival has been somewhat identified with them. There were plenty of other young people who were affected by the turmoil of the times. The war in Vietnam saw enormous opposition by lots of youngsters, while they supported the increase of civil rights. But Woodstock offered the opportunity to forget those things for a few days.
Not that it was a totally relaxing time. The weather was terrible, causing the ground to turn to mud. There wasn’t much to eat or drink, and the site was not exactly sanitary. But the poor conditions didn’t provoke much upset. The attendees lived out the late 1960s ideal of peace and love.
It’s just as well that the festival goers were peaceful since the organizers had forbidden off-duty cops from coming in. And it’s thought that the number of regular police personnel at the site barely got into double figures. So you may well imagine that there were security problems with so many people reveling at the festival.
Well, there was some security. A contingent from a commune in New Mexico, more usually engaged in pig farming, had been asked to keep things safe. Top hog farmer Wavy Gravy had his own methods of maintaining the peace: offering a drenching with seltzer water or a face full of pie for miscreants.
The commune, known as the Hog Farm, didn’t just take care of security. It also managed a playground for the younger attendees and created a kitchen to provide free eats to hungry hippies. On top of that, it provided a tent for those who had been overcome by the experience of drug taking.
Real medical facilities existed too. The festival had a medical tent, which was crewed by volunteers. There were doctors, nurses, and paramedics on hand for those who needed them. Luckily, they had little of anything serious to deal with. Upset tummies caused by bad food and barefooted funsters coming a cropper were the worst of it.
But more serious injuries did occur, even if they were rare. One youth met their end in an accident with a tractor, and another passed away in circumstances to do with drug use. And some women are said to have lost babies. One who didn’t was singer-songwriter Joan Baez who was heavily pregnant when she appeared, and another was a woman who gave birth en route to the festival.
A few minutes after 5:00 p.m. on August 15, soulful folkster Richie Havens got the revelry under way. Only prepared for a short set, Havens had to keep going while other acts struggled through the heavy traffic. He’d later claim that he performed every song that he was familiar with, which apparently was not too many since he only played for 45 minutes. A yogi then blessed the festival.
And just before midnight Arlo Guthrie took the stage. He had a keen sense that he was making history. He told Smithsonian magazine, “When you realize that most historic events are written in hindsight – you don’t realize you’re in a historic event at the time – so it was special to be in a historic event and know that it was just that.”
The light rain that had plagued Guthrie’s set also hit Joan Baez somewhat. She wasn’t unhappy though, she told Rolling Stone magazine in 1983. She said, “Oh, I had a lovely time at Woodstock… It was wonderful… it was a three-day period during which people were decent to one another because they realized that if they weren’t, they’d all get hungry.”
The next day’s music began some time after noon. A host of big names rocked the crowd through the evening and long into the night. Indeed, Jefferson Airplane wouldn’t wrap up the day until the middle of the next morning. Also on the lineup were The Who and Janis Joplin, as well as Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Plus other performers that night included the Grateful Dead. Some years later, Dead frontman Jerry Garcia, explained that it had been a rough gig, “We knew there were a half million people out there, but we couldn’t see [anyone]. There were about a hundred people on stage with us, and everyone was scared that it was gonna collapse… it was raining or wet, so every time we touched our guitars, we’d get these electrical shocks. Blue sparks were flying out of our guitars.”
The closing day kicked off about 2:00 p.m. when Joe Cocker began a career-defining set. Attendees went wild for his version of “With A Little Help From My Friends,” and the weather had something to say too! No sooner had he closed his performance than the clouds opened for a thunderstorm that held up proceedings for a couple hours.
In 2013 Cocker reminisced with Classic Rock magazine about the show. He said, “Were we epic? I dunno. We got some nice footage for memories.” And the rocker shared one fun outcome of the wet weather, adding, “I was wearing a tie-dyed shirt, and when I took it off after, the colors had stained my chest in the exact same pattern.”
One of the iconic images of Woodstock is Jimi Hendrix mangling the national anthem in his performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The rocker left the crowd with an indelible memory as he wrung his howling and shrieking guitar. Those who were there for the last act of the show were also treated to hits such as “Purple Haze.”
But Hendrix had actually played to a much diminished crowd. Because the rain had stopped him from appearing until morning on the Monday, and many of the attendees had already left. Only 25,000 or so of the most hardcore groovers were there to see the rock legend bring the curtain down.
As Hendrix’s last note rang out, the remaining revelers headed for the exits. But the traffic problems that had plagued them coming in, struck them again going out. Many would have a long wait in jams as the traffic overwhelmed New York roads once more. But they did eventually get home, leaving behind a massive mess.
It took more than a few days, and a cost that ran into the tens of thousands to clear the site. Several bulldozers had to go to work. And the physical mess wasn’t all that was left for the organizers, as Rosenman explained to The Telegraph. He said, “We had very angry bankers. We had creditors we had to deal with. We had some lawsuits from people claiming injustices ranging from damage to property to strange things tampering with their cows.”
Still, the site was cleared, and the weekend would go down in history. So much so that today an arts center marks the spot. It even houses a museum, which features the festival and its context in the Swinging Sixties. And naturally there are concerts, although they are not quite on the scale of the original festival.
Some of the acts who appeared on the Woodford stage back in 1969 have even gone back to play at Bethel Woods, as the site is known. They include Cocker and Guthrie. Memories abound in the area, so much so that it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Because the festival ended up being free of charge for many, it meant that ticket sales didn’t exactly pay for it. But that’s nothing peculiar for big events, with the side cash that flows in from such things as merchandising, recordings, and even films that provide the profit. So the organizers welcomed Warner Brothers’ partnership to make the feted film Woodstock.
Rosenman certainly felt the whole thing had been worthwhile. He told The Telegraph, “I don’t know if you’ve ever been involved in a venture capital project – they’re always exhilarating. I would say that the stress factor was fun to complain about, but it was a rewarding project to work on. It took on an almost religious significance after the fact.”
Not that everyone thought that that significance was all good. As Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner told The Telegraph, it gave birth to stadium rock. He said, “Once promoters saw how many people they could draw into a football stadium, and charge $50 a ticket, rock and roll went down fast.”
Yet dairyman Yasgur, whose farm hosted the festival, captured the spirit when he spoke to the crowd on day three. He said, “The important thing that you’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids, and I call you kids because I have children who are older than you are, a half a million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music and God bless you for it!”