Today marks the 50th anniversary of The Woodstock Music & Arts Festival: An Aquarian Exposition, 3 Days Of Peace & Music. It was held on a 600-acre dairy farm outside of tiny Bethel, New York, not actually in Woodstock, which is 60 miles away. A half million young people, most of them high, showed up for an event originally planned for 80,000.
It was organized and promoted by Michael Lang, John P. Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld.
Richie Havens played the first set, and the bill for the next three days included, among others: Santana, Joan Baez (who was six months pregnant), Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and The Band.
In all, 32 acts played. Jimi Hendrix closed the festival on Monday morning with his famous set including The Star Spangled Banner. Roy Rogers was asked to close the festival with Happy Trails, but he declined. Hendrix and his new band, Gypsy Sun & Rainbows, performed their two-hour set in the rain. His psychedelic rendition of the national anthem, occurred about three-quarters into the set, after which he segued into Purple Haze. The image of Hendrix’s performing this number wearing a blue-beaded white leather jacket with fringe and a red head scarf is one of the most iconic of the 1960s.
For me, the event signifies the beginning of the end of the dream of the faerie tale that we now call The 1960s. The Moon Landing and Woodstock had made for a warm fuzzy feeling in the summer of 1969. I needed it after the murders of icons Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, Robert F. Kennedy. The Vietnam War burned on our television screens, but The Beatles were still a band, and Jim Morrison was still playing gigs.
Woodstock was remarkably peaceful considering the size of the crowd and the crappy weather. Two people died; one from a heroin overdose, and another when a tractor ran over an attendee sleeping in a nearby field. There were two births recorded at the event: one in an automobile caught in traffic and another in a hospital after the mother was airlifted by helicopter. To combat food and water price hikes, both the organizers and local sheriff organized free food and water relief efforts.
Yet, in tune with the idealistic hopes and dreams of the 1960s, Woodstock was an amazing experience for most people who were there. The festival brought a sense of social harmony, which, along with the quality of music, and the overwhelming mass of people with their hippie clothing, behavior, and attitudes, helped to make it one of the enduring events of the 20th century.
Afterwards, Max Yasgur, who owned the site where Woodstock was held, said he saw it as a victory for peace, love and understanding. He spoke of how a half million people faced with the potential for disaster, violence, and catastrophe, instead spent three days with music and peace. Yasgur:
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.
The Academy Award-winning documentary Woodstock (1970) captures the whole thing, with an accompanying soundtrack album that remains a bestseller. The film was directed by Michael Wadleigh and edited by Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese. The promoters of the festival went to Warner Bros. and asked for money to film the festival. Against the express wishes of other studio executives, Fred Weintraub put his job on the line and gave them $100,000 for the film to be made. Woodstock helped to save Warner Bros. at a time when the company was on the verge of closing down.
Joni Mitchell‘s song Woodstock, which commemorates the event, became a major hit for Mitchell and for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Mitchell was originally going to perform at Woodstock, but she canceled at the urging of her manager for the chance to appear on The Dick Cavett Show.
Taking Woodstock (2009), directed and produced by Ang Lee, is about the germ of the idea that led to the festival and the effort to produce and promote it. Lee rented the entire town of New Lebanon to shoot the film. It stars Demetri Martin, cutie pie Jonathan Groff and Imelda Staunton. It’s a fun film that captures the era just right.
Yasgur refused to lease his farm for a 1970 version of the festival,. Yasgur:
As far as I know, I’m going back to running a dairy farm.
He left this world in 1973.
The outraged people of Bethel voted out the city supervisor in November 1969 because of his role in bringing the festival to the town. NY State and Bethel passed mass gathering laws to prevent any more Woodstock style events from ever being produced again. More than 80 lawsuits by the locals were filed against Woodstock Ventures, the promoters of the festival. The documentary film financed the settlements and paid off the $1.4 million of debt the promoters had incurred from the festival.
In 1984, at the original festival site, the land owners put up a monument marked “Peace and Music”. But, they tried to prevent people from visiting the site by spreading chicken manure. During one anniversary, tractors and state police cars formed roadblocks. 20,000 people showed up in 1989 for an impromptu 20th anniversary celebration. In 1997, a community group put up a welcome sign for visitors. Bethel now embraces the memory of The Woodstock Festival, welcoming tourists and selling merchandise and souvenirs.
In 1996, the site, plus 1,400 acres surrounding it, were purchased for the new Bethel Woods Center For The Arts. It opened in July 2006, with a performance by the New York Philharmonic. On this day, August 15, in 2006, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performed there before 16,000 people, 37 years after their performance at Woodstock.
The ashes of Richie Havens were scattered across the site on August 15, 2013.
I never wished to have been present at Woodstock. That sort of event has never been my thing. I only like large gatherings of people if they are there to see me. I cannot fathom the reason some of my friends pack up each year to head to a dusty party in the Nevada desert called Burning Man. But, go ahead, kids; feel like Stardust. Be Golden.