- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
Half a century ago, in an atmosphere redolent of cow manure and marijuana smoke, 500,000 young people came together on the hillside of a farm in New York state.
The historic Woodstock concert of Aug. 15–18, 1969, became the watershed moment of the late-1960s counterculture generation and offered attendees a brief respite from political assassinations, inner-city race riots, antiwar demonstrations, Chappaquiddick, Charles Manson, a raging foreign war that made no sense, a general feeling of hopelessness, and visions of a bleak future — if any future existed.
Translation: It was time to party!
· · ·
The architects of Woodstock included idea men Michael Lang, a concert promoter, and Capitol Records VP pal Artie Kornfeld, along with trust-fund millionaires John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, who were both willing to fund Lang’s pet project: a history-making concert of prodigious proportions that would feature the current crème de la crème of the rock-music world and ensure a huge profit for the investors.
In January of 1969, the foursome named their fledgling company Woodstock Ventures, the title honoring Lang’s artsy adopted hometown 108 miles north of the Big Apple and his hoped-for site of the biggest music gathering ever.
But Woodstock locals turned thumbs down on the idea of a horde of rowdy, unwashed, long-haired hippies descending on their Norman Rockwell-style village. After required permits were denied, the four men then set their sights on the hamlet of Wallkill, 64 miles to the south.
The Wallkill locals were assured that the Woodstock concert — due to its coolness cachet, the original name was retained — would be a low-key, folky affair drawing no more than 50,000 music fans.
Given the green light, Woodstock Ventures leased the nearby 300-acre Mills Industrial Park and went to work. Beginning with Creedence Clearwater Revival, top rock acts of the day were soon signed (at top dollar, in order to secure the biggest names), and around-the-clock toil was begun on prepping the area.
However, Wallkill folks also began to get cold feet, and a hastily organized zoning board of appeals denied the necessary permits. Howls of protest from Woodstock Ventures fell on deaf ears, and the proposed concert, now only one month away, appeared to be dead in the water.
Everyone panicked except Lang, who assured his partners that everything would somehow work out. Given a tip from a realtor friend, Lang journeyed 33 miles west and met with an open-minded Bethel, New York, dairy farmer named Max Yasgur, who agreed to lease a sizeable portion of his sprawling property in nearby White Lake.
As before, Lang had pitched the idea that no more than 50,000 concertgoers would show up.
· · ·
In mid-August, a river of cars, vans, and trucks flowed into White Lake until their drivers could go no further. Many abandoned their vehicles and walked or hitched rides in cars inching toward Yasgur’s sacred grounds, a bowl-shaped cow pasture that sloped to a flat space — a perfect setting for the expansive performance stage — and next to a crystal-clear lake.
But problems were far from over for the Woodstock Ventures men. Rented portable ticket stands were never delivered, and the incoming human tsunami that weekend — which would eventually total 400,000 people — pushed over the rickety fences that had been erected around the perimeter.
After a while, Woodstock was declared a free event, which meant that Roberts and Rosenman were out about $10 million in today’s money.
In between the onstage entertainment, the concert attendees often cavorted, skinny-dipped, and made love with abandon — not always privately — as they endured stifling heat and humidity, booming thunderstorms, and howling winds, all the while gamely staving off exhaustion, thirst, hunger, and a shortage of portable toilets and coping with rivers of mud.
Drug usage was rampant, yes, but many concertgoers had come to just enjoy the world’s largest unchaperoned party and groove on the music.
And what music it was! Many of the 32 performing acts that August weekend reflected the quintessence of late-1960s rock and included established megastars of the day (Creedence, Sly and the Family Stone, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix) and such on-the-rise artists as Santana, Melanie, Joe Cocker, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
The entertainment commenced on a Friday afternoon with folkie Ritchie Havens and ended the following Monday morning — rain had delayed the Sunday-night performances by several hours — with the legendary Jimi Hendrix.
In the book Woodstock Revisited, musician/songwriter/producer Sandy McKnight, who was 16 when he attended the event, recalled years later feeling a certain sadness creep into the euphoria that he felt as he sat in thrall as final artist Hendrix performed his stellar “The Star-Spangled Banner” for a sleep-deprived audience that had dwindled to about 35,000.
“We knew, as we listened, that it was over,” says McKnight. “We’d made history and ‘come together,’ but we also understood that it could never happen again. Soon there’d be Altamont and Kent State and Watergate and disco. Jimi and Janis and Jim [Morrison] would all die shortly thereafter, as if they knew it was all over too.
“But I also felt joy that misty morning. I knew I’d experienced something extraordinary and unique … I had shared a utopia with my brothers and sisters for a brief moment in time.”
Visitors to Yasgur’s farm that summer weekend then began their inexorable march to adulthood, with many “rebels” eventually swapping their VW buses for sensible sedans, free love for marriage vows, spare change for an IRA, and a room at home for a 30-year mortgage.
But for the 500,000 people on the cusp of maturity who had temporarily bonded as members of an elite club of sorts, it had meant three days that defined what many would come to mark later as the high point of their young — or perhaps entire — lives and one that to this day retains an almost sanctified aura.