A certain song said, “By the time we got to Woodstock/We were half a million strong.” By last count 24,794,612 aging Baby Boomers have claimed at one time or another to be in attendance at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair which opened on August 15, 1969 on Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York.
I am not one of them. I was working a third shift printing daily employment listing for Illinois Unemployment Insurance offices and was helping organize on the People’s Park Project at Halstead and Armitage as a new member of the Chicago Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Of course, when I found out what I had missed, I, too, wished I had been there.
Two rich young guys, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman took out ads in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal which read, “Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions.” It attracted the attention of Michael Lang and Artie Kornfield who came up with an idea to build a world class recording studio in rustic Woodstock, New York were artists like Bob Dylan and The Band were already living. As discussions evolved, the idea of a festival to promote the studio and maybe featuring some of those local luminaries began to emerge.
As envisioned it was a much more modest event than it became. But, in a series of legendary steps and missteps it began evolving into something unique. After experiencing difficulty recruiting top acts, Creedence Clearwater Revival agreed to play for $10,000—a steep fee but one which signaled to other top acts that the festival would be worth doing. Leading rock and roll acts, including the cream of the San Francisco psychedelic scene and one huge British Invasion group, The Who, were joined by folk music legends like Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie.
Planned as a for-profit program, tickets went on sale in New York City area record stores and by mail for $18 a day or $24 for all three—fairly steep prices at a time when top concert tickets sold for less than $5 at most venues. But sales were brisk. 186,000 were sold in advance and the promoters began to believe that as many as 200,000 would attend. They could foresee a nice profit.
This, however, far exceeded the 50,000 that promoters had told officials in Wallkill, where they had leased land in an industrial park. Alarmed local residents protested voraciously. The town board voted in mid July to require that gatherings of more than 5,000 require a permit and then officially denied the organizers’ application on the ground that port-a-potties would not meet local code.
Scrambling to find an alternative, promoters found Bethel motel owner Elliot Tiber who had a permit already for another event and who offered the use of 15 acres behind his business. A local real estate agent recommended Max Yasgur, whose farm abutted Tiber’s property and with a gently sloping hillside that would make a natural amphitheater for a stage set up at the bottom in front of a pond.
The Bethel Town Clerk and Supervisor approved permits for the event, but the board refused to issue them and ordered the clerk to post stop work notices on the site. But it was too late, despite local alarm, early arrivals began coming into the area more than a week in advance.
The underground press and progressive rock radio stations were spreading the word far and wide. Everyone realized that far more people than expected would show up. The organizers had to decide to try and reinforce fencing at the site to maintain a ticket for admission policy or put their resources into finishing the large and elaborate stage and sound systems which were behind schedule. They decided that fencing and security could lead to violence, as could the cancelation of the festival because the stage was not ready. They opted for the stage.
By August 14 roads to Bethel were becoming clogged and crowds thick. The fence was cut. Like it or not Woodstock would be a free festival.
The enormous crowds and the traffic snarls became a media event by themselves as network TV ran footage from helicopters of the hoards of “Hippies” descending on the rural village. Rather than discourage people, reports set even more on the road to join in what was being recognized as something astonishing.
Torrential rains before and during the concert transformed the fields to seas of mud. Conventional camping became impossible. Shortages of food and water became critical. The Hog Farm commune set up a free feed operation featuring brown rice and some vegetables. Local residents took pity on the bedraggled hippies and made thousands of peanut butter sandwiches to be handed out.
There was no shortage of drugs. Marijuana smoke hung like a haze over the crowd and LSD, including the famous bad brown acid that Hog Farmers warned about from the stage, was plentiful. So, evidently was heroin, which resulted in at least one fatal overdose.
Despite the hardship, the crowd remained peaceful and legendarily mellow. From the first act, Richie Havens, to the last, an almost unknown guitarist named Jimi Hendrix, the music was spectacular. Most of those in attendance even remember it, at least after their memories were refreshed by the landmark 1970 film directed by Michael Wadleigh and edited by Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese, or by the multi-disc record albums that were released.
Joni Mitchell, who canceled her appearance because her manager wanted her to keep her commitment to do the Dick Cavett Show, made up for it by penning a memorial ditty which became an anthem hit for Crosby, Stills and Nash. That super group debuted at Woodstock.
The festival also boosted the careers of several other participants, none more so than Hendrix, who vaulted overnight to super star status.
As for the organizers, they lost their shirts, at least at first. They were deluged by unpaid bills and over 80 law suits. Eventually revenue from the movie paid off all debts, but none of the original partners, now feuding among themselves, made any money.
They, like their event, however, became legendary—even heroes—in later books and in the interesting 2008 film Taking Woodstock by Taiwanese director Ang Lee.