40th anniversary visit to Woodstock

In August 1969, one of the most celebrated music festivals in history took place at a time when Americans were deeply divided. Over 400,000 people from across the country gathered to celebrate "Three Days of Peace and Music." The three days of legendary performances, unimaginable mud, and unforgettable experiences helped the Woodstock Music and Art Fair become a symbol of an entire generation.
I saw the original Woodstock movie in 1970 at the Gemini drive-in theater in Dallas. We sat outside on our cars - almost, but not quite - like we were at the festival. I was between semesters at UT Austin. Austin was so similar to the attitudes, music, and spirit of Woodstock, that I felt a special connection with the event in New York. In 2009 I watched the new release of the Director's Cut of the Woodstock movie. Again, I was taken back to that wonderful time of my life. But now, I was in Manhattan, 2 hours away from the site. A museum had opened a year before, so I decided to make the pilgrimage to the site and the museum. Above is the map of the new Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. It includes a new amphitheater and the Woodstock Museum.
So, Friday morning, July 3 2009, after walking the dogs I took the subway up to get my car from its garage. Then on the road. I was listening to a 1969 playlist on my iPod and drinking Starbucks coffee in my power-windowed vehicle. None of which existed in 1969. But I was trying to put myself in the mood of that era. I drove straight to the site and, instead of starting at the museum, went to the monument overlooking the stage (in the upper left corner of the map above). A bearded guy was sitting under an awning. Serving as guide/docent, he had photos from 1969 on a table and we talked about the festival. He was there and helped work at several locations. He shared great insight and pointed out the main sights to me - the stage, the performer's tent, the helipad, first aid, camping, and the food tents. I walked down into the bowl and onto the flat area where the stage was. Then I drove back up the hill to the museum. There, I enjoyed the exhibits and films, had lunch, and took more drugs (coffee).

Woodstock festival
• August 15-17, 1969
• Location: White Lake/Bethel NY, after Woodstock (venue not large enough) and Wallkill (town said no)
• Name: An Aquarian Exposition, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair
• Slogan: 3 days of peace and music
• The community was not prepared for the crowds that began arriving. By Thursday, August 14, much of the area had become an enormous traffic jam.
• The festival officially began just after 5pm on Friday, August 15, 1969, and that day's events ended shortly after 2am the next day.
• On Saturday, August 16, the festival began at noon and ended after The Who played a 24 song set that started at 3am.
• Jimi Hendrix played what many consider to be the festival highlight, on Monday, August 18, when only 35,000 people - a small fraction of the crowd - remained.
• Some residents did not embrace the crowds, yet others welcomed the visitors, supplying them with free food and water when it was apparent that Food For Love, the festival concessionaire, was not prepared to feed the massive crowd that gathered. The Hog Farm commune of New Mexico, hired to build a campsite on the grounds for attendees, opened the Free Kitchen serving macrobiotic, vegetarian meals.
• First aid at the festival was provided by the Woodstock medical crew in a field hospital located near the stage. The team tended minor accidents, food poisoning and an epidemic of cut feet since so many were going barefoot.
• Some concert goers treasured the festival as an adventure that changed their lives. Others found it nothing but a messy, dirty, disorganized debacle. But no matter what their experiences, Woodstock was undeniably unforgettable.

Museum website
Great website of photos and detailed history
• List of bands and their playlists
Aerial photos: Barry Z Levine, copyright 1969

The Museum and Visitors Center

Monument overlooking the site of the stage and the bowl seating.

Comparison shots: 1969 and 2009

Friday afternoon, August 15, 1969 and Friday afternoon, July 3, 2009.

Photos from 2009

Overlooking the stage and the seating bowl. Looking at the seating area from the site of the stage.

Photos from 1969

Three Days of Peace and Music
By Elizabeth D. Hoover, American Heritage magazine
They came on foot, hitching rides from as far away as Miami and then hiking through the rolling countryside. They came by bus. They came by car. And they all converged on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York. They kept coming even after the highways were clogged with traffic, after the alfalfa field was crammed with people shoulder to shoulder. Half a million people gathered on August 15, 1969, for what would become the most famous rock concert ever, Woodstock.

With an advertising budget of less than $200,000, the festival's organizers - all under the age of 26 and bankrolled by someone's trust fund - expected, and planned for, around 200,000 people. They were quickly overwhelmed. By the end of the first day the crowd had grown to 500,000. It dawned on the festival's organizers and the area's residents that the situation was potentially dangerous. The medical facilities were inadequate for hundreds of young people struggling with bad trips and the beginnings of a dysentery outbreak. Food and water were running out. To make matters worse, a huge storm turned the entire hillside into a mud pile.

Despite the conditions, and the music dragging hopelessly behind schedule, the audience remained remarkably well-behaved. People shared what little they had with their neighbors. After the violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago the year before, many locals were jittery about an “army of freaks" descending on their town. But the gentle demeanor of the young crowd seemed to bridge that gap. One police officer noted, “Notwithstanding their personality, their dress, and their ideas, they were and they are the most courteous, considerate, and well-behaved group of kids I have ever been in contact with." Area residents, many of whom had been charging for water the day before, let their hoses run and handed out blankets. The Air Force set up a post to airlift people to medical facilities and arranged food drops.

Meanwhile some of the biggest names in rock played on, including The Who, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Grateful Dead. There were moments of musical transcendence, including Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's performance of Suite: Judy Blue Eyes at a little after three in the morning on Monday, Joe Cocker's ecstatic rendition of With a Little Help From My Friends, and Joan Baez singing Joe Hill to a hushed crowd after dedicating her performance to her husband, who was serving time for refusing the draft. The festival was brought to a close on Monday by Jimi Hendrix, whose hyperintense Star-Spangled Banner was played to a nearly empty field as the audience filtered out to search for their cars or seek rides home.

The backers of the festival lost $2 million, but the organizers called it a success because of its peaceful atmosphere. There were two deaths, one from an overdose and one from an accident, and only a handful of arrests, a triumph given the size of the crowd. When asked about the financial shortfall, the producer Michael Lang replied, “Today is a time to think about what happened here - the youth culture came out of the alleys and the streets. This generation was brought together and showed it was beautiful."