There is a saying that if you remember the 60’s you weren’t really there. 😀 Well since I didn’t dabble in any drugs at the time my memory is a bit clearer than many others of that time. August 16th,17th and 18th is the 46th anniversary of the now famous Woodstock Music Festival in upstate Woodstock, New York. There are 500,000 stories from there. Mine is one of them.
I was going to college in Minnesota in 1969 and my friend Ed was going to Boston University then. We both were boyhood friends from New Jersey. He wrote me a letter saying they were having a big concert in August that was going to be on a Saturday and Sunday. They were having such big names as The Who, Grateful Dead , Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix and others. He said he figured I wanted to go so he ordered tickets for both of us and that I owed him $16 for both days.
I was delighted and shocked at the same time as though that doesn’t seem like much today, back in those days $16 was a lot for poor college kids, but I agreed and said I would pay him which I did.
The concert was originally planned for the town of White Lake, but the town’s people objected to it so it was moved up to an area known as Woodstock in Bethel, N.Y.
During the summer, the promoters added another day Friday which would be a folk day featuring such folksingers as Ritchie Havens, Joan Baez, Melanie, Tim Hardin and Arlo Guthrie. I was working on a large county newspaper in Paterson, N.J. called the Paterson Evening News. There were three other reporters besides myself who all had tickets to go to Woodstock. We knew the editor wouldn’t give us all the same time off so we devised a plan to each go in on different days and ask him for those days off in different ways. He never realized he was giving us all the same time off. 😀
I arranged for two of the reporters. Art and Mark, to take Ed and me with them and they agreed. I had one tent and they had another. The promotions said there would be plenty of food sold by vendors there so we didn’t bring any food or at least a minimum of food. I had a canteen of water and Ed had some graham crackers.
We left on Thursday night and the New York Thruway was filled up. In the movie Arlo Guthrie says it was closed, but it never did close. We finally made it to a farm area and a number of people pulled into the area and pitched their tents, us included. Mark and Art pitched theirs in back of Ed and me. You can imagine what the farmers thought when they woke up the next morning to see all these tents and cars on their property.
Friday morning we woke up to the sound of a bugle playing revellie. I was told by one of the campers that it was from a Jewish kids camp as there were many of them there in the Catskills. We walked over to the site which was donated by the late farmer Max Yasgur. It was in a natural bowl shaped area with the stage at the bottom so everyone could sit on the side on the ground and face the stage. It was a good idea.
As Ed and I were sitting there they announced that anyone who didn’t have a ticket in the bowl area to go buy a ticket at the few ticket stands that were around. I said to Ed that this is strange because how can they tell who has a ticket and who doesn’t but we went over and brought a $7 ticket for that day which I still have to this day along with the other two.
Ed recalls they said there would be plenty of food for sale, and he recalls going to a burger stand around noon on Friday and finding out they were sold out. Very little ever has been mentioned about the lack of food, which made it a lot less fun. As for water, I seem to recall there were some pumps where you could get that. But if you didn’t bring food, you were out of luck.
At 4 p.m. the concert started. Ritchie Havens was the first to come out and gave a fantastic performance on his acoustic guitar accompanied by two tabla and bongo drummers. His song “Handsome Johnny” about soldiers in every war can be heard on the soundtrack and seen in the movie. Since that time I had seen Ritchie several times all from concerts I attended always to see others and not him even though I did like him. I ended up seeing Ritchie more than any other performer in my career of going to concerts.
Following Ritchie who played for about an hour was a Maharishi who tried hard but was yelled off the stage as he tried to get everyone to say “Ari ohm.” Two guys in front of me yelled back at him, ”Yeah hurry home.” 😀
As it started to get dark, Melanie came on. The strange thing about Melanie was when she started singing her hit song, “Candles in the rain,” it started gently raining. When she stopped the rain stopped. Hmmmmm.
The rain started coming down hard and it was dark so we decided to head back to camp thinking they were going to call it off. Don’t ask me how we found our way back in the dark without a flashlight. We just followed other people. Little did we know it would go on all night and continuous thru the whole week-end non-stop.
The promoters didn’t have enough money to pay the acts who demanded cash up front so they wrote a lot of bad checks that week-end. People crashed the fences and the concert became a free concert.
Ed and I tried to get some sleep but he rain crept in under our tent. Our graham crackers were wet, but we ate them anyway. Ed remembers eating a cold can of pork and beans we probably got from Art and Mark.
The ground was pretty muddy and all the cars were firmly entrenched in the mud. However nobody panicked. Instead they made a game out of it. I’ll push your car if you push mine so everyone was pushing each other’s car out and onto the road single file and in an orderly fashion. We got home late Saturday afternoon and kept up on the news reports of it.
On Monday morning the editor of our paper was quite annoyed and called us in the office one by one saying, ”This was the biggest event in the world today and we had four reporters up there and not one of you wrote a story about it. We had to get it from UPI” (United Press International which was a wire service used at the time). I told him that we didn’t know it would turn out like that and there were no phones up there so he got one of the reporters who wasn’t with us to write up his recollections of it. He stayed the whole time until Sunday night. In the movie when you see Jimi Hendrix play the Star Spangled Banner on his guitar, it was Monday morning and he collapsed right after that.
Over the years much has been said about all the sex, drugs and nudity. Sure it went on, but the nudity was mostly in the lakes that were there, the sex was pretty much confined to tent areas and high grass areas and it wasn’t as prevalent as you hear. There were drugs like LSD and you could smell the pot in the air and they had professional doctors on hand to treat overdoses. All in all when you consider 500,000 kids getting together and having nothing but fun and music without hurting anyone that was a miracle in itself. Nobody forced any drugs on anyone or forced themselves on anyone. There were no fights, no rapes, no beatings like you hear today when large crowds gather or like when Occupy wall street beat and raped women in New York City that time. Despite the 30-minute lines for water and at least hour-long wait to use a toilet, the Woodstock Festival was a huge success.
Here is a little information I found out about after the festival:
After the Woodstock Festival
The organizers of Woodstock were dazed at the end of the Woodstock Festival. They didn’t have time to focus on the fact that they had created the most popular music event in history, for they first had to deal with their incredible debt (over $1 million) and the 70 lawsuits that had been filed against them.
To their great relief, the film of the Woodstock Festival turned into a hit movie and the profits from the movie covered a large chunk of the debt from the Festival. By the time that everything was paid off, they were still $100,000 in debt.
Check out these great legendary performances from Woodstock. 😉