By RANDAL C. HILL
Fifty years ago, in an atmosphere redolent of cow manure and marijuana smoke, an estimated half-million young people came together on the hillside of a dairy farm in upstate New York.
The historic Woodstock concert, August 15–18, 1969, became the watershed moment of the late-1960s counterculture generation, offering attendees a brief respite from the tumult of the day: political assassinations, inner-city race riots, anti-war demonstrations, Chappaquiddick, Charles Manson, and a nonsensical foreign war. The future, no doubt,
felt bleak and looked hopeless.
Translation: It was time to party!
The architects of the Woodstock music festival 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. Certainly, a concert of prodigious proportions featuring the current crème de la crème of the rock-music world reap huge profits, they reasoned.
In January of 1969, the foursome named their
fledgling company Woodstock Ventures, the title referencing the anticipated site of Woodstock, which was Lang’s artsy adopted hometown 108 miles north of the Big Apple.
But Woodstock locals gave a thumbs-down to the idea of a horde of loud, 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 Wallkill locals were assured that the Woodstock concert would be a low key, folksy 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, retaining the high-status name of the initially intended town. Starting with Creedence Clearwater Revival,
top rock acts of the day were soon signed at top dollar.
However, Wallkill folks also began to get cold feet, and a hastily organized zoning board 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 work out.
Given a tip from a Realtor friend, Lang journeyed
33 miles west and met with an open-minded Bethel 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 next to a crystal clear lake. It would prove to be the ultimate setting for an expansive stage and what would become the most famous music concert ever.
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 pushed over the
rickety fences 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, a shortage of portable toilets, and coping with rivers of mud. Drug usage was rampant, yes, but many concertgoers had just come to enjoy the world’s largest unchaperoned party and groove on the music.
And what music it was! Most of the 32 performing acts that August weekend reflected the quintessence of late-1960s rock. Established megastars included Creedence, Sly and the Family Stone, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and such rising artists as Santana, Melanie, Joe Cocker, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and
The entertainment commenced on a Friday
afternoon with folkie Ritchie Havens and ended the following Monday morning (due to Sunday night rain) with the legendary Jimi Hendrix.
In the book Woodstock Revisited, musician/
songwriter/producer Sandy McKnight, 16 at the
time, recalled feeling a certain sadness creep into the euphoria as final artist Hendrix performed his stellar 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 the Altamont concert 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.