OTD in History… August 15–18, 1969, Woodstock music festival held three days of peace and music

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

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On this day in history, August 15–18, 1969, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair is held in Bethel, New York on Max Yasgur’s Dairy Farm, the outdoor festival featured 32 musical acts over three days, and was seen by an overwhelming turnout of a half a million attendees. The concert was a peaceful bastion of music attended by a generation, who protested America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The festival left a lasting cultural legacy in history, and its impact went well beyond to those who attended. Rolling Stone magazine hailed Woodstock as one of the “50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll.” A film immortalized the cultural phenomenon, which won the Best Documentary Oscar in 1970. The documentary brought the Woodstock experience to those who did not make it there embedding it into the cultural landscape. According to festival organizer Joel Rosenman, “That’s what means the most to me — the connection to one another felt by all of us who worked on the festival, all those who came to it, and the millions who couldn’t be there but were touched by it.”

Promoter Michael Lang and record producer Artie Kornfield were looking for funding to create a recording studio in the upstate New York artists’ colony of Woodstock. They contacted John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, who were building a studio in Manhattan after they saw their advertisement inviting investment proposals. Although they were uninterested in funding the studio, they were willing to fund a music festival. Lang previously promoted the two-day Miami pop festival attended by 25,000. Together they formed Woodstock Ventures in January 1969 with Kornfield and Lang clashing with Roberts and Rosenman.

The festival’s biggest obstacle was finding a location. First, they wanted to secure a location in Wallkill, New York but met resistance from the community, the same in Saugerties, New York. Eventually, Roberts and Rosenman leased an industrial Park in Wallkill only to have the town Board and zoning officials ban them. Although, they did not have a venue they had publicity from the ban. The date closing in, a realtor put them in contact with dairy farmer Max Yasgur who had a 600-acre property in Bethel. The town finally allowed a permit but the organizers were left with the task of building a stage or fences and ticket booth to ensure only those who paid entered the concert. The stage won out and the promoters took a financial loss as the festival became free but the concert would go down in history.

The first band to sign on was Creedence Clearwater Revival in April 1969, leading to other big names to attach themselves to the concert including “the Jefferson Airplane, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix.” The promoters only expected at 50,000 then 200,000 attendees but word of mouth and radio announcements. By Friday, August 15, the number swelled to 400,000 attending as the concert became free of charge, and at its peak, a half a million attended. The festival also had its problems, the promoters had not prepared for the number of attendees, and there were not enough portable toilets, food, sanitation or first aid. The rain over the weekend led to mud on the roads to get to the farm and in the fields.

On Sunday, August 17, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller wanted to call in the National Guard Roberts discouraged but could not dissuade Sullivan County from declaring a state of emergency. Despite, the conditions there few emergencies, two deaths one by insulin overdose, the other tractor rode over them while sleeping in a field, two births, and four miscarriages. After the concert, Yasgur commented on the peaceful behavior, saying, “If we join them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of America today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future…”

On the first day, Friday, August 15, the festival opened with “Folk singer and guitarist” Richie Havens, with Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez performing, with Baez six months pregnant at the time. On Saturday, August 16, the set included among others, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, the Grateful Dead. Late into the night Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, the Who and Jefferson Airplane performed.

On the final day, Sunday, August 17, Joe Cocker performed the Beatles song “With A Little Help From My Friends.” A thunderstorm disrupted Sunday’s schedule, for three hours. The evening saw The Band, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Sha Na Na. In the early morning hours of Monday, August 18, the concert finale by Jimi Hendrix and Gypsy Sun & Rainbows. By the morning, many had already left, there fewer than 200,000 in attendance some say the numbers were as low as 30,000. Towards the end of his set, he performed as psychedelic electric guitar rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” considered “part of the sixties Zeitgeist.”

The media coverage of the festival was not kind, as the news was against the hippies attending and performing. The New York Daily News had headlines such as “Traffic Uptight at Hippiefest” and “Hippies Mired in a Sea of Mud.” The New York Times called it a “Nightmare in the Catskills,” with reports coming out of the festival media coverage became less negative. New York Times reporter Barnard Collier rebelled against his editors, who wanted negative coverage of the event, he won out.

As we are nearing the 50th anniversary of the festival, Woodstock cemented itself “as the festival that defined a generation,” and has been immortalized, in film, albums, books and every type of tribute in between. Kornfield had an idea to film the festival and Fred Weintraub at Warners Brothers gave him a chance and the money to finance it. The film released in 1970 was directed “by Michael Wadleigh and edited by Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese.” The documentary looked at the music, the hippies, and the townspeople; it was a success and won the 1970 Academy Award for Documentary Feature. Two soundtracks were also released, Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More and then a year later Woodstock 2.

A plaque at Yasgur’s farm site memorializes the festival. Alan Gerry bought some of the area around the original concert site and built the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. In 1994, the promoters put on a 25th-anniversary festival that featured some of the artists from the original festival and contemporary alternative rock artists. Another anniversary festival in 1999 was too commercial and ended in riots and fires at the festival site. Still, Lang is considering a 50th-anniversary concert in 2019.

The festival had a cultural and political impact, and its myth has only grown in the nearly 50 years since. Jon Pareles writing in the New York Times article entitled, Woodstock: A Moment of Muddy Grace for the 40th anniversary says instead of the protest and riots that surrounding youth culture in the late 1960s, it spoke of a generation, at its best. Pareles recounted, “Seemingly within minutes after it ended Woodstock was the stuff of legend: a spirit, a nation, an ideal, amorphous but vivid, with an Oscar-winning documentary film, the 1970 “Woodstock,” to prove it wasn’t all a hallucination.” He describes it as “sloppy, chaotic, bewildering, drenched, uncertain, sometimes excruciating, sometimes ecstatic.’ For Pareles “What [Woodstock] proved — that for at least one weekend, hippies meant what they said about peace and love — was fleeting and all too innocent…. But 40 years later the sensation lingers.”

In 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo named Bethel Woods Arts Center National Register of Historic Places calling Woodstock, a “pivotal moment in both New York and American history.” New York disk jockey Pete Fornatale in his book Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock expressed, “Woodstock was, without question, the high-water mark of the ’60s youth revolution — musically, politically, and socially… Without initially intending to, Woodstock made a statement. It became a symbol for all the changes that bubbled up during the first half of the American ’60s and boiled over during the second half.” (Fornatale, 15–16) Nearly 50 years later Woodstock is no longer the counterculture’s music festival complete with hippies, anti-war music, drugs, love and communal feel, Woodstock is a defining moment in social history as Michael Lang wrote in his memoir, The Road to Woodstock, “Woodstock came to symbolize our solidarity” and “one of the few instances in history… when joy became big news.” (Lang, 18)

SOURCES AND READ MORE

Lang, Michael, and Holly George-Warren. The Road to Woodstock. New York: Ecco, 2009.

Fornatale, Pete. Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock. New York, NY: Touchstone, 2009.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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