In the summer of 1969, the town of Bethel was the site of Woodstock, the largest outdoor rock-and-roll concert in American history.
Woodstock Nation Foundation
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Web site: woodstocknation.org
The 1969 gathering called Woodstock represented one of the final events for the counterculture during the contentious 1960’s. In an attempt to raise money to protest the Vietnam War and to celebrate the new social freedoms associated with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, half a million people assembled to participate in a weekend full of concerts, art shows, and political statements. The original site was eventually purchased after Max Yasgur’s death, and developers built a natural amphitheater on the land. Over the years, Bethel officials have attempted to block any attempts to reconvene another festival, but thousands still return or conduct annual pilgrimages to the farm to commemorate the importance of the original event.
The producers of the outdoor concert at Woodstock shared the same disdain for mainstream America that the counterculture displayed throughout the 1960’s. The idea was hatched by two affluent young men who were searching for investments that differed from traditional Wall Street enterprises. John Roberts, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, whose family had developed a major pharmaceutical company, and Joel Rosenman, a recent Yale Law School graduate, decided to forsake education and the law in order to invest in rock and roll. In February, 1969, they met with two other young entrepreneurs, Artie Kornfield and Michael Lang, and hatched a scheme to produce the music festival. Kornfield and Lang hoped to build a new, state-of-the-art recording studio outside New York, and Roberts and Rosenman agreed to finance its construction from the profits obtained through a promotional concert at Woodstock. They paid a local farmer, Max Yasgur, fifty thousand dollars for the use of his one-thousand-acre farm and decided to charge eighteen dollars per ticket for an anticipated crowd of fifty thousand.
The planning proved to be extremely difficult. The stage was seventy-six feet long and accommodated a sixty-foot revolving turntable that would allow performers quick access to and egress from the stage. The developers had to build elevator access and also arrange for the preparation and installation of telephone poles and electrical towers. Other concerns centered around toilet facilities, food, and medicine. Unaware that approximately half a million people would attend, the promoters were grossly underprepared and lacked the basic amenities required for an orderly event.
Members of the notorious Hog Farm Commune in New Mexico were recruited to furnish food, and they agreed to cook, provide cleanup service, and coordinate security. They shipped in tons of oats, wheat germ, honey, and onions, and fifteen hundred pounds of bulgur wheat. Organizers also erected a five-acre shopping center by the Hog Farm Commune, where hippies sold leather goods, incense, tie-dyed shirts, and other crafts. They set up a small petting zoo for the children and lined the campgrounds with pay phones, portable toilets, and medical tents. Although these supplies proved to be inadequate, hardly any disturbances occurred, as the crowd handled all the inconveniences with a commitment to peace, harmony, sharing, and togetherness.
Woodstock quickly surpassed everyone’s expectations. While the promoters expected anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 fans at the concert, approximately 500,000 attended the festivities, and some experts estimated that almost 2 million attempted to come, but traffic problems prevented them from entering Max Yasgur’s farm. The crowds became so exhaustive that the New York State Police were forced to close the interstate to the site. New York Route 17B into Bethel was backed up for over thirteen miles as people abandoned their vehicles and walked to the show. Route 17, an alternative road through the Catskill Mountains, failed to provide any relief either. By Saturday, local police considered the situation hopeless as more young people were still attempting to make it to the event. Yet despite the largest traffic jam in New York history, there were virtually no disturbances. Instead of wildly honking horns and shouting at their fellow travelers, young people camped out by the side of the road. They brought out guitars and harmonicas and held impromptu gatherings; people shared food and drink, and many openly used and shared marijuana and psychedelic drugs.
The event’s main attraction, however, was the music. Promoters managed to secure the participation of many leading rock performers, and during the summer, interest continued to swell. Local radio stations and music stores added to the hype, and newspaper ads promised concert goers that this event would celebrate and champion the causes of the counterculture and student movement. Organizers arranged performances by such leading bands as the Jefferson Airplane, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Credence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, the Band, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Advertised as the greatest mass entertainment event in history, Woodstock did not disappoint its audience.
Yet the concert began more with a whimper than a bang. When people began to arrive on Friday, they became increasingly annoyed by the lack of facilities, and some of the performances were better suited for a smaller and quieter environment. The music started on Friday night at 6:00
When the event continued on Saturday many people suddenly became aware of the enormity of the crowd. Some described it as a war zone, but for most, the festival quickly became a place where people conducted themselves freely and openly flouted restrictions that had previously been placed upon them by school administrators, police, parents, and government officials. A stream of announcements from the stage calmed the crowd’s nerves and anxieties concerning the lack of toilets, medicine, and food. One individual, Chip Monck, pacified many fears by calmly reminding the audience that half a million people would need to cooperate if the festival was to succeed. Others read press reports from the stage that predicted that the gathering would inevitably succumb to violence, anarchy, and death. Promoters challenged the audience and asked them to demonstrate to all of the world how, if left to their own devices, the counterculture was capable of generating only peace, love, and understanding. By the time the music started, people were helping others who were freaking out on bad acid trips and sharing meager food supplies. Others frolicked in the mud, skinny dipped in the ponds, and made love in the open fields. Woodstock had spontaneously evolved into a tightly knit community overnight.
The music presented on Saturday also helped. Hard-hitting performers such as Credence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin brought the audience to its feet. Santana enchanted the crowd with its mixture of Latin rhythms and rock beat. The classic San Francisco sound of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead also cast a captivating spell over the crowd. By the time Sly Stone performed his song “Higher,” the concert appeared to be a rousing success.
Yet behind the scenes, promoters were forced to solve numerous logistical problems. Performers had to be helicoptered to the stage, emergency supplies had to be obtained, some bands refused to perform until paid and organizers were forced to convince a local bank manager to fly in with cashier checks. Citizens in Bethel asked for the National Guard, but the organizers assured city officials that the appearance of troops would fuel, rather than erase, any potential catastrophes. Music was continually played to keep the audience busy, and by the third day, many wondered whether the festival would degenerate into a sea of violence.
The rain returned on Sunday. The staff was worried that electrical towers would eventually topple over in the mud and kill thousands, but once the storm subsided, the bands treated the audience to some of the most memorable performances in the history of rock and roll. Joe Cocker’s rendition of the Beatles’ song “With a Little Help from My Friends” transformed the English singer into an international star. Crosby, Stills, and Nash played for the first time before a live audience. Finally, as the concert moved into early Monday morning, Jimi Hendrix delivered his rousing version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the electric guitar. When the final curtain dropped on Woodstock, many agreed that it was the simply the most significant musical event of the decade.
The event, however, exposed some of the contradictions in the counterculture. Many young people believed that all of their efforts should be devoted to stopping the Vietnam War. Some, on the other hand, maintained that the only way that one could live freely was by dropping out of the political mainstream in order to seek personal enlightenment through drugs and communal living. One particular act underscored this dilemma. Yippie leader and activist, Abbie Hoffman, traveled to Woodstock and attempted to use the stage to champion various causes. He became increasingly frustrated by the lack of political content in the show and tried to rally support for a jailed activist while the Who was playing; Pete Townshend hit Hoffman with his guitar and drove him off the stage. The audience’s response seemed to indicate that Woodstock should remain a cultural celebration rather than a political affair.
The Woodstock staff completed the cleanup of Yasgur’s farm in an orderly fashion in less than five days, leaving only a muddy field behind. While most people in Bethel feared the worst, the festival was free of violence. Two people died from drug overdoses, but two babies were also delivered. Disturbances did not break out into the outlying areas, and little property damage was done in the community.
The town of Bethel, however, has resisted all efforts to turn this site into a historic place. They have used snow plows, dug trenches, and dumped manure in an unsuccessful attempt to keep people from flocking to the town. Yet both old hippies and curious onlookers continue to visit the festival site, and annual reunions are arranged. Nevertheless there is very little to see. A small monument, decorated with the festival’s symbol–a dove perched upon a guitar–overlooks an empty field where half a million people participated in the largest mass entertainment event in history.
There is no admission fee, nor are there tour guides. In fact, Bethel has become a piece of counterculture trivia. Most people assume that the festival took place in Woodstock, New York, located an hour north of the town. Woodstock houses a thriving industry in counterculture memorabilia with small shops hawking tie-dyed shirts, peace posters, and other miscellaneous items. There are not even road signs directing visitors to the farm, but if they travel along Route 17B to where it intersects Yasgur Road, they can look out across the open field that once held an audience that overcame almost insurmountable obstacles to participate in a festival celebrating peace, love, and understanding.
Anderson, Terry H. The Movement and the Sixties. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Details the entire history of the counterculture and places the 1969 Woodstock festival in its proper historical context. Curry, Jack. Woodstock: The Summer of Our Lives. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989. A comprehensive history of the event, containing numerous interviews with individuals who attended the concert. Curtis, Jim. Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society, 1954-1984. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987. Explores the sociological and political messages in rock music and contains an insightful chapter on the 1969 event. Hoffman, Abbie. Woodstock Nation: A Talk-Rock Album. New York: Vintage Books, 1969. Both a political memoir and a political manifesto, this text sheds light on one of the most controversial participants at the event. Makower, Joel. Woodstock: The Oral History. New York: Doubleday, 1989. An extensive collection of personal histories that also provides essential information and recollections from the festival’s promoters.