In the 1960s the small town of Woodstock, New York, 90 miles north of New York City, nourished a small but growing community of folk musicians, including Bob Dylan, the Band, Tim Hardin, and John Sebastian. In 1969 Michael Lang, a young entrepreneur who had promoted the Miami Pop Festival the previous year, decided to open a recording studio for the burgeoning music community that would double as a woodland retreat for recording artists from New York City. Lang pitched his idea to Artie Kornfeld, a young executive at Capitol Records, and Joel Rosenman and John Roberts, two young entrepreneurs interested in unconventional business propositions. Together they formed a corporation, Woodstock Ventures, to create the studio and retreat center. They also decided to organize a Woodstock Music and Arts Fair to promote the opening of the studio.
As their festival plans grew more ambitious, the group realized that the small town could not accommodate such a festival, and a site in Wallkill, in the neighboring county, was chosen for the three-day-weekend event. Throughout the summer of 1969, the project snowballed as more and more artists were signed to perform. According to the plan, day one would feature folk-rock artists, day two would spotlight the burgeoning San Francisco scene, and day three would be saved for the hottest acts. By the time Jimi Hendrix agreed to play for $50,000, many of the foremost American bands had already signed on, as well as such major British groups as the Who and Ten Years After. The music soon eclipsed all other aspects of the festival, including the arts fair (which has been effectively forgotten) and the recording studio (which never materialized).
BRASS TACKS AND BETRAYALS
Woodstock Ventures spared no expense to cultivate a hip, counterculture image for their celebration of peace and music. They advertised the event through the underground press—which was rapidly mushrooming into a national network of antiestablishment groups—spreading the word that this was the happening event of the summer. Although they chose the Wallkill site for its rustic scenery and laid-back atmosphere, the name Woodstock was retained to convey the bucolic theme of the weekend. Throughout 1968 and 1969 the country-rock movement spearheaded by Dylan, the Band, and others reflected an emerging pastoral craze: “getting back to nature.” Such films as Easy Rider (1969), which depicted hippies cruising across the country, living off the land (more or less), and visiting communes, celebrated the lure of the countryside.
Woodstock Ventures hired the Hog Farm, a New Mexico hippie commune, to prepare the festival campgrounds and maintain a free kitchen. The commune also set up a bad-trip shelter called the Big Pink for the drug freak-outs that were expected. An impromptu organization called Food for Love was engaged to run concession booths. The organizers enlisted Wes Pomeroy, renowned for his enlightened attitude toward youth and crowd control, as chief of security. Pomeroy recruited a nonaggressive, nonuniformed, unarmed security team—the “Peace Service Corps”—to unobtrusively dissuade undesirable behavior, such as riots, vandalism, and theft, while overlooking nonviolent activities, including drugs, sex, and nudity. Unfortunately, almost all of these suppliers eventually betrayed Woodstock Ventures.
A month before the scheduled weekend, the town of Wallkill voted to oust the festival. The organizers found a new site about 40 miles west in Bethel, New York, where they were able to overcome a lesser amount of resistance. Soon, they began to run into more alarming conflicts. The radical activist and showman Abbie Hoffman, a self-styled “cultural revolutionary” Page 421 | Top of Articlewho had been charged (along with the rest of the Chicago Seven) with inciting riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, threatened to sabotage the festival by using his influence over the underground press if Woodstock Ventures did not pay him $50,000. He claimed that the promoters were growing rich off the people and concluded that Woodstock should return the money by financing his own political mission, including his mounting legal debts. Hoffman also threatened to put acid in the water. The Woodstock promoters knew that Hoffman had the audacity and the power to arouse antiestablishment animosity toward the festival, so they paid him $10,000 to appease him. Many radical papers nevertheless portrayed Woodstock as a capitalist venture promoted by “straights” trying to profit from “the people.”
Betrayals grew more frequent as the weekend approached. The day before the festival, the New York City police commissioner refused his officers permission to work at Woodstock. The officers then offered their services anonymously for extortionate wages. Thousands of tickets were sold, but since the gates were not built in time, droves of young people began streaming in days before the show. By Friday the promoters, having no way to collect tickets, had to declare Woodstock a free concert. Meanwhile, cars, vans, delivery vehicles, and masses of concertgoers clogged several miles of the New York State Thruway through the weekend, while acres of land rented for parking remained empty. State troopers arrested hippies on their way to the show, then danced naked on their patrol cars after drinking water laced with acid. Tons of supplies, and even some musicians, were stuck in the traffic jam and never made it to the site.
At the festival itself, the Hog Farm was proving to be opportunistic and irresponsible, stealing watches and wallets from the Woodstock staff and clashing with anyone they perceived as establishmentarian, including the medical staff. Food for Love threatened to quit during the festival, reneging on their prepaid $75,000 contract. A 40-foot trailer full of hot dogs rotted when refrigeration fuel ran out, and thousands of people endured the stench of rancid food while they went hungry. A rumor arose that Woodstock Ventures was bankrupt, and many bands refused to perform unless they were paid ahead in cash. Even the Grateful Dead, the most anticommercial band on the scene, demanded their fee, although two years earlier they had played for free outside the Monterey Pop Festival. Even Mother Nature refused to cooperate, assailing her hippie worshippers with two rainstorms that steeped the throng of 500,000 in mud. The revolving stage, designed to eliminate intermissions between acts, was the biggest and most expensive ever built, but once the equipment was loaded onto it, it refused to revolve (the only time it budged was when the mudslide hit it). Out in woods near the campgrounds a “pharmacy district” supplied illegal drugs.
Woodstock was officially pronounced a disaster; a monument to faulty planning; a testament to the limitations and hypocrisies of hippie idealism; and a nightmare of absurdities, ironies, and incongruities. None of the pressures, however—bad press, bad weather, bad drug trips, technical problems, human error and duplicity—was enough to snuff the spirit of the crowd that had assembled for three days of peace and music. The most common feeling among all parties, including producers, musicians, audience, town, and nation, was the sense of history in the making. The festival had the largest group of young people ever gathered, drew the greatest roster of rock and folk musicians ever assembled, and became the defining moment of a generation. Initial media response tended toward panic, reporting the calamitous aspects of the event, but when riots failed to flare up, they recanted, reporting that Woodstock was a mass epiphany of goodwill and communal sharing.
On Sunday Max Yasgur, the dairy farmer who rented his 600 acres to the festival, took the stage and complimented the crowd, observing that the festival proved that “half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music, and have nothing BUT fun and music.” The conspicuous absence Yasgur alluded to was violence. Rock festivals had become increasingly frequent since the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, each one bigger and more riotous than the last. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had also added a feeling of dread to all large gatherings. Woodstock promised nothing but disaster, then passed without a single act of violence; the relief that swept over the watching nation was almost intoxicating. It seemed like a miracle.
Many commentators have since claimed that peace and goodwill arose at the event not in spite of disaster but because of it: that the hunger, rain, mud, and unserviced toilets conspired to create an adversity against which people could unite and bond. In “The Woodstock Wars,” an article in the New Yorker magazine, Hal Espen observed that the communal spirit of the festival was typical of the group psychology of disasters: “What takes hold at the time is a humbling sense of togetherness … with those who shared the experience. What takes hold later is a privileged sense of apartness … from those who didn't.” Espen explained that the memory of Woodstock led a generation to lay claim to “an epic and heroic youth culture” that subsequent generations could not match. Those who had been baby boomers now dubbed themselves “Woodstock Nation,” an independent and enlightened subculture. Immediately after the concert Hoffman wrote a book of editorials (Woodstock Nation) contrasting the newly united masses with the “Pig Nation” of mainstream America.
It was not just the audience of hippies who bonded together in the face of adversity; community and nation joined in coming to their aid. The Red Cross, Girl Scouts, and Boy Scouts all donated food and supplies to the starving masses of concertgoers. Even local townspeople pardoned the havoc wrought upon their town and made sandwiches for the infiltrators. The youths who had fled from their parents in pursuit of utopian visions welcomed assistance from the very establishment that Woodstock symbolically rejected. They ultimately appreciated that these groups helped maintain the efficiency that got them out of their jam.
On the other side, many Bethel residents commented with surprise on the hippies' politeness and peaceful behavior. Mainstream America saw Yasgur's observation borne out: rock and violence were not inseparable, and perhaps the peace the hippies advocated was not such a delusion after all. In 1972 the Woodstock Nation repaid the compliment by nominating Yasgur for president of the United States.
When the initial euphoria wore off, it became common to view Woodstock not as the beginning of a new era but as an ending, Page 422 | Top of Articlethe high-water mark of the 1960s; at that point hippie freakdom reached critical mass and dissipated into the mainstream, and the establishment co-opted the diluted attitudes and fashions into a commodity. Much of the pride and idealism of the Woodstock Nation crumbled in the following years as their culture suffered devastating casualties. In December 1969 a spectator at the Rolling Stones' free concert at Altamont, California, was stabbed. The next year brought the student massacres at Kent State University, the breakup of the Beatles, and the deaths of Hendrix and Janis Joplin. In 1971 Jim Morrison died and Bill Graham closed down New York City's Fillmore Concert Halls; the following year Richard Nixon was reelected. Such defeats hastened the trend toward escapism. Rock and roll detoured into country music, singer/songwriters became apolitical, and youthful rebellion sank into the quagmire of narcissistic spiritual odysseys that signaled the “me decade.”
In the wake of disillusionment, many claimed that the music was the most significant aspect of Woodstock and the only legacy successfully preserved. The documentary, Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music (1970), was enormously popular, providing vicarious excitement for the millions who were not there. Using split-screen technology to simulate the excitement of a live performance, the film won an Oscar for Best Documentary. The three-album soundtrack, Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More (1970), also awoke nostalgia for the swiftly vanishing epoch. The arrangement of the music was jumbled, however, and many performers were omitted. A two-album sequel, Woodstock Two (1971), provided more songs by the artists already favored, but there were still notable absences.
In the minds of others, the recordings' inadequacies proved that the music was only a minor part of an essentially spiritual event that could not be captured on vinyl. Joplin and the Grateful Dead, emblems of the youth culture that had sprouted in San Francisco, reportedly delivered lackluster performances at the festival, while then-unknown acts such as Santana and Joe Cocker were among the highlights. A privileged few recall Joan Baez's performance at the free stage as a peak moment. The free stage had been built outside the festival fence so that those who did not have tickets could enjoy amateur bands and open mic. Even after the whole festival was declared free and the fence was torn down, however, the ever-valiant Baez, surveying the crowd of a half million people, perceived that the free stage would still be useful for entertaining those who could not get close to the main stage. She played to a fringe audience for forty minutes until her manager summoned her to her scheduled gig at the main stage. This touching moment was not captured on film or recorded.
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS LATER
In 1994 the twenty-fifth anniversary of Woodstock inspired a four-CD box set that includes most of the festival's performers and preserves the original chronological order (still omitting some performers, such as Ravi Shankar and the Incredible String Band, who have yet to appear on any Woodstock recording). The documentary was rereleased on video as a “Director's Cut” package, offering forty minutes of additional footage of Hendrix, Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane. A CD-ROM also appeared, boasting music, film clips, lyrics, hypertext biographies, and other features.
The most spectacular product of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration was the Woodstock Two festival in Saugerties, New York. Plans for sequels had been brewing since 1970, but the original producers were in legal and emotional disarray. The occasion of the tenth anniversary in 1979 motivated a follow-up concert in New York City with many of the original players, but nostalgia for 1960s flower-power was at a low ebb, and the event was a disappointment. By the late 1980s and 1990s, however, reminiscences had been rekindled, and in 1994 the offspring of Woodstock Nation members were ready to prove that they could party like their parents.
Woodstock Two was a three-day music festival with a ticket price of $135 (the original Woodstock passes had sold for $18). It, too, generated a movie and soundtrack, and it was broadcast on pay-per-view television. The concert mainly featured popular 1990s bands, including the Cranberries and Green Day, with a few older bands such as Aerosmith. Dylan, the Woodstock resident who had missed the original festival, finally performed. Woodstock alumni Cocker and Crosby, Stills, and Nash joined in.
MONEY VERSUS POLITICS
Woodstock Two also mixed rock and advertising, charging corporations hefty fees for billboard space. Pearl Jam, Neil Young, and others refused to participate for this reason. The promoters rejected alcohol and tobacco sponsors, however, diverging from the pharmaceutical anarchy of the original Woodstock. The advertising slogan for the pay-per-view option was one of the worst ever conceived: “All you have to do to change the world is change the channel.” The allusion was to John Lennon's line from the Beatles song, “Revolution” (1968), “We all want to change the world.”
The ineptly chosen phrase did not necessarily represent the youth of the 1990s, however, who had lived through a revolution in the status of women, blacks, and gays. And the original Woodstock event did not necessarily reflect the political engagement associated with the 1960s. Beyond a few protest songs, Woodstock had been a largely apolitical event; when Hoffman attempted to make a speech about marijuana reform, Pete Townshend swatted him off the stage. Many forget that the original Woodstock was quite commercial, as Hoffman and others had observed at the time. Another common myth is that Woodstock was intended to be a free concert. Espen noted in the New Yorker that Woodstock is nostalgically eulogized as anticommercial, when in fact it was simply unsuccessfully commercial. Many of the innovations of Woodstock Two, such as the pay-per-view option, reflect improved technology and better planning as opposed to a greater emphasis on capitalism.
The Woodstock Two promoters, under the aegis of Woodstock Ventures (who retained the rights to the name), lost their credibility not through their commercialism but by suing a simultaneous festival called Bethel ′94 planned at the original Woodstock site. The event was scheduled to include such veterans as Melanie, Country Joe McDonald, and Richie Havens. Woodstock Ventures, thwarted and sued by many during the first Woodstock, launched an $80 million lawsuit to prevent Bethel ′94 from happening. Twelve thousand attended anyway, and Arlo Guthrie and others gave free impromptu performances. The litigation against Bethel ′94 robbed Woodstock Two of any vestige of countercultural currency.
In 1997 the original Woodstock site was sold to create the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which kicked off with a concert Page 423 | Top of Articleby Woodstock alumni Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young in 2006. A museum dedicated to the festival opened there in 2008. On the festival's thirtieth anniversary, Rome, New York, hosted Woodstock ′99, a weekend concert featuring a mix of rap and metal groups. The event was marked by violence, ending abruptly when concertgoers began setting fires, hurling bottles, and destroying the stage. The fortieth anniversary in 2009 brought a flood of books, a rerelease of the documentary on DVD, the feature film Taking Woodstock (directed by Ang Lee), and a three-CD set of the original music. Individual artists, such as Cocker, released CDs of their own performances at the festival. Although there was no huge festival, Bethel was a stop on the 2009 “Heroes of Woodstock” tour composed of groups such as Jefferson Starship, Ten Years After, and Canned Heat—albeit with few of the original members still onboard—as well as tribute groups.
Besides the dozens of histories and memoirs, Woodstock has inspired novels, stories, and songs. Its most famous anthem is Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's version of “Woodstock” from their album Déja Vu (1970). Joni Mitchell wrote the song and recorded it on her album Ladies of the Canyon (1970). A folk ballad, the song beautifully conveys the spirit—as well as the ironies—of the Woodstock Nation, with its theme of pastoral escape, the gathering of “half a million strong,” the haunting subtext of Vietnam, and the poignantly passive dream of peace. Woodstock Ventures may retain its legal rights, but the memory of Woodstock belongs to the world, irrevocably embedded in American culture.
SEE ALSO: Academy Awards ; Advertising ; Aerosmith ; Altamont ; Alternative Press ; Baby Boomers ; Baez, Joan ; The Beatles ; Billboards ; Boy Scouts of America ; The Chicago Seven ; Compact Discs ; Consumerism ; Country Music ; Crosby, Stills, and Nash ; Dylan, Bob ; Easy Rider ; Folk Music ; Generation X ; Girl Scouts ; Graham, Bill ; The Grateful Dead ; Green Day ; Guthrie, Arlo ; Heavy Metal ; Hendrix, Jimi ; Hippies ; Hoffman, Abbie ; Jefferson Airplane/Starship ; Joplin, Janis ; Kent State Massacre ; King, Martin Luther, Jr. ; Lennon, John ; LSD ; Marijuana ; Mitchell, Joni ; The New Yorker ; Pearl Jam ; Pop Music ; Rap ; Rock and Roll ; The Rolling Stones ; Santana ; Television ; Vietnam ; The Who ; Young, Neil .
Espen, Hal. “The Woodstock Wars.” New Yorker, August 15, 1994, 70–74.
Evans, Mike, and Paul Kingsbury, eds. Woodstock: Three Days that Rocked the World. New York: Sterling, 2009.
Hoffman, Abbie. Woodstock Nation. New York: Random House, 1969.
Lang, Michael, and Holly George-Warren. The Road to Woodstock. New York: Ecco, 2009.
Makower, Joel. Woodstock: The Oral History, 40th anniversary ed. Albany, NY: Excelsior Editions/State University of New York Press, 2009.
Pareles, Jon. “A Moment of Muddy Grace.” New York Times, August 9, 2009, 1(L).
Reynolds, Susan. Woodstock Revisited: 50 Far Out, Groovy, Peace-Loving, Flashback-Inducing Stories from Those Who Were There. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2009.
Spitz, Bob. Barefoot in Babylon: The Creation of the Woodstock Music Festival, 1969, rev. ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.