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Tuesday 9 July 2019

Woodstock anniversary

Three days of peace and music?

A formidable pop mythology surrounds the music festival on a farm that became a cultural phenomenon. But what really happened 50 years ago at Woodstock?

By Keith Blackmore

By the time we got to Woodstock

We were half a million strong

And everywhere there was song and celebration…” 

The myth of Woodstock began to form long before the last bedraggled festivalgoers had dragged themselves from the muddy fields. Consider those famous lines above. Joni Mitchell wrote them in a New York City hotel room as she watched television reports of an event taking place a hundred miles upstate.

She never got there at all, having turned down an invitation to perform so she could appear instead on The Dick Cavett Show. And the festival wasn’t actually in Woodstock anyway, but 58 miles away on Max Yasgur’s Farm, in White Lake.

Half a million strong? Even the most optimistic estimates of the audience never got above 400,000; by the time the headline act, Jimi Hendrix, closed proceedings on the Monday morning (technically the fourth day of three beginning on 15 August), fewer than 40,000 were still staring blearily at the stage, many edging towards the exit in the vain hope of beating the traffic jams.

And as far as song and celebration went, John Fogerty, leading light of Creedence Clearwater Revival, was there. “It was like a painting of a Dante scene, just bodies from hell all intertwined and asleep, covered with mud,” he recalled. CCR had been the first big act to sign up but were so angered at being given a 3am stage slot that they refused to allow their performance to be included in the film or soundtrack album that followed.

In the round: a view of Woodstock’s revellers

It will be 50 years in August since the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair presented an “Aquarian Exposition”, promising “three days of peace and music”. And in that time, Woodstock has come to seem the high point of the hippy movement, the moment when the sixties generation, “stardust” and “golden”, found their way “back to the garden”, as Mitchell so elegantly put it. She was entitled to poetic licence. The facts are more prosaic.

Bob Dylan had moved to Woodstock in 1965, drawn to its small-town obscurity and long-established artistic traditions. Such was his magnetic pull at the time, other musical giants, notably The Band and Van Morrison, soon joined him there. And in their wake came a hippy army whose stalking soon drove Dylan out of Woodstock for good. It had become “a nightmare, a place of chaos”, he was to write in his autobiography. That didn’t stop a group of entrepreneurs wanting to cash in on the association by holding a three-day festival there.

The locals did not like the sound of a hippy invasion and the town authorities wouldn’t grant a licence (claiming that the planned toilet facilities did not meet its standards). Nor would two other potential venues. The project was only saved when a dairy farmer, Max Yasgur, agreed to lease the organisers some fields for $10,000 – almost 60 miles from the town of Woodstock.

Max and Miriam Yasgur on their land – after the festival

Dylan himself declined to appear (though he took $50,000 to perform at the Isle of Wight festival two weeks later). But, even without the biggest draw, an impressive line-up of 32 acts was soon signed and tickets ($7 a day or $18 for all three) advertised. The event was meant to make a profit; Woodstock only became a free festival when hundreds of thousands of fans turned up unexpectedly, jamming the roads for miles around.

The opening act, Sweetwater, missed their slot because of the traffic. Then came the rain. The Incredible String Band refused to take the stage as it teemed down, and poor Melanie was pushed out to face the huddled masses instead. On the Sunday afternoon, a thunderstorm with 40mph winds drove Joe Cocker from the stage.

The schedule slipped so badly that major acts – including The Who, CCR , Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSN&Y), and Sly and the Family Stone – all found themselves playing in the early or even dawn hours. Hendrix, then reputedly the highest paid performer in the world, declined to go on at midnight on Sunday, and actually took to the stage the next morning. His now-famous distortion-filled version of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ exploded in air above those still standing in the early morning light as other tired revellers streamed towards the exits… and more traffic jams.

The Nash and Crosby of Crosby, Stills, & Nash, during their performance on the Sunday evening

What they left behind was a scene of muddy devastation. Two people had died in the course of the festival, one of them, a 17-year-old boy run over by a tractor as he slept in a hayfield. There were four reported miscarriages. Two babies were born, one in a traffic jam, the other after an emergency airlift to hospital. The chief medical officer, Dr William Abruzzi, recorded 4,000 injured or ill (many suffering from “bad trips”).

These were remarkably good figures in the circumstances. Sanitation was inadequate and nothing like enough food was provided for such a crowd. On the other hand, drugs – hard and soft – were available in abundance. The security staff, mostly off-duty police officers, had been asked by the promoters to look the other way if they saw people smoking marijuana. Announcements from the stage warning of bad drugs were to become famous.

There seems to have been little violence. As for sex, well, who can tell – but there were plenty of beautiful people covered in mud and not much else, along with some famous skinny-dipping in Filippini Pond to keep the news photographers happy.

Washing off the mud, 1969-style

As the sound of the last notes died away, the reputation of Woodstock very quickly began to conform to Mitchell’s romantic imagination. It wasn’t the first music festival, or the biggest, and perhaps not even the best. But it rapidly became the greatest – the one to which all others are compared. A last bloom of peace and optimism, as a tumultuous decade came to an end.

It wasn’t just Mitchell who fell under the Woodstock spell. As soon as the day after, The New York Times – which had a conflicted attitude towards this hippy gathering on its doorstep – was able to find romance amid the mud. In an otherwise admirably factual account, Barnard J Collier, the NYT correspondent wrote: “As the music wailed on into the early morning hours, more than 100 campfires  fed by fence-posts and any other wood the young people could lay their hands on  flickered around the hillside that formed a natural amphitheater for the festival.”

Hippies in the haze of Woodstock at dusk

Within a few months, CSN&Y and, in Europe, Matthews Southern Comfort had enjoyed hits with versions of Mitchell’s song. And then came the film (some of it shot by the young Martin Scorsese), which won the Oscar for best documentary, and a triple soundtrack album. The film itself soon made a cameo appearance in the cult, Charlton Heston sci-fi classic The Omega Man.

Then, in December 1969, came another free festival, Altamont, with its murder, violence and chaos. The sixties were over, literally and figuratively. But Woodstock lives on in all its hippy glory, preserved not in aspic but by the mud of Yasgur’s Farm.


Further reading