Woodstock started out as just a big bash and ended as a once-in-a-life-time occurrence. The original Woodstock-goers share a bond and uniqueness that will be hard, if not impossible, for anyone to ever reproduce. Who started such a party? Why was it started? Did the promoters believe it would turn out quite like it did? What was the real Woodstock experience actually like?
Four very young and very different men sponsored Woodstock: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfield, and Michael Lang. John Roberts was the oldest, at age twenty-six. Being heir to a drugstore and toothpaste manufacturing company, he supplied most of the money. In 1966 he met Joel Rosenman, who had just graduated from Yale Law School and was playing guitar for motel lounge bands in the Long Island area. By 1967 they shared an apartment and an idea for a screwball comedy show about two guys with unlimited resources who are always getting involved with crazy innovations. While looking for new ideas to help the show, they essentially became the characters of it. Artie Kornfield was the vice president of Capital Records and had written at least thirty hit singles. Michael Lang was the youngest in the group, at age twenty-three, and was the manager of a rock group called Train. In December of 1968 he met with Kornfield to discuss a record deal.
They hit it off immediately and ended up sharing some similar ideas. One for a cultural exposition/rock concert/extravaganza and another for a recording studio set one hundred miles from Manhattan in a town called Woodstock. Their only problem was getting the money to finance it. Their lawyer recommended they talk to Roberts and Rosenman. In March of 1969, after a written proposal and a discussed budget of about half a million dollars, the four partners formed a corporation called Woodstock Ventures.
The Woodstock Ventures team planned to create the world’s largest rock n’ roll show ever. They wanted it to include the back-to-the-land spirit, yet still be easily accessible. They ended up leasing an industrial park in Wallkill, New York (about twenty miles from Woodstock, NY), from a man named Howard Mills, for ten thousand dollars. They planned the music and art festival to take place on August 15, 16, and 17, 1969. Over seventeen major acts were planned including Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Blood Sweat and Tears, and the Grateful Dead.2 The slogan, “Three Days of Peace and Music”, and the symbol, a catbird perched on a guitar, were agreed on by the four because they thought it would help break the hype about the concert creating violence. They hired Allan Markoff to be in charge of setting up the sound system, which at the amplifier’s lowest setting would cause pain to anyone within ten feet of a speaker. Since they couldn’t entice a big movie studio to film the weekend, they got Michael Wadleigh, who had a strong reputation as a cameraman and director, to do the job.
The planning was not easy and Woodstock Ventures ran into a lot of problems. Wallkill residents found out about the festival, which was estimating an attendance of about two hundred thousand people, and got scared. They did not want hippies and rioters disrupting town life. They held a meeting on July 15, 1969 and passed a town ordinance, which prohibited all events that would draw a crowd of more than three thousand people.4 Joseph Owen, the assistant town attorney of Wallkill, made clear the penalty to such a violation, a fifty-dollar fine and/or six months in prison for each officer of the corporation for each day.5 Since Woodstock Ventures had already collected nearly three hundred thousand dollars worth of tickets (the cost for a one day ticket was seven dollars, a weekend ticket cost eighteen dollars), they had no choice but to find an alternative location for the festival.
Elliot Tiber, owner of El Monaco (a resort on White Lake), read about Woodstock getting tossed out of Wallkill and realized that he had what Woodstock Ventures needed, a permit to hold a music festival in Bethel, New York. He contacted Lang who immediately came out to El Monaco. However, the resort was only about fifteen acres and they needed a lot more land than that. Tiber then thought of his friend, Max Yasgur, who owned a massive dairy farm right outside of Bethel. On July 20, 1969, Woodstock Ventures agreed to rent six hundred acres of the farm for seventy-five thousand dollars. Bethel residents started to read about Wallkill’s worries about the festival and they started to feel like the concert was pushed on them. George Cobb and other small landowners advised Bethel town attorney, Fredrick Schadt, and building inspector, Donald Clark, not to approve their permits.7 The landowners pressed charges against Woodstock Ventures to get them to increase security and sanitation levels. After several meetings and payoffs the court released a statement saying, “The differences between the parties have been resolved. The motion is withdrawn.”
At last Woodstock was really going to happen. By Thursday, August 14, 1969 there were already about twenty-five thousand people at the site and more coming. The main highway, Route 17B, was backed up nearly ten miles. Hippie groups like the Pranksters, the Hog Farmers and Wavy Gravy set up side stages, kitchens and shelters to set a precedent for people who had never camped before and to help keep things in order.9 On the morning of Friday, August 15, 1969 several hundred New York police officers, hand-picked by Woodstock Ventures and promised fifty dollars a day, showed up to help keep order throughout the weekend. However, when they arrived they received a message stating that if they participated they may be subject to departmental censure. Several stayed to work under fake names and the agreement of being paid ninety dollars a day.10 Woodstock Ventures turned to the hippie groups to help with security and handed out passwords and symbols to the most fit. Around noon the ticket-takers showed up and wanted everyone to walk out and comeback in with their tickets ready. But security found this to be ridiculous and saw the only solution to be to take down the fence so everyone could enjoy.
Drugs were as uncontrollable as the weather. The smell of burning marijuana filled the air. Acid was being passed out in Kool-Aid and other edible forms. Drugs such as heroin, opium, and mescaline were also being distributed throughout the festival. By midnight on Friday it started to rain and hardly let up the whole weekend. Nearly four hundred and fifty thousand people were packed together camping in the mud and sharing their love with each other. By Saturday morning there was already a food crisis. Local groups set up free kitchens and the National Guard had food and medical supplies flown in by helicopter. Three main medical tents were also setup to help organize the patients. There was one for people experiencing bad drug symptoms, another for people with bad cuts and abrasions (especially on the feet) and the last one was for people who burned their eyes from staring at the sun too long.
A total of thirty two groups performed during the three day Woodstock event. On Friday, August 15, 1969 at 5:07pm Richie Havens entered the stage and started the music. Following his act was Country Joe McDonald, John Sebastian, Bert Sommer, Tim Hardin, Ravi Shankar, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie, and Joan Baez. On Saturday, August 16, 1969, around 12:15pm, Quill came on, followed by Keef Hartly, Santana, Mountain, Canned Heat, The Incredible String Band, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, and Jefferson Airplane. On Sunday, August 17, 1969, Joe Crocker took the stage around 2:00pm, due to a huge storm the music had to cease and did not continue until about 7:00pm. At that time Country Joe and the Fish came on, followed by Ten Years After, The Band, Blood Sweat and Tears, Johnny Winter, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and Sha-Na-Na. Last but not least, on Monday, August 18, 1969, around 8:30am Jimi Hendrix walked on stage for an unforgettable ending. He played to a mere forty thousand people and officially ended the Woodstock Music and Art Fair at 10:30am.
Woodstock was more than just an art and music festival; it was the capstone of an era and a cultural jungle. People of all sorts attended; Vietnam vets, black militants, anti-war protestors, rednecks, anti-gays, ban drug advocates, pro-government advocates, legalize drug advocates, gays/lesbians, and anti-government advocates. Although it might have seemed to be the start of a civilization collapse, it actually became the site of a mini-nation, in which minds were open and love was free. The people who came together on August of 1969 created an unforgettable landmark of the twentieth century, which changed the world forever. Gary Proud, an original Woodstock attendee, said, “You can shake off the mud, the music will fade, but you can never forget the emotions.”