No, I wasn’t there. Not even close. I was just a kid with no driver’s license and no car, and even if I had one, my parents would never have let me journey a hundred miles or more to that muddy field in New York State.
Still, the music festival that took place on August 15-18, 1969, in Bethel, New York, has become the stuff of legends. An estimated 400,000 music fans endured bad weather, food shortages, and poor sanitation for the privilege of experiencing such rock stars as Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Santana, Janis Joplin, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and Jimi Hendrix, whose iconic rendition of the Star Spangled Banner concluded the show.
Folk singer Joni Mitchell was supposed to appear, but when circumstances made that impossible, she regretted it, later penning the famous “Woodstock”, which became a major hit for CSNY: “By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong, and everywhere there was a song and a celebration.”
“”Goin’ Up the Country”, crooned performer Canned Heat, and that’s where the festival took place- on a dairy farm. The event was remarkably peaceful, given the number of people. There were only three recorded fatalities- all accidental. Sadly, one has to wonder if that lack of aggression would even be possible today, given the current climate of gun violence. Despite the heat, the rain, and the mud, people got along peacefully, just enjoying the music.
Kids camped out. There were long lines at the porta-potties. Some attendees were skinny dipping, and yes, smoking pot and tripping on LSD. Upon realizing that the multitudes were hungry, Wavy Gravy famously announced, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000”; then the kids were fed granola- in Dixie cups! ( Fun fact: the Ben& Jerry’s flavor was named after him.)
“Like wow, these people are really beautiful, the cops, the shopkeepers, everybody,” said an 18 year old attendee.
Later that year, Jimi Hendrix wrote a poem about his experience:
“500,000 halos outshined the mud and history. We washed and drank God’s tears of joy. And for once, and for everyone, the truth was still a mystery.”
The legacy of Woodstock has long outlived the actual event. A 1970 film, which won the Oscar for best documentary, made you feel like you were there, even if you weren’t. The success of Woodstock inspired future outside rock events, from Live Aid to Glastonbury, and the festival has come to represent the entire hippie counter-culture revolution.
A Woodstock Music and Arts Fair monument was erected on the site, which my husband, kids, and I actually did visit in 1989. A fine concert hall, the Museum at Bethel Woods, opened in 2008, complete with film and interactive displays, and hosting top performers. Standing on the site in 2009, Carlos Santana remarked, “This is ground zero for peace and love.”
In 2016, Woodstock was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Several attempts to remember Woodstock on anniversary dates have met with dubious results, the most disastrous of which occurred on the 30th anniversary in 1999. Marked by high costs and poor planning, the event tragically included sexual assaults, and in one case, bonfires broke out and vehicles were flipped and set ablaze.
And sadly, the hope for a 50th anniversary Woodstock celebration has met with failure. A variety of performers, including some of the original acts such as Santana and John Fogerty were slated to appear, but a combination of quarreling and money issues thwarted the event. According to David Crosby, “You can’t ‘magic’ one of these things into happening, and that’s what they tried to do with this.”
Perhaps the failure to commemorate the 50th anniversary only highlights our inability to return to a simpler time. Is it too late for idealism?
In Judy Collin’s words:
“We are Stardust, We are Golden….
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”