Woodstock, the most famous music festival in rock 'n' roll history, took place August 15-18, 1969. It was marketed as "three days of peace and music" from 32 of the most iconic artists in American music history. It was the embodiment of the free spirit of the 1960s.
It was more than a music festival it was a cultural landmark for an entire generation. Despite the absurd amount of people that descended on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm near the town of White Lake, it was still a surprisingly peaceful event. That’s not to say there weren't any problems... it wasn't all peace, love, and rock and roll.
Woodstock was the brainchild of band manager Michael Lang and songwriter Artie Kornfeld. The initial goal was to hold an art and music festival over the course of three days, to raise enough money to build a recording studio in Woodstock. It was just a cash grab for them, they wanted to lure the hippies in with bands and make a bunch of money off them. What they created, however, took on a life of its own and became the most famous music festival in rock history. And they didn't make a dime. They were at least $1.3m in the hole debt and it took over a decade for the backers to recoup the losses.
Tickets pre-sold for $6.00 per day of the festival and were meant to sell for $24.00 at the ‘gate’ but there was no gate. There were far too many people, the fencing and ticket booths were never installed due to lack of funding, and they had no way to keep people out anyway. Eventually, all attempts to charge entry fees was abandoned. It became a free for all.
Woodstock took place at a time where the freedoms of women and blacks were something that needed to be fought for. The war in Vietnam, civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights; the festival came to represent more than just music, it suddenly stood for the entire 1960s protest movement.
Woodstock was an expression of a generational revolt, to quote the Rolling Stones - "It's the singer, not the song". The anti-establishment cultural phenomenon that reigned throughout the 1960s may have been expressed through song but those who believed in the message were the real driving force.
The Woodstock generation were all defined either by the Vietnam War itself or the anti-war movement. They were a generation surrounded with both government propaganda and anti-war rhetoric. Most of the music tapped into the resulting frustration. It expressed disgust for war, the government, and society’s frauds. There was a sense of weariness, yet a strong refusal to conform or take any part in it. They didn't know exactly what to do or where to go, but they knew there was a lot wrong with the way things were.
Country Joe McDonald graced the stage of Woodstock with an anti-war themed performance. Widespread social tensions were coming to a head. After the JFK assassination conspiracy theories ran wild. From there formed, a deeply rooted sense of distrust for the government, unlike ever before. That distrust continued to bubble around the Nixon administration and would eventually be proven justified after the Watergate Scandal came to light. It was a tumultuous era even without all the social movements.
Rock legend Jimi Hendrix closed the festival with his famous performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A rock critic later described this in the New York Post, as 'the single greatest moment of the Sixties'.
The drugs, the promiscuous sex, it all tied in to wanting the freedom to explore alternative mindsets and lifestyles. Another concerning issue at the time of Woodstock was women's rights–which was often (strangely) celebrated with open sexuality amongst the hippie generation.
At a time when women were screaming for equality, Janis Joplin walked on the scene and became the biggest female rock star of the era. She was this powerful voice breaking new ground for women in the rock music industry. She was the embodiment of a wild child, leaving the confining community she grew up in to do things her way.
What a lot of people don’t realize, is there were children at Woodstock. There was probably a lot of children conceived at Woodstock as well. It was a generation pointing accusingly at complacent older generations, refusing to support their prejudices and their war. And their children had a front row seat to this unfolding.
The gridlock traffic and overflow of would-be concert goers began to overwhelm the surrounding towns. These were small rural communities, they weren’t prepared for the flood of people Woodstock attracted. New York governor Nelson Rockefeller came close to sending in the National Guard, and Sullivan County actually declared it a state of emergency.
Whether it be through experimentation with psychoactive drugs, meditation, or yoga, the hippie movement embraced the concept of reaching alternative mental states. When the news broke that "Sweetwater" was stuck in traffic and wouldn’t be able to open the show, new arrangements were made. The crowd was more than happy to join a massive group Yoga session led by one of the Hog Farmers.
As the storm clouds approached the wide spanning outdoor event, the crowd attempted to tap into the powers of their collective unconscious by chanting their desire for clear skies to whatever deity they thought was listening to them. The crowd was urged from the stage, “Let's think hard to get rid of the rain.” A chant rang out: “No rain, no rain, no rain.”
It didn’t work, in fact, they may have made it worse. Joan Baez sang “We shall overcome” during a relentless thunderstorm and three hours and five inches of rain later, they had a mud-fest. The weather remained bad all weekend.
The Indian musical genius Ravi Shankar made an appearance at the Woodstock festival and decidedly found it a 'terrifying experience.' He later went on to say the mud covered crowd writhing before the stage reminded him of the water buffaloes back home in India.
The rock icons were put up on a massive stage, with a revolving platform to make the transitions between performances seamless. A member of the Scottish folk quartet “The Incredible String Band” described the experience on Woodstock stage to writer Mark Ellen: “It was incredibly high and three out of the four of us had vertigo. Little flimsy dresses on the girls, acoustic guitars out of tune, the drums damp from the tent, it was like playing off the Forth Bridge to this sea of people cooking beans in the mud.'
It's pretty impressive when an event gets upgraded to 'city status' based on its size. The hippies really did have their Utopia. The sprawling farm they quickly overtook, became the third largest city in New York State– only for the duration of the event that is.
It only makes sense that Woodstock, a festival full of those preaching anti-establishment and anti-authority rhetoric, was an unpoliced event. This meant people were free to drop acid, snort coke, and smoke as much weed as they wanted. It was all out in the open and some people even set up little “smoke tents” and advertised they had drugs.
They really got into the groove of things in their little community and even created their own signage. They nailed them to trees along paths like street signs. Hippie appropriate names like 'Groovy Way' the 'Gentle Path' and of course 'High Way,' each pointed to the appropriate direction.
Off-duty police officers were not allowed to provide security for Woodstock. Hog Farm commune members were hired as Woodstock’s 'Please Force.' The name referenced their polite, non-intrusive tactics, which involved using phrases like, "please don't do that, please do this instead". It worked, for such a massive event it’s amazing how peaceful it was.
The Woodstock generation got their wish, even if only for a duration of four days. They got to live amongst like minds, share food and drugs and rock out to music in their own Utopian society. All they’d been protesting for came to life on that farm for those summer days in 1969.
Can you imagine being at a three-day rock festival (that was more like joining a hippy commune)
And then going into labor? There were at least two confirmed births at Woodstock.
At one point John Sebastian, lead singer with Lovin' Spoonful, announced from the stage: "Some cat's old lady just had a baby, a kid destined to be far out!"
There were reports of a new mother being airlifted to the hospital by helicopter and another birth happened in the nine-mile traffic jam just outside the festival.
In addition to “Please Force,” the Hog Farm convinced promoters to also let them set up a free kitchen. So the hippie commune probably wasn’t expecting such a large turnout and they ran out of all that free food. A U.S. Army helicopter ended up being assigned to bring more food in.
Like all the concession stands, “Food For Love” was rapidly running out of resources. They decided to raise their prices from just .25 cents per burger to $1.00. Clearly, they forgot where they were and had a rebellion on their hands. Festival-goers called them out for their capitalist exploitation, told them they were contradicting the spirit of the festival, and then burnt their stand to the ground.
Not only did the U.S. Army airlift food into the anti-war/anti-establishment vibing festival, they also brought in medical teams and performers who couldn’t get past the traffic. The hippy filled crowds were told: “They are with us man, they are not against us. Forty-five doctors or more are here without pay because they dig what this is into.”
The medics flown in had an abundance of bad trips and overdoses to deal with for the duration. The bulk of the non-drug related first aid treatment was for cut feet. An absurd amount of people were roaming around barefoot and cut their feet up considerably.
The local Jewish Community Center heard about the shortage of food and resources at Woodstock and decided to put together some care packages for festival-goers. They prepared and had local nuns deliver sandwiches from around 200 loaves of bread, a solid 40 pounds of meat, topped with two gallons of pickles.
Tragically, there were three deaths at Woodstock. One person had their appendix burst, another was an 18-year old Vietnam War veteran who overdosed on heroin. The third, however, was especially disturbing. A young guy was sleeping soundly in his sleeping bag when someone ran him over with a tractor. His killer was never found.
Woodstock was a celebration of all the positive aspects to a whole host of political and spiritual philosophies the hippies held. Of course, in addition to creating their ideal society, they also got to see where they were flawed.
You can’t give out free food and drugs forever. They couldn’t even make it four days. Governor Nelson Rockefeller declared it a disaster area, it was like the aftermath of a Hurricane except these people were doing it to themselves.
The anti-war movement began to disintegrate after Woodstock, that’s not to say protests stopped and that the ‘free love’ ideology died because it didn’t. Some were inspired to protest because of the festival. It just all began to lose its sense of urgency. It was as if Woodstock was what they’d been fighting for. They’d accomplished a harmonious coexistence in a drug induced haze. It all came to a head and could now be encapsulated in this singular event.
The peace and love generation was destined to fail, it wasn’t built on a strong enough foundation. It sounded good but idealism and wishful thinking aren’t enough to hold the weight of the world. They needed structure, they needed some capitalism, and they ended up needing the help of the government they were rebelling against just to have their basic needs met.