It remains the defining assembly of rock music – an unprecedented gathering of at least 300,000 young, long-haired, raggedy clad Americans “going up the country” in New York’s Catskill Mountains, searching for answers, hoping for transcendence . . . and finding, what exactly?
The posters promised “3 Days of Peace & Music”, and this was an event so abundantly filmed and photographed that everyone down the generations since has their own memories and experiences of three days where, in upstate New York, brotherhood was fleetingly and muddily approximated.
On 15 August 1969, the rural town of Bethel, New York – and more specifically a farm owned by one Max Yasgur (pictured below) close to the village of Woodstock – became the centre of the hippie universe.
The arrival of such unanticipated numbers of people combined with 25-mile traffic jams, food and water shortages, and monsoon-like downpours led to the state governor threatening to call in the National Guard.
More than 30 of the most popular bands of the day – and nearly half a million fans – gathered for a three-day concert that would literally define a generation. Maybe not physically perhaps, but in a way, we were all there.
The most famous song about Woodstock was, of course, written by someone who wasn’t there.
So were the 300,000 “stardust” and “golden” in sister Joni‘s lovely phrase, or exhausted, hallucinating inhabitants of a middle-class disaster zone?
Coming two years after Monterey Pop signalled that rock was destined to be big business, Woodstock is still “the big one”, even if 1973’s Watkins Glen drew more people to upstate New York – and on the strength of just three bands (The Band, The Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers).
Woodstock is where the over-heated rhetoric and psycho-active disturbance of the 1960s hit fever pitch, with Altamont as its wretched aftermath just four months later.
The musical line-up was dazzling: Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Santana, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix – whose rendition of The Star Spangled Banner was considered a high point of an already high festival.
There were crowds and there were drugs and there was nudity.
At one now-famous moment, the audience was cautioned from the stage that they might want to steer clear of the brown acid that was circulating.
Before the festival, Santana were virtual unknowns – after it, they were booked into Bill Graham’s Fillmore venues on a residency that lasted, seemingly, forever. Country Joe – whose Fixing To Die Rag remains the festival’s high-point of anti-war ferment and good cheer – was not even billed to appear.
Iron Butterfly were on the poster but didn’t play (their prima donna attitude leaving them sat on their flight cases in Woodstock’s footnotes).
The Who almost didn’t make it onto the stage on 17 August. Backstage facilities were only a slight improvement on those that serviced the nearly half a million-strong crowd and the band had to hang around for 24 sleepless hours, fuelled by nothing more than a constant stream of LSD-spiked booze.
Perhaps not the best time then, to tell a bunch of nutters from White City that they might not be getting paid.
In the end, the organisers threatened to blackmail the band into going onstage by announcing over the PA that “those breadheads The Who want more money”. Thankfully a cheque for $11,200 arrived just minutes before they were due on stage.
Had he known any of this, hippie icon Abbie Hoffman might have thought twice about gatecrashing The Who’s set to deliver a political speech. Guitarist Pete Townshend hit Hoffman so hard with his guitar that he ended up in the photographer’s pit – and half a million people cheered.
The organisers spent $100,000 cleaning up the litter after Woodstock was over. Much of the rubbish from the festival was bulldozed into a giant hole dug in the ground and then burned.
The fire lasted for days and caused the town of Bethel to slap the organisers with charges of illegally burning garbage.
Woodstock succeeded, as an event and as an idea, despite a change of venue, open resistance from local citizens, traffic snafus, torrential rain, mud to the horizon, and an overall air of (generally benign) chaos.
Like something from a children’s story, or a myth, a city appeared overnight on an out-of-the-way patch of land, and for a short time, music and fellowship held sway.
The spell broke. The city vanished. But for one generation, at least, those days and nights are reminders of a time when all good things seemed possible. Travelling home on 17 August, they were convinced that a new era of peace and love had finally arrived.
The line-up at Woodstock
Day 1: Friday 15 August
Day 2: Saturday 16 August
- Incredible String Band
- Canned Heat
- Grateful Dead
- Leslie West & Mountain
- Creedence Clearwater Revival
- Janis Joplin
- Sly & The Family Stone
- The Who
- Jefferson Airplane
Day 3: Sunday 17 August
- Joe Cocker
- Country Joe & The Fish
- Ten Years After
- Johnny Winter
- Blood, Sweat And Tears
- Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Day 4: Monday 18 August