By the Time I Got to Woodstock

The author of the Woodstock festival’s program booklet recalls one helluva wild ride.

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This is an abridged version of an article that appears in our July/August 2019 issue. Subscribe to the magazine to read it in its entirety. 

The other day, mindful of the upcoming big anniversary, I drove to my storage locker to search for my Woodstock Music and Arts Fair tickets. I was thinking maybe I would sell them to a collector. I eventually unearthed them at the bottom of a box full of random old magazines, photographs, and correspondence packed during one of my many moves. (I’ve never been good at preserving my past: no scrapbooks, portfolios, or journals for me.) After 50 years, the red “Complimentary” stamp across the three-day ticket strip had faded, much like the memories of the summer when I helped to make history, the summer that altered the course of my life.

Looking back, it must have been kismet.

I was a 20-year-old college senior, caught up in the counterculture and turbulence of the times and looking for a summer job. Through my then-girlfriend, I was introduced to (or turned on to, in the parlance of the day) two fascinating characters, Bert Cohen and Michael Forman, who ran Concert Hall Publishing in suburban ­Glenside, Pennsylvania. They specialized in festival promotion, advertising placement, and program books, and their clients included the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, and the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS), which was flourishing at the time. There was even a crew of longhaired Concert Hall handymen who built stages for festivals.

Bert and Michael took a shine to me, and I was hired as an associate, a glorified gofer. (Bert dubbed me “Cheese.”) I haven’t the foggiest now what I was paid. It couldn’t have been much. My duties were vague, consisting mostly of helping keep track of random paperwork, yakking with the partners, and getting lunch for the staff. These were the days before fax machines, and I also sometimes acted as a courier. Once, I was sent on an overnight mission to deliver galleys of the Newport Jazz Festival program to legendary impresario George Wein.

Some time before I came on board, Concert Hall had been tapped to do the national promotion for the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair. This was a very big deal, as it was clear from the get-go that this festival was going to be something memorable. (I recall visiting the festival offices on West 57th Street in New York City, where the Concert Hall construction team had draped parachute cloth from the ceilings for a groovy lighting effect.)

Along with festival promotion, Concert Hall was tasked with creating a program book, their specialty. Nowadays, when I tell a new acquaintance that I wrote the Woodstock Festival program book, unless they’re a Woodstock geek or collector, they invariably say, “There was a program book?” Yes, and the plan was to sell them at the entrances to the festival grounds.

It was declared that the program book had to be unique, memorable. To that end, Bert’s trippy design combined clip art, assorted fonts, and photos of the performers. The cover, a photo of a cluster of black-eyed Susans in a grassy meadow with the simple words “3 days of peace & music,” is now an iconic ’60s image. (There were mundane challenges as well. I remember a debate about how to satisfy the egos of the four principals — Michael Lang, John P. Roberts, Artie Kornfeld, Joel Rosenman — on the festival credits. I’m not sure who came up with the solution of running their names around a circle, à la the Round Table. Brilliant.)

Clearly, for a project this ambitious, your ordinary program notes wouldn’t cut it. This is where I came in. It was my big break. I proposed that we employ poetic “impressions” of the performers that would capture their spirit, as it were. Since I was the only person there with any literary cred (I was an English major), I got the ­assignment.

This is an abridged version of an article that appears in our July/August 2019 issue. Subscribe to the magazine to read it in its entirety. 

Featured image: Photo by Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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Comments

  1. I was married with three children (at the time). We were on the way home from a vacation and saw the sign announcing a music festival. I wanted to go, but my husband talked me out of it (thank God). Our youngest was still in diapers.

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