Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The other version of “The Fish Cheer.” Joe Cocker’s cover of “A Little Help from My Friends.” These represent but three of the multitude of scenes that Woodstock imprinted on the American consciousness. Billed as three days of peace and music, the 1969 festival became a defining moment for rock music, counterculture, and documentary filmmaking. But how did it become such a flashpoint, and why does Woodstock still reverberate through American culture?
It all started with the Sound — Media Sound, that is — which was a recording studio project in Manhattan being built by entrepreneurs Joel Rosenman and John P. Roberts. They were contacted by Miles Lourie who had done legal work for the Media Sound project and also represented Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld. Lang and Kornfeld planned to build their own studio in Woodstock, New York, to take advantage of the fact that a number of artists (like Bob Dylan and The Band) liked to record in the region. Rosenman and Roberts passed on a studio partnership but suggested gathering similar artists for a concert. The four formed Woodstock Ventures in January 1969.
Figuring out a venue took some work. Lang and Kornfeld thought they had locations locked in a couple of times, but they fell through. Roberts and Roseman took over and eventually found their spot at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel. Yasgur’s land had a natural bowl shape sloping down to a pond; Lang and company decided to build the stage at the bottom of the hill, with the pond behind it. The organizers were able to secure local permission after assuring Bethel authorities that they expected no more than 50,000 people to turn up.
That’s a particularly salient point, as many people don’t recall that the show was supposed to be a profitable venture; the organizers planned on charging $18 in advance for a three-day pass, or $24 at the gate. In fact, they sold 186,000 tickets in advance. Knowing that still didn’t prepare them for what would happen as the show got underway.
As the crowds began to descend on Bethel two days before the scheduled start on August 15, the team knew they had a problem. The fences and gates weren’t finished, and neither was the stage. They decided that the stage had to be there for the show to happen; with the gates and fencing no longer an option, Woodstock would effectively become a free show. Rosenman and Roberts in particular feared spiraling into bankruptcy (though they would eventually make money from the recording and film rights).
By Friday, it was clear that hundreds of thousands of people had decided to attend the show. Concertgoers clogged the highways and roads leading into Bethel, some of whom abandoned their cars to walk to the show. Another logistical oversight in the midst of the chaotic run-up was that no one had hired a host or emcee; lighting designer and technical director E.H. Beresford “Chip” Monck found himself deputized by Lang. It’s Monck who delivered the infamous exhortation warning the crowd to stay away from the brown acid, as well as making on-stage introductions.
The first act kicked off at just after 5 p.m. on Friday, August 15 — the soulful folk singer Richie Havens. The band Sweetwater had actually been the planned opener, but trouble getting to the venue bumped them to later in the evening. Havens played for nearly two hours on his own to allow other acts to arrive. Nine performers and speakers took the stage Friday, with Joan Baez playing until 2:00 Saturday morning.
When the music resumed at just after noon on Saturday, the festival was in full swing. An estimated 500,000 people were on-site that day and were treated to one of the most incredible runs of talent to appear on one stage during the decade, when a 95-minute Grateful Dead set led into Creedence Clearwater Revival, followed by Janis Joplin and the Kozmic Blues Band, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, and Jefferson Airplane.
Joe Cocker and the Grease Band opened Sunday, and Cocker threw down his famous cover of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” that would, in the ’80s, serve as the theme to The Wonder Years. A lengthy thunderstorm after that set caused a three-hour delay that would inevitably result in the show sliding into Monday morning. Iconic acts like The Band and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young played as the show moved toward its final performance: a roughly two-hour set by Jimi Hendrix and his assembled-for-the-occasion Gypsy Sun & Rainbows group. During an epic medley, Hendrix dropped his legendary version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Far fewer people saw Hendrix as the crowd had thinned considerably by Monday morning, but the audio and film recordings preserved his set in mythic status.
After the show, many of the bands experienced newfound notoriety thanks to their association with the festival. Michael Wadleigh’s documentary film, Woodstock, became a legitimate hit and won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 1970. Multiple albums featuring recordings from the show have been released, including the official soundtracks for the documentary and albums created to highlight individual acts, some as recently as 2009.
Woodstock showed that a mass gathering of youth can be a largely peaceful affair. It’s fondly remembered as a gestalt moment for the counterculture, where music and utopian ideals coexisted for a brief time. By year’s end, some of that goodwill would be tarnished by the events of the Altamont Free Concert, where a man was stabbed to death by Hell’s Angels bikers working as security during a Rolling Stones set. But today, 50 years on, the name Woodstock still conjures images of peace, love, and music, and that might be its best possible legacy.
Adapted from The Saturday Evening Post’s special collector’s edition 1969 —The Year That Changed Everything, on sale now.
Troy Brownfield is a staff writer for the Post.
This article is featured in the July/August 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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