The Woodstock Music & Art Fair—informally, the Woodstock Festival or simply Woodstock—was a music festival, billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music”. It was held at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre (240 ha; 0.94 sq mi) dairy farm in the Catskills near the hamlet of White Lake in the town of Bethel, New York, from August 15 to August 18, 1969. Bethel, in Sullivan County, is 43 miles (69 km) southwest of the town of Woodstock, New York, in adjoining Ulster County.
During the sometimes rainy weekend, 32 acts performed outdoors before an audience of 400,000 young people. It is widely regarded as a pivotal moment in popular music history. Rolling Stone listed it as one of the 50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll.
The festival is also widely considered to be the definitive nexus for the larger counterculture generation.
The event was captured in the 1970 documentary movie Woodstock, an accompanying soundtrack album, and Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock”, which commemorated the event and became a major hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Planning and preparation
Woodstock was initiated through the efforts of Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld. Roberts and Rosenman financed the project. Lang had experience as a promoter and had already organized the largest festival on the East Coast at the time, the Miami Pop Festival, where an estimated 100,000 people attended the two-day event. Roberts and Rosenman placed the following advertisement in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal under the name of Challenge International, Ltd.: “Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions.”
Lang and Kornfeld noticed the ad, and the four got together originally to discuss a retreat-like recording studio in Woodstock. The idea evolved into an outdoor music and arts festival, although even that was initially envisioned on a smaller scale, perhaps featuring some big-name artists who lived in the Woodstock area (such as Bob Dylan and The Band). There were differences in approach among the four: Roberts was disciplined and knew what was needed for the venture to succeed, while the laid-back Lang saw Woodstock as a new, relaxed way of bringing entrepreneurs together. There were further doubts over the venture, as Roberts wondered whether to consolidate his losses and pull the plug, or to continue pumping his own finances into the project.
In April 1969, newly minted superstars Creedence Clearwater Revival became the first act to sign a contract for the event, agreeing to play for $10,000. The promoters had experienced difficulty landing big-name groups prior to Creedence committing to play. Creedence drummer Doug Clifford later commented, “Once Creedence signed, everyone else jumped in line and all the other big acts came on.” Given their 3:00 a.m. start time and omission (at Creedence frontman John Fogerty’s insistence) from the Woodstock film, Creedence members have expressed bitterness over their experiences at the famed festival.
Woodstock was designed as a profit-making venture, aptly titled “Woodstock Ventures”. It famously became a “free concert” only after the event drew hundreds of thousands more patrons than the organizers had prepared for. Tickets for the three-day event cost $18 in advance and $24 at the gate (equivalent to $114.60 and $152.80 in 2013). Ticket sales were limited to record stores in the greater New York City area, or by mail via a post office box at the Radio City Station Post Office located in Midtown Manhattan. Around 186,000 advance tickets were sold, and the organizers anticipated approximately 200,000 festival-goers would turn up.
Selection of the venue
The crowd and stage in 1969.
Woodstock was originally scheduled to take place in the 300-acre (120 ha) Mills Industrial Park (41°28′39″N 74°21′49″W) in the town of Wallkill, New York, which Woodstock Ventures had leased for $10,000 in the Spring of 1969. Town officials were assured that no more than 50,000 would attend. Town residents immediately opposed the project. In early July, the Town Board passed a law requiring a permit for any gathering over 5,000 people. On July 15, 1969, the Wallkill Zoning Board of Appeals officially banned the concert on the basis that the planned portable toilets would not meet town code. Reports of the ban, however, turned out to be a publicity bonanza for the festival.
Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in 1968.
In his 2007 book Taking Woodstock, Elliot Tiber offered to host the event on his 15 acres (6.1 ha) motel grounds, and had a permit for such an event. He claims to have introduced the promoters to dairy farmer Max Yasgur. Lang, however, disputes Tiber’s account and says that Tiber introduced him to a realtor, who drove him to Yasgur’s farm without Tiber. Sam Yasgur, Max’s son, agrees with Lang’s account. Yasgur’s land formed a natural bowl sloping down to Filippini Pond on the land’s north side. The stage would be set up at the bottom of the hill with Filippini Pond forming a backdrop. The pond would become a popular skinny dipping destination.
The organizers once again told Bethel authorities they expected no more than 50,000 people.
Despite resident opposition and signs proclaiming, “Buy No Milk. Stop Max’s Hippy Music Festival”, Bethel Town Attorney Frederick W. V. Schadt and building inspector Donald Clark approved the permits, but the Bethel Town Board refused to issue them formally. Clark was ordered to post stop-work orders.
The late change in venue did not give the festival organizers enough time to prepare. At a meeting three days before the event, organizers felt they had two choices: One option was to improve the fencing and security, which might have resulted in violence; the other involved putting all their resources into completing the stage, which would cause Woodstock Ventures to take a financial hit. The crowd, which was arriving in greater numbers and earlier than anticipated, made the decision for them: The fence was cut the night before the concert.
Part of the crowd on the first day of the festival.
The influx of attendees to the rural concert site in Bethel created a massive traffic jam. Fearing chaos as thousands began descending on the community, Bethel did not enforce its codes. Eventually, announcements on radio stations as far away as WNEW-FM in Manhattan and descriptions of the traffic jams on television news discouraged people from setting off to the festival. Arlo Guthrie made an announcement that was included in the film saying that the New York State Thruway was closed. The director of the Woodstock museum discussed below said this never occurred. To add to the problems and difficulty in dealing with the large crowds, recent rains had caused muddy roads and fields. The facilities were not equipped to provide sanitation or first aid for the number of people attending; hundreds of thousands found themselves in a struggle against bad weather, food shortages, and poor sanitation.
On the morning of Sunday, August 17, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller called festival organizer John Roberts and told him he was thinking of ordering 10,000 New York State National Guard troops to the festival. Roberts was successful in persuading Rockefeller not to do this. Sullivan County declared a state of emergency. During the festival, personnel from nearby Stewart Air Force Base assisted in helping to ensure order and airlifting performers in and out of the concert venue.
Jimi Hendrix was the last act to perform at the festival. Because of the rain delays that Sunday, when Hendrix finally took the stage it was 8:30 Monday morning. The audience, which had peaked at an estimated 400,000 during the festival, was now reduced to about 30,000 by that point; many of whom merely waited to catch a glimpse of Hendrix before leaving during his performance.
Hendrix and his band (The Experience) performed a two-hour set. His psychedelic rendition of the U.S. national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” occurred about 3⁄4 into their set (after which he segued into “Purple Haze”). The song would become “part of the sixties Zeitgeist” as it was captured forever in the Woodstock film; Hendrix’s image performing this number wearing a blue-beaded white leather jacket with fringe and a red head scarf, has since been regarded as a defining moment of the 1960s.
We were ready to rock out and we waited and waited and finally it was our turn … there were a half million people asleep. These people were out. It was sort of like a painting of a Dante scene, just bodies from hell, all intertwined and asleep, covered with mud.
And this is the moment I will never forget as long as I live: A quarter mile away in the darkness, on the other edge of this bowl, there was some guy flicking his Bic, and in the night I hear, ‘Don’t worry about it, John. We’re with you.’ I played the rest of the show for that guy.
—John Fogerty recalling Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 3:30 am start time at Woodstock
Although the festival was remarkably peaceful given the number of people and the conditions involved, there were two recorded fatalities: one from what was believed to be a heroin overdose, and another caused in an accident when a tractor ran over an attendee sleeping in a nearby hayfield. There also were two births recorded at the event (one in a car caught in traffic and another in a hospital after an airlift by helicopter) and four miscarriages. Oral testimony in the film supports the overdose and run-over deaths and at least one birth, along with many logistical headaches.
Yet, in tune with the idealistic hopes of the 1960s, Woodstock satisfied most attendees. There was a sense of social harmony, which, with the quality of music, and the overwhelming mass of people, many sporting bohemian dress, behavior, and attitudes helped to make it one of the enduring events of the century.
After the concert, Max Yasgur, who owned the site of the event, saw it as a victory of peace and love. He spoke of how nearly half a million people filled with potential for disaster, riot, looting, and catastrophe spent the three days with music and peace on their minds. He stated, “If we join them, we can turn those adversities that are the problems of America today into a hope for a brighter and more peaceful future…”
The Original Woodstock Poster with the Wallkill, New York location
Sound for the concert was engineered by sound engineer Bill Hanley. “It worked very well,” he says of the event. “I built special speaker columns on the hills and had 16 loudspeaker arrays in a square platform going up to the hill on 70 feet (21 m) towers. We set it up for 150,000 to 200,000 people. Of course, 500,000 showed up.” ALTEC designed marine plywood cabinets that weighed half a ton apiece and stood 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, almost 4 feet (1.2 m) deep, and 3 feet (0.91 m) wide. Each of these enclosures carried four 15-inch (380 mm) JBL D140 loudspeakers. The tweeters consisted of 4×2-Cell & 2×10-Cell Altec Horns. Behind the stage were three transformers providing 2,000 amperes of current to power the amplification setup. For many years this system was collectively referred to as the Woodstock Bins.
Main article: List of performances and events at Woodstock Festival
Thirty-two acts performed over the course of the four days:
Friday, August 15 – Saturday, August 16
Artist Time Notes
Richie Havens 5:07 pm – 7:00 pm
Swami Satchidananda 7:10 pm – 7:20 pm Gave the opening speech/invocation for the festival
Sweetwater 7:30 pm – 8:10 pm
Bert Sommer 8:20 pm – 9:15 pm
Tim Hardin 9:20 pm – 9:45 pm
Ravi Shankar 10:00 pm – 10:35 pm Played through the rain
Melanie 10:50 pm – 11:20 pm
Arlo Guthrie 11:55 pm – 12:25 am
Joan Baez 12:55 am – 2:00 am Was six months pregnant at the time