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What Happened at Woodstock?

Woodstock promotional poster designed by Arnold Skolnick.

Fifty years ago, this week, close to 500,000 youth attended Woodstock. Each of us could tell a story of what happened there. This is mine.

After hitchhiking a couple thousand miles around New England and Canada for the month of July 1969, I returned back to Bowling Green, Ohio, dead tired. I was met by friends on the BG State University campus. They invited me to join them to attend a concert. Where was it and how much did it cost? It was in New York state, where I had just come from. But I was more disheartened by its exorbitant cost. Having just spent my entire savings of $30 on my thirty day road trip I was flat broke and could not afford the $24 gate payment, even if it was for a three day music festival.

Not a problem said Tom Hine, editor of the college newspaper, waving a press pass in front of me. We could get in free. So, I jumped in a car with three others and headed east. Once in the car, I asked what is this concert called? Woodstock came the reply. It meant nothing to me nor anyone else. It was just a place, a misnomer at that, since the concert was actually held in Bethel. Woodstock was 42 miles away. That small town experienced a miles-long traffic jam with folks planning on attending a concert. They were all turned away by police at the edge of town.

Late Thursday evening we found ourselves driving five miles an hour slowly down a narrow, one-lane road clogged with cars snaking through the rolling wooded countryside dotted by pastures of grazing land and tilled fields. The sun had set, we were at a standstill, and there was no sight of any concert. We pulled the car over to sleep on the side of the road and planned on finishing our journey the next morning.

I left the others behind in the car to scout around, checking out encampments that had sprung up in the darkness. Spotting an unadorned canvass tent about the size of a two-car garage, I poked my head inside. Not a person around, just the stern face of Chairman Mao plastered on the front page of some revolutionary newspapers piled in endless stacks spread out across the tent.

I knew from my previous rounds of visiting a dozen campuses that year, who they belonged to; perhaps not the specific name of the group, but one of those sprouting up at the time pledging allegiance to the chairman. They were dedicated to working for the toiling masses and avoided any unnecessary pleasures that might steer them off that course.

Although they were not a fun loving crowd to hang with, here were mounds of evidence that they had landed in the midst of what was to be the nation’s largest celebration of music and marijuana.  Surrounded by hundreds of thousands of half-naked, young bodies swaying and chanting to music over a 3 day weekend, how could they possibly hope to sit down and form collective study groups to discuss how liberalism was the enemy of the people and overthrowing Capitalism should be their calling.

I don’t think they had much success. I never witnessed any study sessions. But that night I was grateful for their optimism, because Mao provided me with a nice bed. I curled up on a pile of their papers and slept peacefully until morning when I rejoined the others to continue our journey.

We continued creeping along beside an endless stream of college kids drifting down the bucolic country road. Waving our press pass out the window, we were able to cut to the front of the line and park a hundred yards from a huge wooden stage under construction at the bottom of a grand semicircular sloping meadow. Two seven story high wooden towers, mounted by the biggest outdoor speakers I had ever seen, flanked the platform.

Construction workers, or rather kids in jeans, were frantically erecting a security fence that stretched from both sides of the stage. It looked like a fragile defense against the sea of bodies pouring over the ridge and down the vast grassy slope from all directions. I felt as if Mosses had freed his people from the boredom of Ohio and such places, and now they had arrived at a promised land of endless music and entertainment.

As the day wore on, the fence continued to reach out but not as fast as the crowd grew. I sat on the ridge musing how this frail demarcation between free access and paid admission was going to encircle the ever-expanding population, like a pair of arms trying to encircle an expanding balloon. By the afternoon, some anonymous voice boomed cheerfully over the sound system, just hours before the concert began, “It’s now a free concert!” As if they had a choice.

Richie Havens, who never reached the prominence he should have, opened the concert strumming his guitar, with no backup. When he sang the Beatles playful tune, “With a Little Help from my Friends”, I thought this was what Woodstock was all about — creating a kaleidoscope of people coming together and celebrating life.

This great gathering brought on a sense of freedom from life’s chores and an invitation to just relax for a time and imagine a better future without the Vietnam War and the racism that had led to Martin Luther King Jr being killed the year before. The Woodstock Nation of peace and love had been born.

However, it was a birth without much advance planning. It seemed most of us had left home with only the vaguest idea of what we would do upon our arrival. Bringing provisions or sleeping bags was an afterthought. I ran into one girl from BGSU who found herself there after simply being asked by a car idling outside her dorm if she knew of anyone who wanted to go to a concert. Grabbing her purse and camera from her room, she jumped in the car, and after an eight-hour drive down Route 6, found herself at the Woodstock festival.

Friday night, Tom and his girlfriend, Elise slept, in the front seat of his aging Pontiac. Fred Zackel, our fellow traveler and journalist, and I traded off between settling in the backseat and the trunk. We brought nothing to eat, not even a sandwich. What were we thinking?

Apparently, the concert promoters weren’t thinking either, since they provided only a paltry number of food booths. With so few food venues, many of us had to scavenge for food among the other concertgoers. After spending hours doing just that, I rejoined our camp after nightfall, carrying a watermelon, a gift from some generous hippies. We ended our first day eating watermelon and listening to folksinger Joan Baez sing about labor activist Joe Hill.

Saturday morning brought heavy humidity, warm rain, and oozing mud. Decorum, if it ever applied to this group, soon washed away. Strangers were hugging, sharing food and joints, and to my surprise, feeling free enough to shed their clothes in public. Standing in front of me in an open field a young college couple calmly took off their t-shirts and pulled their jeans down, then plunged into a muddy pond, joining other naked bodies. I thought about joining the fun, but lacking a towel and being doggedly practical, I took a pass, not wanting to spend the rest of the day filmed with mud.

In a cluster of a half million young people, I thought I’d run into at least a dozen folks I knew, but I didn’t, except for Louise Conn, a fellow BGSU graduate and our student council chaplain who read Winnie the Pooh at the council meetings. After I had been elected the student body president, I politely converted the position of chaplain to one of poet, reasoning that the position was intended to lift everyone’s spirits, regardless of their faith.

I assumed I’d never see Louise after graduation. But here we were, carefree, happy, and sharing a joint, high above the stage on the ridge behind the largest mass of bodies I’ve ever seen. Canned Heat came up and started playing “Goin’ up the Country.” Its strong driving beat filled the air like a mad piper’s tune. In response, the entire Aquarian tribe before us stood up and began dancing. Louise grabbed my hand and said we had to go down and stand next to the stage.

As Canned Heat played on, we descended the knoll, dancing and twirling around gyrating bodies. Unfortunately, in the frenzy, my sandals fell off and Louise’s hand slipped away. I searched for my sandals in the torrent of jumping legs, flying arms, swaying torsos, all spinning to the beat of “On the Road Again.” Miraculously found I the sandals, but I never saw Louise again.

Despite the apparent chaos of the gathering, an implicit bond of celebration kept folks in a cooperative mood. That day, the Cultural Revolution’s music drowned out calls for a violent revolution. Woodstock itself was the most successful political expression of the sixties. It wasn’t a protest against anything in particular. Rather, it was a shout out against the status quo by celebrating a culture of peace, a message attracting more people than any single prior rally.

The media assumed that a gathering of hundreds of thousands of youths smoking cannabis, dropping acid, and going naked, couldn’t lead to anything good. There was only one New York Times reporter at Woodstock. He later told another writer how his editors wanted him to emphasize how the event was teetering on a social catastrophe and to downplay the level of cooperation among the thousands of strangers who for three days gathered with no formal supervision. I never saw a single police officer the whole time there.

In contrast, less than four months later, a one day outdoor concert, held at the Altamont Speedway, in California, that attracted close to 300,000, did not have the same peaceful outcome. Street hardened Hell’s Angels provided limited assistance and security for $500 of free beer.  Alcohol consumption fueled multiple fistfights and property damage at Altamont.

The crowd got so uncontrollable that the Grateful Dead refused to go on stage and perform. Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane was punched in the head and knocked unconscious by an Angel during their band’s set. Whereas at Woodstock, hippies led by a free spirited character called Wavy Gravy provided security, and the performers were not in fear of their lives. Clearly, just bringing youth together around music was not enough to result in a blissful event.

At Woodstock there was a shared set of values, reflected in its promotional material and setting. Unlike Altamont’s rock and roll concert in a racetrack, Woodstock was advertised as “Three Days of Peace and Music” in the countryside. There were a few drug overdoses, one resulting in death, and two non-drug related accidental deaths; similarly, Altamont experienced three accidental deaths, but with a smaller audience and over a single day.

However, given that half a million people came together at Woodstock for a weekend with minimal infrastructure and police presence, it was a miracle there were so few incidents. I like to think that Woodstock was the embodiment of the peace and love ethos that permeated the sixties.

The Woodstock books and movies, magazine articles, and academic reflections would all come later; but for those three days in the summer of 1969, it felt as if youth shared a belief that they could both enjoy life and change the world; social justice at home and abroad was important, and doing something about it was possible.

Columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. from the Miami Herald, put it nicely this past week, “…what drew the Woodstock generation together was ultimately not anger but a hope that yet tugs at the imagination, the hope of a better, fairer, cleaner, saner more peaceful world.” All we had to do was sustain that hope for the rest of our lives.

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